Roycemore Headmaster Retires After 44 Years
Roycemore School's Joe Becker retired this year after 37 years as head of school and seven years as a teacher.
On the evening of Saturday, May 11th, Roycemore School Headmaster Joseph Becker was showered with praise, admiration and love by generations of alumni, parents and faculty in a crowded ballroom at the DoubleTree in Skokie. For 44 years, Becker has been an integral but often unassuming part of the Evanston private school, first as a teacher and then the last 37 as its Head, guiding the close-knit school community through many highs and lows. He frequently downplays his role in seeing the institution blossom over the decades, from an uncertain future in the early 1970s into a thriving, vital school on a new campus with record enrollment. Over the last year, since he announced his retirement and the school launched a nation-wide search for a new Head, he has learned to pause and appreciate expressions of just how much he has meant to the school and the hundreds of students he has shepherded.
Becker’s 37 years as Head of School are almost unheard of in today’s educational climate, and more than eight times longer than the average tenure of a principal or school head. It’s such a remarkable achievement that Becker was featured in a recent segment of “Chicago’s Very Own” on WGN-TV.
“Joe Becker’s commitment to creating a learning environment where individuality and diversity are valued, and each student is well-known and competes not with others, but with where they were the day before, has helped strengthen Roycemore over the decades,” shares Upper School Division Head John Novick.
Becker came to Evanston from Nebraska to attend Northwestern University, earning a degree in Political Science in 1968. After considering work in politics, Becker felt that he would like to try teaching. In 1969, Becker was hired at Roycemore primarily as a football coach that taught one academic class. Due to a change in program, football soon faded away but he says it taught him important lessons about motivating young teens and getting them to work together. Becker continued to teach history and became the Dean of the newly created Middle School at Roycemore a few years later. In 1976, he became the school’s Headmaster, where he has served for the last 37 years. In the late 1970s, he helped clarify Roycemore’s mission as a college preparatory school, including exploring varied teaching styles and differentiated instruction before they became popular mainstream educational tools.
He has continued to teach history—most notably American history—to eighth graders. He combines a traditional, structured style of teaching with a passion for the people and events that shaped this country into a memorable class that captivates and inspires his students, who remember what they’ve learned from him long after much else from middle school is forgotten. He strives to show them that what has gone on in the past affects the lives they’re living today. “I want them, hopefully, to recognize that people throughout our history have tried to make good decisions. It’s easy 20, 30, 50 years later to criticize some of those choices, but you’ve got to be able to understand the knowledge available and the climate in which those decisions were made,” he explains.
Becker and his family are long-time area residents. He met his future wife, Michele, when she began working part-time in the Roycemore alumni office, and they raised daughter Dana and son Larry at Roycemore. He says that watching his own children grow from half days in junior kindergarten, to becoming leaders in the high school, added an extra dimension to his tenure at Roycemore.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to him is that over the last 10 years, Roycemore has made enormous strides toward preserving its legacy for future generations. The school successfully purchased its own property and built a new campus, in December of 2011 relocating from its original building on space leased from Northwestern University. Over the years, he feels the school has continued to be vibrant by weaving new traditions in with the old, have a welcoming atmosphere.
Those involved with the challenging task of finding, financing and renovating a new location for the school praise Becker for his indispensable role throughout the process. It was announced at Saturday’s dinner to honor Becker that the school’s new gymnasium will be named after him. However, Becker takes it all in stride.
“I never gave any thought other than staying the course and being here. It’s not my nature,” he concludes.