Right time. Right place. Right person.
Sally Chambers, no doubt, would agree with the first “right.” She’d even put a check mark beside the second. She’d protest the third, though, smile sheepishly, then do her best to change the subject. She always does when we’re talking about her.
Collegiate’s Middle School guidance counselor, you see, is humble and unpretentious. She chooses her words carefully. She speaks softly and reassuringly. She’s unfailingly composed, compassionate, and empathetic. She makes those around her better. She inspires trust. She inspires loyalty. She inspires … period.
Now, if she’s reading this column, she’s probably shaking her head, wondering whom we're talking about. No doubt she’s embarrassed. Certainly, she’s wondering, Why all the fuss?
That’s because it’s never been about Sally. It’s always been about the kids she’s counseled, nurtured and often consoled, the parents she’s supported, the colleagues with whom she’s shared the journey, the ideas she’s conceived and the programs she’s developed.
“What Sally has done for Collegiate is immeasurable,” said Charlie Blair, head of the Middle School. “She’s so wise in her counsel. She gets us through the regular stuff we see each day but also the tough times. She’s the first person we call when something goes awry. Time after time, she’s been there to provide thoughtful insight to address the concern we’re dealing with.”
When the school year comes to a close, Sally will join her husband Tom in retirement. While she’s been working her magic on North Mooreland Road, Tom, whom she married in 1980, has served as art director at Hamilton Beach as well as indulging his passion as a fine arts photographer. In their next chapter, they’ll enjoy traveling, hiking, camping and spending time with family, which includes their daughter Alice, a 2008 Collegiate graduate who’s an account manager for Workshop Digital in Richmond.
A native of Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, Sally earned a B.A. in psychology and elementary/pre-school education from Eckherd College (St. Petersburg, Florida) with the intention of working in a Lower School setting.
As she pursued her M.Ed. and Ed.S. degrees in counselor education at the University of Florida, she set her sights on teaching at the college level. She was well into her doctoral dissertation, but, after five years at McIntosh Middle School in Sarasota, her inner voice began to direct her toward what would become a long, meaningful and fulfilling career.
“I’ve loved the kids and the idea that they were growing and developing,” she said. “The teachers chose to work with those kids because of their quirkiness and flexibility and their true belief that kids had the capacity to grow, and it was exciting to see that growth.”
In 1985, Sally and Tom relocated to Richmond to be closer to family. Sally interviewed throughout Central Virginia, visited Collegiate, the alma mater of three of her nine siblings, and spoke with Julia Williams and Bill Reeves (heads of the Girls and Boys Schools, respectively). It was a time of transition at Collegiate. In 1986, the institution’s structure changed to a model that would give the Middle School an identity of its own.
“They were very interested in having a Middle School guidance counselor,” Sally said. “It was a great conversation. I accepted the position because they essentially said, ‘You seem to know what a Middle School counseling program should look like. Go ahead and do it.’ And Mr. Reeves was really interested in creating an advisory program. I thought, ‘Wow! What a great opportunity!’”
Sally moved first into temporary quarters in a cramped stairwell of the old (now demolished) science building. From there, she took up residence in an equally cramped storage closet in the newly constructed North Science Building, then a larger room (albeit with one tiny window) in the South Science facility. Since 2013, she’s held forth from her bright, comfortable, inviting office on the southwest corner of, appropriately enough, the Reeves Center.
Early in her 33-year tenure at Collegiate, Sally created and implemented the advisory system that has enhanced our community as Bill Reeves envisioned and has earned national recognition for excellence.
“Sally has always said that the advisors provide front-line guidance,” said Charlie Blair, the Middle School head. “In order for this to work, it takes a lot of hands. She saw advisors as filling that role. She was the genius behind the program, not only writing the original activities but also working with grade-level chairs to redevelop them over the years and make sure they’re relevant. There’s a lot of structure and thinking behind the program, but what really stands out is the culture that focuses on developing close relationships. I hope that’s what we stand for in the Middle School.”
Sally has also played a vital role in a host of other initiatives, among them substance abuse education, diversity and inclusion, world religion awareness assemblies, human sexuality education and responsible citizenship. Somehow, she’s made it all look easy.
“Collegiate is a place that’s so interactive that we learn from each other,” she said. “While I had some basic ideas, I was able to deepen or modify those ideas because of the wisdom of other people.”
Then there’s the individual counseling, a full-time responsibility in itself. Amidst her hectic schedule, she’s somehow found time to lend an attentive and compassionate ear to many a child, sometimes on short notice, sometimes when much emotion is involved and sometimes when no solution is apparent.
“I love my job,” she said. “We just do these things. Right? I try to be present, to forge connections. I’m not one to give up on things. Maybe that’s what gets me going in the morning.”
So much of Sally’s work – counseling, education and outreach – has involved inspiring students to look deeply within themselves and summon the “better angels of their nature.”
“I believe that compassion and empathy are in each person,” she said. “There’s research that shows that when we engage in activities where we help others, we feel better about ourselves. It improves our outlook on life. It improves self-esteem. If you’re reaching out and doing something for another person, it’s really quite powerful. We’re a school that recognizes the importance of traditional subject matter, but there’s also tremendous value in weaving and integrating other ideas like ethics and service learning and inclusion.”
Beyond the line items on her job description, Sally long ago became a voice of reason, creative problem solver, confidant and mentor. When she turns in her keys and heads off to some new adventure, folks will no doubt remember her smiling countenance, cheerful disposition and unflappable demeanor. They’ll remember a good and decent person who performed her duties exquisitely and without expectation of any tangible reward. They’ll remember a role model whose actions spoke more loudly than any words she ever uttered.
I told her as much as she spoke into my recorder one morning recently. Typically, she demurred.
“You know, honestly,” she said, “I’d really rather people remember something about themselves. I believe that people are filled with innate goodness and have the capacity to change. I believe that through connections with others they have the opportunity to appreciate life. It’s about people recognizing what they can do for themselves.”
I reminded her of the words of Steve Hickman, our head of school, in his official announcement of her retirement: “Sally is the heart and soul of the Middle School.”
She cringed, of course. She reflected for a moment. How does a selfless person respond to such praise?
“Steve was incredibly generous,” she said, finally. “It’s been a total, collective effort. It’s been everybody working together.”