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JSerra's New Principal, Explorer at Heart

John Freeh and Father Robert Spitzer share with parents their hopes to help students maintain a curiosity for learning and desire for faith.

“The mind is created as a heat-seeking missile with respect to the truth; it wants to know what the truth is, and that is true at every stage of one’s life," said John Freeh, tapped in February to become the next principal at .

Guiding that heat-seeking missile and cultivating a sense of curiosity and wonder is how he sees his job, which technically starts in July.  Freeh said wants each teacher to treat his career as a vocation; a calling.

Taking the lead from poems such as “The Four Quartets,” is one way in which Freeh learns about how to be such a leader, he said.

“ 'Old men ought to be explorers,' ” Freeh quoted T.S. Eliot. He believes that the quote expresses the human need to constantly be learning.

Freeh has experienced a total of six professions, and he’s still “exploring.” Most of those jobs have involved teaching. One of his areas of work was journalism. He wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Associated Press, in the Pittsburgh bureau.

“A journalist is like a teacher. You’re in a classroom all the time. You get airdropped into a situation; you have to figure it out quickly and you have to learn,” he said.

Freeh’s first job, however, was teaching third grade at a boy’s school.

“I still think about it nostalgically, what I love about teaching kids that age, is that 7- or 8-year-olds have a sense of wonder about life,” he said.

Wont to quote the wise words of ancient philosophers — “Plato says that wonder is the beginning of philosophy” — Freeh loved literature growing up in Jersey City, across from Manhattan.

“I’d always had a love of literature growing up, so in the back of my mind at some point I want to go back and get my doctorate in literature to teach literature. That was a long-term dream of mine.”

Travelin’ man

“I would go crazy if I didn’t spend time outdoors,” Freeh said, referring back to his thoughts as he left the city for Oxford College in England at age 18. He has spent his life traveling west, reporting, teaching and guiding students.

Freeh lived and worked in England, and then it was off to Michigan, then Washington state, Washington D.C., Chicago and Pittsburgh. Most recently he has been working with the Wyoming Catholic College Great Books Program, based a similar program that originated at St. John’s College in Santa Fe.

The Catholic Great Books Program in Wyoming provides a requirement for students to read the great classics throughout their college career, starting with Aristotle and Plato. In addition, they are also reading Catholic classics, such as St. Augustine.

The students at Wyoming College are also required to do outdoors activities, such as hiking and horseback riding. Freeh became even more comfortable with enjoying the outdoors and looks forward to continue that lifestyle here in horse country San Juan Capistrano.

The new principal of JSerra

Originally scheduled to begin work at JSerra in January, Freeh asked for a delay so he could complete his commitment to the Wyoming Catholic College and to his wife, Helen.

With a doctorate in English,  also taught literature at Hillsdale. She's due to give birth to the couple's first child at the end of May.

Freeh married Helen a year ago on May 31, in a little old adobe church in New Mexico. Her due date is their one-year wedding anniversary. Since March, Freeh has been visiting JSerra for a few days each month.

Freeh’s first 100 days as principal will be all about “intelligence gathering,” as he called it. Freeh said to know what policies are needed on the campus, he has to first get to know the people and circumstances of the community it serves. Freeh is prepared to learn about the strengths and deficiencies, to give him a strong sense of what the students will benefit from most.

Part of the challenge of being a principal in Orange County, according to Freeh, is “to help the students be aware of the many privileges and blessings that they have … lest they become ungrateful.”

Students from his college courses at Hillsdale College in Michigan praise Freeh’s ability to guide them in the right direction, academically and spiritually.

“Dr. Freeh is the most demanding and rewarding professor I have ever taken. His class was the most revolutionary experience since learning to read!” says one of many students wrote about Freeh on the Rate My Professors website.

The welcome reception

Monday, parents joined chairman of JSerra’s Board of Trustees, Timothy Busch, and JSerra's new rector, Father Robert Spitzer, to welcome Freeh to the JSerra family.

Gathering at the JSerra Pavilion gymnasium where the school holds its weekly masses, it was the first time the parents could meet Freeh and ask him about the leadership direction he wants to take. A faculty dinner took place beforehand, for the teachers and other staff to give their own private hello to Freeh.

Freeh worked with Spitzer at Gonzaga University. While Spitzer was president of the University, Freeh was Director of Ministry there.

At this celebration of new leadership, Busch still wanted to reassure the parents about the near future of “a triumvirate of qualified people that will lead this school.”

“It will be exciting not just for JSerra but for the county, too," Busch told the parent. "There are universities that don’t have the leadership that we are about to have. I think we have an opportunity here and I hope God blesses us one more time.”

Vice Principal Eric Stroupe has been serving as interim principal for the few months the board of trustees was “searching the country” for the best new leaders, as Busch put it. Stroupe was actually the “most popular teacher” at JSerra before he was made vice principal, Busch said. A large applause erupted in response. 

Parents expressed their gratitude toward the Rector and Freeh and were hopeful for the future. Some asked about what new programs would be implemented with this new combined leadership of literary and science backgrounds. New ideas included raising awareness about the website that Spitzer provides, with its many educational videos and debates to help Catholic school students understand how science and religion can correlate.

One of the involved parents, Mabel Garcia, spoke of the “excitement” she feels for the near future.

“I wish Chris [her son who graduated from JSerra in 2010] was back to hear this and to see this. I’m looking forward to having them put the Rev. Spitzer’s videos on the website,” Garcia said.

“It is much more powerful now that the vision is clearer, and I think that the children will be in great hands,” said another parent, Julie Bacino, who has one sophomore and one incoming freshman.

Bacino attended the welcome gathering to support the new leaders, but she also wanted “reassurance that we are on the same path.” The other parents at the meeting shared her thoughts.

Freeh expressed his understanding of their needs by beginning with a statement about wanting the children to be happy.

“Education is part of who the whole person is, if we want to grow as a person and be as good a person as we can be, then the education has to be directed towards the whole person, body, mind and soul,” said Freeh during his first speech to the parents.

Bacino was pleased to hear it because she believes that “we have a limited amount of time with out children so why not put them in the best setting possible, so they are inspired.”

Freeh told Patch he looks forward to working with high school level students because they are impressionable and open to change, he said. The most meaningful part of Freeh’s experience as director of University Ministry at Gonzaga University, in Spokane, Wash., was to see people change for the better.

“It is meaningful to see that change and know that you had some kind of assist,” he said.

“The faculty here is committed. They have a real affection for the students, they really desire what is best for them, not just in their particular subject matter but also they want what is best for them overall,” Freeh said. Believing in the students is “half the battle of teaching.”

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