Biographical / Historical
Allan Vanderhoef Heely was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1897, the son of a banker. His family soon relocated to Plainfield, New Jersey, where he was educated at Mr. John Leal’s School. He was a member of Phillips Andover’s class of 1915, and graduated with a sparkling academic and extracurricular record. He entered Yale following his graduation from Andover, and excelled in the study of English literature. At Yale he was active in several musical clubs, including the noted singing group the Whiffenpoofs.
In 1917 he joined Yale’s R.O.T.C and left school to serve with a field artillery unit in South Carolina, where he attained the rank of second lieutenant. He returned to Yale late in 1918 to complete his studies. Following graduation he went into business with a wholesale dry-goods firm, but found that the work did not inspire him. In 1924 he happily accepted a position teaching English at Andover.
Allan Heely, as well as his wife Frances Thompson (better known, affectionately, as Pattie), were enormously well liked at Andover. His reputation for excellence in teaching was matched by hers for a warm and welcoming nature. The board of trustees at Lawrenceville quickly became interested in Allan Heely as a potential asset to their own school. Following the death of Mather Almon Abbott in 1934, Heely was elected to replace him as headmaster. He was sworn in on Thanksgiving Day, in front of an audience of nearly 800, who assembled following chapel service for Thanksgiving dinner in the gymnasium.
Heely became enormously popular with the student body, as he had at Andover. His quiet good nature allowed even timid or apprehensive boys to feel comfortable in his company, and he was known for fairness and an even temper. Mrs. Heely, with the breezy, casual warmth that became her trademark, played a powerful role in the social life of the school as well.
Allan Heely’s primary goal throughout his tenure was the enhancement of the intellectual life of the school, not merely to cement the school’s reputation, but in order to prepare students for successful careers and lives. One major victory in this quest for excellence was the arrangement of a generous financial gift from Edward Harkness. This gift would enable the physical renovations, faculty enhancement, and curriculum redesigns that contributed to what is now called the Harkness method or conference method of teaching. This educational method is one of the cornerstones of Lawrenceville’s philosophy.
Another of Heely’s significant missions was an emphasis on training students to be conscientious participants in democracy. This effort manifested itself in broader and more active student leadership, and through the creation of a work program. This new program encouraged students to take pride in and responsibility for the appearance and operation of the school. The Heelys as a couple were instrumental in shepherding the school through the Second World War. Allan Heely’s goal was to prevent students from abandoning their studies in order to pursue military service. Sweeping changes in curriculum and more flexible graduation schedules made this effort a success. Pattie Heely championed an enormous effort to keep in touch with Lawrentians in the armed services. She sent out letters and questionnaires to alumni in the services, publishing their responses and letters in newsletters called “Bons Mots Millitaires”, which she distributed throughout the community.
On July 7, 1959, Allan Heely died at home from an embolism following a period of illness. His death during the summer vacation prevented his memorial from being attended by many of the students who considered him a role model and an inspiration. The service was well-attended, however, by alumni, colleagues, and friends. Noted author Frederick Buechner (L’43) spoke eloquently of Heely’s tremendous personal commitment to the school and its community members, and of his generosity with his energy and attention.
“You always came upon him as a whole. When he gave you his attention, the gift was complete; and even at large school gatherings, besieged on all sides by alumni, faculty, and students, he was seldom vague or desultory. No matter how briefly you saw him, he left you with the feeling that you had genuinely met.”