Two longtime leaders at St. Edward’s are retiring after a remarkable 85 years of combined service at the private barrier island school.
Bruce Wachter is retiring June 30 as Associate Head of School and Head of Upper School after 45 years at St. Ed’s. His wife Joanie is retiring at the same time, after 40 years at the school – she took five years off to have their daughters – teaching in a variety of elementary grades and serving for the past 22 years as the Lower School technology coordinator.
Wachter began working at St. Edward’s in 1973, eight years after the school was founded and one year after the Upper School opened its doors. He had just graduated from the College of William and Mary and was barely older than some students when he arrived as a first-year teacher, along with the school’s first senior class.
“The interesting thing is that members of that class are now, at the very least, eligible for social security and many are probably receiving it,” Wachter says. “Which I think is kind of fun. I was 22 and many of them were 18.”
He credits his longevity at St. Ed’s to the enduring character of the school. “There’s never been a shift from the original core values – integrity, respect, character development, solid academic classes, retaining of small classes.”
Wachter was working at the King’s Arms Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg his last year of college when he happened to serve a Vero Beach couple and their son, a student at the fledgling school, and they suggested he apply for a teaching position.
After consulting with his then fiancée Joanie, an elementary education major at William and Mary, he flew down to interview with then Head of School Peter Benedict for the position of middle school science teacher and varsity football coach.
“I flew down and saw the place and was just astounded,” Wachter remembers, explaining that not only were the class sizes smaller than in the large public schools he was used to, but the students all stood as a gesture of respect and said ‘good morning’ when he entered the room.
Benedict, who was Head of School from 1971 to 1995, was a man of quick decisions; after offering Wachter the position, he said he needed an answer the next day. It was a ‘yes’ – a decision Wachter has never regretted.
“We got married on a Saturday, graduated on a Sunday, and . . . then we drove to Vero Beach in early June,” says Wachter.
Wachter has seen the school through good times and difficult times, including when it expanded too aggressively in the 1990s, a move that, combined with a sagging economy, triggered severe financial problems.
“As history has taught us, we’re really not a school of 900 students,” Wachter says. “We’re more a school of around 600. That’s what this community needs and can support.”
He adds that with the support of the community and a strong leadership team willing to make difficult decisions, the school today is in better condition than ever before. “It’s right-sized and fiscally sound; we’ve got a great board of trustees; we’ve got a dynamic head; we have excellent faculty and everybody really cares about this place.”
Wachter wore many hats over the years – educator, coach, mentor, administrator and even bus driver – all the while nurturing and befriending students, parents, fellow staff members and members of the community at large.
“This is not just a job to anybody. There’s no one who comes here and feels that they have to be here. They get to be here. That’s the way they all look at it. That’s certainly the way my family feels.”
He points out that he and Joanie were St. Edward’s parents as well as teachers – their two daughters attended from kindergarten through high school. The eldest, Carrie Wachter Morris, Ph.D., is now a professor of counselor education at University of North Carolina, while second daughter Amy Wachter Driggers is the founder and owner of Charleston-based Taxidermy, a designer of high-end women’s accessories.
“The things that give me the greatest pleasure are the times that a student comes back and wants to talk to you about their time here,” says Wachter. “Or the times when a student who’s currently enrolled trusts you enough to come in and confide in you and ask for some guidance or some help.”
He has a scrapbook bursting with personal notes of gratitude from some of the thousands of students who have come under his tutelage over the years, and regularly gets visits from alumni who drop by to “chitchat.” Wachter notes with pride that he has taught generations of students and also works alongside some of his former students.
Wachter plans to work a few hours a month with the advancement office, communicating with some of those alumni, and he anticipates that Joanie will likely be called in on occasion to work on projects at the Lower School. The couple looks forward to doing some traveling at other times of year besides summer, “when the rest of the planet travels,” and to visits with grandchildren Brennan, 6, and Laura 4 ½.
“People ask over and over, ‘Are you going to move?’ Absolutely not; why would anyone ever move from Vero Beach?
“We love Vero Beach and have no intention whatsoever of moving.”
Alumni from all classes are invited to celebrate the retirement of Bruce and Joanie Wachter at the Alumni Reunion Party on June 9.