HomepageAlumniOnce a Bear, Always a Bear: The Four Questions at Ursinus and Beyond

Once a Bear, Always a Bear: The Four Questions at Ursinus and Beyond

Gail Heinemeyer ’72

And just like that, 50 years have passed since I graduated from Ursinus. When I moved into Shreiner Hall at the beginning of my freshman year, I was stepping into a familiar environment. My mother, Claire Borrell Heinemeyer, was a graduate of the Class of 1940 and I had accompanied my parents to many Homecoming and activities on campus over the years. I grew up listening to stories of my mother’s adventures with her Kappa Delta Kappa sisters, a sorority they founded so that six girls who had become great friends would not be separated by pledging different sororities. Creative problem solving was a hallmark of an Ursinus education and it was a lesson they learned very early. I also came to understand the importance of creating and maintaining friendships. Those six women stayed in touch by writing a round-robin letter that circulated through the group for more than 50 years and holding an annual summer reunion at the Jersey Shore. This group helped me to understand what it meant to be a Bear for Life. I, too, have a small group of Ursinus friends who keep in touch, although these days email has replaced the handwritten letter and the annual reunion takes place in North Jersey. It is a reminder of the long-time relationships that were formed at Ursinus. Four of the six women in this group, including me, went on to enjoy successful careers in teaching.

I majored in political science and was certified to teach social studies. My plan was to teach high school students and educate them about comparative government and problems of democracy. Little did I know, I really was a middle school level teacher at heart who embraced the philosophy of educating the whole student in an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. My emphasis in teaching was on relationships and communication. The content could be taught once the positive connection was made between teacher and student. I think those beliefs about teaching were rooted in the liberal arts tradition of Ursinus and the connections formed between professors and students that enhance learning. Strong liberal arts schools allow students to study a variety of subjects and explore many interests. Students develop both a wide range of general knowledge and the mastery of a specific content while they explore what matters to them. I did not realize at the time, that the goals of an Ursinus education would mirror my goals as an educator.

Following graduation, I began a 45-year long career as an educator in the Ridley School District. During that time, the junior high school is which I taught was being transformed into a middle school. One of the founders of the middle level movement was Dr. William Alexander. In 1963, Dr. Alexander issued a call for a new “middle school” that would respond more explicitly to the academic and personal development of every young adolescent. He asserted that the goal of these schools should be “to stimulate in the child a love for learning, an attitude of inquiry, a passion for truth and beauty, a questioning mind. The learning of right answers is not enough…beyond answers alone, we must help children ask the right questions, and discover their answers through creative thinking, reasoning, judging, and understanding.”

Gail Heinemeyer ’72

When I look at his words now, I realize that they also describe the educational program at Ursinus: the Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) and the four core questions of Quest. What should matter to me? How should we live together? How can I understand the world? What will I do? Exemplary middle schools challenge young adolescents to consider those same four questions as they provide a learning experience that develops the whole child. CIE and Quest did not exist when I was a student at Ursinus, but those core values were embedded in the curriculum and helped to shape my approach to the education of young adolescents. I discovered that I was passionate about middle level education and became actively involved with both the state and national associations for middle level education. After 18 years as a teacher, I moved into administration and served as principal of the middle school for 17 years. I ended my career in the central office as director of support services. When I retired from the school district five years ago, I continued to work on behalf of middle level students and educators presenting professional development sessions to audiences across the country. My retirement activities weren’t limited to education. I enjoy travelling, especially cruising, attending live theater regionally and on Broadway as well as following the Phillies with an occasional round of golf. The difference is that I now set my own schedule.

Needless to say, my connection to Ursinus didn’t end with graduation. There has been a continuation of a long-term relationship of service to the school. My Ursinus diploma opened many doors for me and I believe in giving back. Loyalty is defined as a strong feeling of support or allegiance and that is how I feel about Ursinus. For many years, I was the Loyalty Fund chairperson for my class, writing letters several times a year to encourage classmates to donate to the Annual Fund. More recently, I have served on the Bear2Bear Committee helping to raise money for the student emergency fund and as a member of the reunion committee for my 45th and 50th reunions.

As I reflect on the 50 years since my graduation, I have developed an even deeper appreciation for the many ways in which Ursinus laid the foundation for a successful and rewarding life.

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