Bishop David B. Thompson reflected on the retirement of Bishop England High School principal, Nick Theos, and his 25-year tenure recently, with The Miscellany. They discussed the Catholic institution’s success, challenges and move from Calhoun Street to the new Daniel Island campus. The following is their conversation.
BISHOP: Nick Theos has been one of my strongest supporters since I have been the coadjutor and the bishop here in the Diocese of Charleston. I have always found it extremely wonderful to work with him. He was always very encouraging, always straightforward, no nonsense. You knew where you stood with Mr. Theos; he knew where he stood with me. We have enjoyed a wonderful relationship for the past nine years.
THEOS: Our relationship was based on respect. Bishop Thompson has always backed me up on the decisions I made at Bishop England. Without his kindness and support it would have been difficult. I have always felt that if I had a question I could call Bishop Thompson and feel at ease. If I blundered, he would be the first to back me up.
BISHOP: Mr. Theos is a strong anchor in the Diocese of Charleston and BEHS. The fondest remembrance of our association is from three years ago when I went to the school for the advent celebration. Nick was having thoughts of retiring at that time; it’s not easy to be the principal of a school. I looked at him and said, ‘Nick, I have three more years, why don’t you walk out with me.’ I got the biggest bear hug from this fellow, he almost asphyxiated me. I guess, Nick, at that time that’s exactly what you needed, a vote of confidence from a person like me because the challenges are so difficult these days — the disciplinary ones, the academic ones, the physical ones, the financial ones. As principal of the school you are the captain of a ship.
THEOS: With all of its problems.
BISHOP: Yes, and you are responsible for everybody, and the students are the least of those responsibilities. You have a faculty, PTA, parents, administrative staff, janitorial staff, a physical plant, athletics. Nick was feeling the pressure and he needed a strong support. I asked him to stay on with me and we are both walking out together, smiling.
THEOS: Bishop, you used to be a principal so you know what it’s like.
BISHOP: I understood where you were coming from and you understood where I was coming from — out of the school system. We’ve both been in that situation so we worked well together because of it. BEHS is magnificently successful and everybody is very proud of it.
THEOS: Times have changed though and we can’t do what we did in the past.
BISHOP: Nick Theos started as principal of BEHS in 1972. I was a principal from 1957-61. Those were different days. You experienced many more problems than I had. The best challenge we have there, the easiest one, is educating children.
THEOS: I have always been aware that I represent the Catholic Church, the Bishop and the priests in all my decisions. If I disagree with something I shouldn’t be there. My personal opinions are my personal opinions. It is the same for the teachers. They are there to teach what the church teaches. We have to set a good example for the kids, we represent the Church.
BISHOP: Nobody has represented the Bishop more effectively than Nick Theos. Not being of our faith, he was very faithful to it. He was right down the line if there was any question about morality, policy or faith. Nick always went with the teaching of the Church.
THEOS: I was grateful to have Msgr. (Lawrence B.) McInerny and Msgr. (Robert J.) Kelly there before him to help me with that. If I had doubts or didn’t know, I asked them. We’ve had students who were Orthodox Jews, Moslems, you name it, they never caused any ripples. Everybody takes religion every year, one period a day. BISHOP: Parents send their children to Bishop England for religion — a sense of morality, a sense of values. It is a value-oriented education and they want that for their children. They want, not only truth and error talked about, but good and evil. That’s a sense of values and that is why Bishop England is so highly respected. Thirty-five percent of the students are non-Catholic. There’s a message there that people, not of our faith, would choose a Catholic high school to send their children to because of the quality of BEHS.
THEOS: And the children of different faiths blend. They work together. The differences are hardly ever mentioned.
BISHOP: Ecumenism is lived there. It’s not a pious extra, it’s a day in and day out way of life.
THEOS: I remember one of the priests in the classroom told his students to write about Jesus Christ. An Orthodox Jewish girl went up to him and said ‘I don’t believe in Christ the way you all do.’ The priest said ‘fine, write what you all believe of him.’ That was not only common sense, it just fascinated me because it was wonderful.
BISHOP: I gave a homily in Mass about our appreciation of the Old Testament and why we are always reading from the Old Testament. We are spiritual Semites for one thing and their story is our story, at least in part. It leads up to our story. You just can’t ignore your roots. The acceptance of the school by those not of our faith is really a great tribute.
THEOS: A challenge that has come up over the years has been the change in atmosphere in the children. Nowadays, we deal with suicide, drugs, pregnancy. You have to work with the parents. You have to help people. One thing a principal has to do, almost like a priest, is if a child tells you something in confidence you cannot break that confidence. If you do you’ve lost it forever.
BISHOP: You’ve probably heard more confessions than priests. As an educator, I learned very early on that being a successful teacher was not the issue, making the students successful was the issue. If teachers and principals get that into their skulls the students believe it. The teachers who make sure the students learn, they are the valuable ones. The principal, if he sees that the faculty are provided for, they pass that on to the kids. I try to do that for my priests. The faculty knows if the principal is with them, if the principal is helpful.
THEOS: I don’t try to please everyone. I try to do the job as it needs to be done without breaking the rules for any one person. It may sound like a cruel statement but that’s the way it is. Once I was described as archaic, but I disagree. I just know the job has to be done. BEHS has an excellent academic and athletic reputation.
BISHOP: BEHS started on a shoestring, but my it has grown. It’s value will be its preservation.
THEOS: We now have 200 people on our waiting list at Daniel Island.
BISHOP: Because of Nick’s enthusiasm about the transfer of the school and his support of it, that decision found great acceptance in the community. We had relatively few complaints about it. The transfer was seven years in the making.
THEOS: I have to say this, people criticized the move to Daniel Island, but I think it is wonderful. I just came from there, it’s beautiful, it’s something we never had. BEHS has been chosen to be the cornerstone of Daniel Island.
BISHOP: Bishop England is centrally located for the population it serves. It has improved immensely and gone forward, not rashly or exorbitantly in expense.
THEOS: And now all of the kids on the island are eligible to take part in the athletics and all of the kids have parking. But something that I am particularly proud of is that the school now has an Endowment Fund. It was a big challenge and we were one of the first schools in the diocese to establish one. Also we have less teacher turnover, and a teachers’ retirement program in place. Alumni support has increased and our relationship with the public schools is excellent.
BISHOP: You are partners and not competitors. That’s the way it has to be in ecumenism. It’s so important in any civic community that the education systems get along. We have two formations in our diocesan schools: information and formation. We teach children in the head and form them in the heart.
THEOS: And they know what we expect.