September 4, 1998

Second Chances

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

You don’t get many second chances in life. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to learn the lessons and be ready should similar circumstances reappear.

At lunch with Susan Weltner Yow, an longtime friend a few months ago, I asked about her husband. He was in the doghouse for having let Mother’s Day pass without getting her a present. Having missed a few such occasions myself, I suggested to her something I have sometimes wished for: a second chance.

That afternoon she forgave her husband and proposed a “do-over”: She would pretend the following Sunday was Mother’s Day. Later that night I got a message from him. “Thanks, buddy,” he said with a touch of hyperbole. “You saved my marriage.”

This summer, I attended a 90th birthday party for someone who once gave me a “do-over.” Dr. William Pressly spent a lifetime nurturing a private school in Atlanta called Westminster into a reality, despite several early crises in which he nearly closed the doors for lack of funding. Today it has a showcase campus with a reputation and an endowment that rivals the finest prep schools in New England.

I attended his school in seventh and eighth grade and following my family tradition, left for boarding school in ninth grade. There, I fell in with a tough crowd and flirted with all kinds of trouble. Midway through my junior year, my family urged me to go see Dr. Pressly and ask to return to Westminster.

I didn’t present an impressive case. My grades were mixed and, in the style of the day, my hair reached down to my shoulder blades. As I sat in his office, he looked me over and, despite some hesitation, agreed to roll the dice. It was the break I needed. Returning to Atlanta and Westminster, I had a surge of energy and appreciation for both. I made lifelong friends, joined several groups – and found my life’s work when I signed up as a reporter and then an editor for the school newspaper.

My debut, however, was an ignoble one. With little training and less direction, I was given an assignment to write the lead story and an accompanying editorial about Dr. Pressly’s retirement after 22 years as the school’s founder and only president. On deadline, my editor gave me what he thought was a press release on Dr. Pressly’s life and said I could run all or part of it. It ran with little alteration – under my byline. Much to my embarrassment, we learned upon publication that what I had been given was a draft of an article prepared by the school’s development director for the alumni magazine. I learned a hard lesson about being careful about your sources – and about plagiarism.

My debut as an editorialist was even less gracious. I took on the style of the rebellious journalism of the day and wrote that our school was fine under Dr. Pressly’s leadership, but would profit from new direction under a different president. Despite the insults, Dr. and Mrs. Pressly were gracious to my family at graduation, saying nothing when the subject of the newspaper came up in polite conversation.

Years later, seeing the Presslys again after all these years, I realized that most people will honor them for their extraordinary contributions to the institution that flourishes today in Buckhead. But I will remember much more: a lifelong commitment to taking chances on some marginal students and to maintaining a level of charm, graciousness and polish that is rare in today’s world – and a willingness to provide me with my own “do-over” nearly 25 years later:

Thank you.

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