A Final Chat With Headmaster Billy Peebles
Posted 05/07/2018 11:53AM

by Evie Monroe / Lion Staff


He repeats certain words, thinking them over carefully until the perfect next word pops into his head, or sometimes just for emphasis. He is careful when he speaks, knowing as he does the effect words can have. “Not, Not, Not,” he repeats, the cadence of the second slightly faster than the first, but the third is slow and calm, and then the best words he can think of to exemplify what he is thinking roll from his lips.

This is not something that is easily figured out, it’s not something that is seen by all students every day. He doesn’t try to hide it, but it is not revealed in his planned speeches, which he works on diligently. Those are rehearsed and made to appeal to a wide range of people, where here he responds quickly, without preparation.

His Virginian accent is smooth. It gives him a youthful quality as he says “yes Ma’am” to a woman who asked him if he was “tucked in all right,” a woman probably 10 years his junior. He finds casual ways to slip your name into conversations, letting you know that he is entirely focused on you.

“Oh golly,” Mr. Peebles laughs as I ask him for a reccomendation from the many books lining the shelves in his office. After all, he’s an avid reader, and wants us all to live a life of the mind. His choice: Stephen Oates’s With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. No surprise there. He says it’s the best one volume biography that he’s read of his hero.

Forever a student, Mr. Peebles epitomizes the idea of a “lifetime learner.” He attended Princeton University as an undergraduate student where he received a B.A. in politics. He then moved onto University of Virginia’s Colgate Darden Graduate School of Business where he received his MBA. It should surprise no one that after leaving Lovett, he plans to finish the classes required to receive a degree in Theology.

Mr. Peebles started teaching 33 years ago and even though he moved into the role of an administrator, he has always kept a foot in the classroom. This has allowed him to make more personal connections with a fourth of the ninth grade every year. “I so enjoy that conversation, that time with the kids, that gives me energy to make some of these tough decisions that ultimately the head of school has to make,” he explains.  

Those “tough decisions” about which he talks are something Mr. Peebles agonizes over at night, even to this day. He says they haven’t gotten any easier for him, despite his many years of experience. In fact, he thinks that he has become “a little bit more sensitive, particularly on these issues where you’re deciding the fate of a person in your school.”

After years of experience dealing with particularly complex issues,  Mr. Peebles has learned to ask more pointed questions as well as “reach out to a lot of people for their advice, their council, their wisdom, their ideas.”

His calm demeanor has been a crucial part of his ability to make these tough decisions, but it wasn’t always this way. “I’ve gotten a little bit more poise now, hopefully, then when I started out,” he admits. He has been able to maintain this due to his “great confidence in our community.” No matter how significant the problem is, “I’m confident that we’ll try to figure it out in a thoughtful way,” he says.

The only thing that has ever shaken his tranquil exterior is “when good people make poor decisions.”  He dreads having to ask a student or faculty member to leave because “we all make mistakes.” But he thinks it’s appropriate that these decisions are difficult. “You would never want that ever to become an easy decision,” he says. “You ought to wrestle with yourself.”

He has received and given great advice throughout the years, so I, of course, had to ask him one last time for some of his own wisdom. For the seniors (and underclassmen) he says it is important to “try and stay in touch with one another. We need each other more than ever in this world.”  To the new headmaster, he suggests leaning on people for support especially since in his own leadership experience, “you have to have a critical mass of people pulling for you.”

This is one of the things he has loved so much. The community in which he has been embedded, which “even in the down moments, people have been pulling for us, pulling for me, pulling for my family,” he says. “This group of people care so deeply about each other, care about the school. I’ve really felt that from the moment I got here.”

He remembers one specific moment from his first ever all school chapel. It was in August of 2003, a room of about 1,000+ people waiting for his remarks. “Rev Allen and I were about to process in and I’m pretty nervous because I had never spoken in front of that big of group before,” he says. “[A student] was acolyting and he sort of tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘You’ll do just fine.’” He still remembers the student’s name, even though he graduated close to 12 years ago.

From the beginning, Mr. Peebles set his sights on having deep (and wide) connections in the community. In the September issue of The Lion from 2003, Boone Dupree wrote, “He wants to teach classes, be at football games, and to know students on a personal level.” It’s poignant how true these things still remain.

Unfortunately, his recent knee injury has kept him from some of those favorite activities. However, it has made him realize why he loves springtime at Lovett, “being outside, lots of great events going on and the anticipation of finishing up another year,” says Mr. Peebles.

Of course, living on campus has allowed him to easily “get to all the great things happening across campus” not to mention  given him the “best commute in Atlanta.”

That’s not the only special thing about the house. There is a wall of names of graduated students who signed it during the baccalaureate, the Saturday before graduation. “Everybody that comes to the house for the first time, that’s one of the first things they ask, they want to see the wall,” he says, “It attracts a lot of great attention.”

Signatures adorning his walls are not the only thing he has collected over the years. He has been gifted art projects, books, and, naturally, lots of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. His favorites include a 7th grade art project of charcoal squares that resembles Abraham Lincoln and the letters he receives from students. “As someone who enjoys writing folks, these have meant a lot to me,” he says.

My last question is about his legacy. I can tell he was expecting it, but he still doesn’t have the perfect answer in mind. It is probably something he himself has been thinking about a lot these past couple of months.

“Ohhh,” he groans as soon as the word leaves my mouth. “I hope that I’ve been a good steward of the mission of the school, that I’ve honored the whole child philosophy,” he says, the yearning palpable in his voice. “The standing tradition that was in place long before I got here of Lovett being a caring community, I hope I’ve been a good steward of that.”

Towards the end of the interview, the voices outside of the conference room grow louder, reminding me only of how busy this man sitting in front of me is. Even at the time when most people would be going through some major senioritis, he is pushing for improvement.

I know I’m probably one of the 50 people he has met with that day, but he makes it seem as though I’m the only one that mattered, as if he had been looking forward to meeting with me. I’ll miss this, the time he gives to connecting personally with everyone. I don’t know exactly what fundraiser or building will be his tactile legacy, but his courage, respect and responsibility will forever be remembered by each student, teacher, faculty member, and maintenance worker he has ever met.

Thank you for fifteen fabulous years, Mr. Peebles. We will miss you and remember you with the fondest of hearts.

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