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A Leader Who Contains Multitudes

Bruce Denis as pelican mascot

By Celeste Tramontin, Upper School English Teacher

During a recent Chapel, Packer students witnessed a side of our departing Head of School that many had never before seen. A student-made video announcing the reinstatement of the pelican mascot starred a dazzling Bruce Dennis who — realizing that, with retirement looming, he would soon be out of a job — contemplates running for the mascot position himself. On screen, Bruce hesitantly flaps imaginary wings, straps on a plastic beak, and daydreams about donning the pelican suit and thereby representing the School in a new way. Students went wild, most of them taken, I think, by the incongruence of their normally staid leader so gamely appearing in a student mockumentary. For the kids, this was cognitive dissonance rearing its head. For the faculty, this was just Bruce being Bruce.

One of the beautiful things about Bruce Dennis is that, in the words of Walt Whitman, he “is large; he contains multitudes.” He is, indeed, that formidable leader that students know him to be. He has ushered Packer through unprecedented growth in his time here: launching the Packer Early Learning Center, instituting a vibrant Upper School Symposium Program including international travel for all Tenth Graders, and helping make the School so strong and so popular that getting a spot in our Kindergarten is akin to gaining entrance to Stanford. But beyond being a visionary leader, Bruce is also pretty darn funny, deeply kind, and unreservedly committed to the people of Packer.

Bruce’s sense of humor is readily apparent to anyone who has attended one of his faculty meetings. His annual recounting of his 10 favorite bumper stickers of summer vacation always draws an equal mixture of laughter and groans. (One classic: “My therapist said that my narcissism causes me to misread social situations. I’m pretty sure she was hitting on me.”) He is, as French teacher Adèle St. Pierre admiringly puts it, “totally old school.”

But Bruce also is, in the words of History Department Chair Monika Johnston, a true “mensch,” who has shown incredible compassion and generosity to teachers and staff dealing with personal challenges. When English teacher and cancer survivor Teresa Genaro emailed Bruce after her diagnosis, she found him waiting outside her classroom to offer her a hug and words of encouragement (encouragement that was particularly meaningful coming from a man who himself had battled cancer). Bruce’s support for Teresa went beyond mere condolences when, ever the English teacher, he stepped in and taught Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement to her Advanced Topics in English students when her treatments forced her to stay home. He is, as Teresa said, “extraordinary in times of crisis.”

Dean of the Class of 2021 Larissa Dzegar echoed Teresa’s sentiments, saying that after her father’s sudden death last year, Bruce’s generosity in giving her the time she needed to spend with her mother was a balm to her and her family. Hallmaster Louis Rios, whose wife Linda Hellew was Bruce’s assistant for 14 years, called Bruce “the nicest man [he has] ever met,” pointing to Bruce’s generosity and his care for Linda, who has also battled cancer. Bruce is a mensch, indeed.

Bruce is also, as history teacher Ryan Carey says: “a man who finds a way to say yes,” and who is willing to “throw in” financially and institutionally when teachers and students are passionate about a project that will enhance student learning. Bruce’s “yes” has led to a new  fly-fishing club, increased funding for the debate team, and financed student trips to see Hamilton, The Color Purple, and several off-Broadway shows. When students in the Theatre Matters Symposium proposed holding a cabaret to raise money for refugees, Bruce, without prompting, offered upfront funds so that students wouldn’t have to spend money out of pocket to launch their event.

Bruce was also willing to “throw in” during the ping-pong craze of 2010. When the School’s purchase of two new ping-pong tables led multitudes of Packer students and staff to become ping-pong obsessed, Bruce was often found in the Atrium Overlook, battling students and faculty alike with his Forrest Gump-like skills. The culmination of the craze occurred on the Chapel stage when Bruce took on a student champ and battled to a thrilling climax (whose ending now escapes me).

So, although Bruce joked about becoming the Pelican, in many ways his tenure here has been marked by the symbolic qualities of that odd school mascot. Lore has it that the mother pelican, a symbol of selflessness, will strike her own breast and feed her young her blood to sustain them. Bruce has fed and sustained us for his 15 years here, and we will miss his selflessness, his humor, and his deep humanity.