The former singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist of the rock band Angry Salad might be the most cheerful patron in Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Highland Park on this day.
Bob Whelan — 48 years old, head of school at Lake Forest Country Day School (LFCDS) and the former 6-foot-5 “tackling dummy” on Brown University’s JV basketball team — has recently returned from a two-week stay at Columbia University in New York, where he and 19 other heads of school from around the world attended a prestigious Klingenstein Center program.
The energy emanating from the ebullient, rejuvenated educator precludes me from ordering a cup of coffee.
“We wrote, did research, revisited the minds of John Dewey and other great minds of education,” says Whelan, while waiting for his order of a Denver omelet and whole wheat toast.
“I got back to my sweet spot in education.”
One fast-paced, animated conversation leads to another. But I want to settle, for a spell, on Whelan’s time as a musician following his two-year stint as a hoops forward at Brown. Angry Salad — his new team, minus the required high-top sneakers — was born on campus in the early 1990s. The band would become a professional one, opening for acts such as Sugar Ray and Goo Goo Dolls and entertaining before large crowds.
One numbered 20,000 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
For years, his rock hairstyle resembled tennis great Bjorn Borg’s in the 1970s. Angry Salad stirred concertgoers until 2000.
“We rehearsed in Boston, near a Dunkin’ Donuts baking plant,” says Whelan, in his fourth year as head of school at LFCDS and the father (with his wife, Annie, a veterinarian) of LFCDS students Chloe and Ben. “The ground floor was where they made the donuts, and we did our thing above it. But we couldn’t escape the aroma, and we always came away smelling like donuts after rehearsals.”
In the early 2000s, Whelan returned to Brown University, where he worked while getting his master’s degree in education at Harvard University. He later taught and coached and served as an administrator at Rippowam Cisqua in Bedford, New York.
“Academics, athletics, the arts … kids connect through the opportunities of each, through the possibilities each discipline has to offer,” says Whelan, who majored in philosophy at Brown. “At Lake Forest Country Day School we encourage our teachers to know and love the kids, to help them stretch out and try new things. It was a gift to be able to do what I did as a member of a band in my 20s.”
In this frenetic age of “insta”-that and “snap”-that and nanosecond attention spans, Whelan — at times when he’s home in Lake Forest and his kids are nearby — goes out of his way to read a book the old-fashioned way: sitting, with the book in his hands.
“Do you know what’s exciting to me?” Whelan says. “Hearing a kid talk about a book after reading it. Maybe it’s a Harry Potter book or a book by Percy Jackson. But what’s important is the opportunity that reader has to communicate what he or she likes about an author’s style to a friend or a parent.
“Kids now and in the future,” he adds, “will still have to communicate ideas effectively, written and orally, if they want to get ahead. I was reminded of that [at the gathering of heads of school at Columbia University]. It’s a truism.”
Looking for an engaging storyteller? Find Bob Whelan and end your search. The man appreciates the details of a scene and uses words and well-timed pauses to paint clear and interesting pictures for his audience.
He injects his stories with it.
“Rippowam Cisqua, where I worked …,” he says with a smile. “Sounds likes a summer camp, doesn’t it?”
The head of school turns serious. Surrounded by teachers and learners in inspiring environments since the age of 33, Whelan knows exactly what helps people grasp concepts and stay attentive.
“Our brains are wired to learn through stories,” he says. “Stories are anchors, and those help us remember messages and lessons.”
It’s an early morning on the grounds of Lake Forest Country Day School. Whelan is outside, pumped to perform one of his favorite daily duties: greet at least 100 students (kindergarten through fourth grade). He shakes hands with most and fist-bumps or hugs others.
“The passing of the peace has always been one of my favorite parts of church,” Whelan says. “I love the energy I pick up when I see our kids at school each morning.
“It’s my caffeine.”