As Mike Mersky wraps up his 11th and final year as St. Ed’s Head of School, we asked him to look back at how athletics impacted his life and forged a philosophy critical to the optimal nurturing and maturation of the young men and women under his guidance.
“I went to college to be an educator, and eventually went into administration kicking and screaming because I always wanted to just teach and coach,” Mersky said. “I was a blue collar kid from the city of Philadelphia who transferred to a private school in seventh grade. I was pretty decent athletically from early on, and that was my ‘in’ to the social and cultural environment at a private school, which I knew nothing about.
“I was a three-sport athlete in high school. Baseball and basketball were my primary sports – I was captain of both teams – and I played football and soccer at various times. Those six years of my life shaped my character, work ethic and family values because I had great coaches and great mentors.”
Mersky played baseball all four years in college, three of them as the starting second baseman. Over the ensuing decades, when he was not in the classroom setting tending to his duties as an educator, he coached middle and high school baseball and basketball. During that same period his growing family was embarking on sporting adventures of their own, and with equal vigor.
“This has been a labor of love for my whole family,” he said. “My wife was a college athlete in lacrosse and field hockey. Our kids made us look like we were not very good athletes. Our daughter was a two-time field hockey captain in college and our son was a high school All-American in lacrosse. So this has always been a big part of our lives, and taught all of us some great lessons.”
With that type of backdrop, Mersky was not inclined to be an aloof administrator who paid only obligatory attention to sports at St. Ed’s. Quite the opposite, he attended as many games as he could and was quite well versed in some of the arcane rules in, for example, lacrosse or soccer. He might even offer up an opinion on a call that went against the Pirates, albeit, like a true educator, always in a hushed, eloquent style for informational purposes only.
“I always wanted to support and facilitate the growth of every aspect of school life,” Mersky explained. “I operate from the premise that great schools are built with great adult role models. With all due respect to my position, it’s much more important for schools like ours to hire great adult role models in the chemistry classroom, and on the athletic field, and on the theater stage. It really doesn’t matter. It’s all about teaching and it’s all about coaching. You can have the school in a barn, but you must have great adults working with children.”
The various sports teams at St. Ed’s have been on roller coaster rides for much of Mersky’s tenure. A number of student-athletes have gone on to play for college programs; many more have not.
“About 70 percent of our kids play at least one sport in middle and high school,” Mersky told us. “We have no requirements to participate, but I’ll bet over 50 percent play two or more sports. That’s a healthy thing. I’m a proponent of playing a variety of sports. Our school offers a rich environment for that and we have seen a rise in participation for both boys and girls. I really hope it continues.
“Sports is the most overt window into which you can see a school. You can’t always look into the classroom, or go on a field trip, and you don’t always know what happens in the lab, but athletic teams are out there for the public. The degree to which we handle ourselves with character, integrity and sportsmanship will speak volumes about our school.
“Of course, athletics at schools the size of St. Ed’s will always run in cycles. We’ll have some good years with certain teams and down years with others. But everything really starts with the fact that you have the opportunity to get a great education. That’s the core of what we have to offer.”
It’s no secret that football is clearly one area to watch in the coming years. About that, Mersky said, “I can’t predict, all I can tell you right now is that it is not going in an upward pattern. It’s hasn’t been easy for schools our size. We take all of the precautions, we try to provide the best equipment, and we’ve been lucky with our full-time trainers. We are fortunate in still being able to provide that opportunity. …
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world. This is my 44th year in education and these 11 years at St. Ed’s have been the most significant work I’ve ever done – and I feel great about that.”