Dr. John Crosby: Radnor Superintendent, Mentor, and Uncommon Individual
The new coat of paint on the fieldhouse just finished drying as the Class of 2022 enters their senior year. Each senior class cherishes the beloved tradition of painting the fieldhouse with a new and exciting theme at the start of each year. But without one of our past superintendents, Dr. John C. Crosby, this tradition may not have existed.
John Crosby entered his run as superintendent of Radnor Schools in January 1976 at age 39. During his time at Radnor, some board members and others thought the seniors did a poor job painting the fieldhouse and lobbied to have the structure removed. Instead of letting this group do away with the unsightly fieldhouse, Dr. Crosby advocated to keep it, arguing that it served as an important tradition for Radnor’s rising seniors. Forty-five years later, we maintain this tradition because of Dr. C.
John C. Crosby, 85 years young, 2021
Most superintendents nationwide don’t remain in a school district for more than six years
, though Dr. Crosby stayed in Radnor for eleven and a half years, leaving in June 1987. “I call myself a dust-bowl kid,” said Crosby, referencing his birthplace of windblown West Texas. Every morning he “milked three goats and three cows,” and he “knew education would be my salvation of getting out of the cotton field.” He got a degree in education at Abilene Christian College in Texas and a master’s degree at George Peabody College for Teachers, now Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.
Crosby taught school for four years, then worked as an assistant to a superintendent in New Jersey, and later moved with his family into New York City to pursue an EdD in school administration. With his doctorate, Crosby went to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to be superintendent of schools. To his dismay, “It wasn’t much fun because everything had to do with something other than education. We had a near teachers’ strike. We had a cafeteria strike. The cafeteria workers protested by attending school board meetings and throwing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at me and board members. It made Radnor school board meetings look relatively tame.”
“Four years later, I was lucky enough to become the superintendent of schools in Radnor,” said Crosby.
During his time in Radnor, John Crosby always prioritized maintaining close relationships with students. In his first year he demonstrated his commitment by creating a superintendent’s student advisory committee of fifteen high school students. “They were a diverse group,” said Crosby. “We had the techies, the academics, music, arts, sports and writers represented. It was a conglomeration of kids.”
The committee had its first meeting in February 1976, on a day when most students would have argued schools should have been closed because of snow. His sophomore son, Jack, and freshman daughter, Carla, were unhappy. When Dr. C walked in to greet the students, someone had written on the chalkboard: “What do you expect from a man from Bethlehem with the initials of JC?”
John Crosby encountered most of his controversy with students over snow days. Different students adopted various strategies to convince, or trick, him into canceling school.
John C. Crosby, Age 44 RHS Yearbook, 1980
“I remember one middle school girl wrote me a letter in pencil with all the details of how I should close school,” said Crosby. He saved this letter so that he could return it to her forty years later. Another student, Billy, got up at four o’clock in the morning after it had snowed a mere two inches. He shoveled snow up on Crosby’s bedroom windows to make the weather conditions look like a blizzard. Dr. C said, “He thought it was an ingenious idea, but it didn’t work.”
Crosby maintained a specific strategy in deciding whether to call a snow day. He would wake up early before school and drive around the township with Jake McCarthy, director of transportation, to determine if the conditions were safe. One day it snowed about four or five inches, and Crosby felt the need to check a new walking path that many Ithan Elementary School students took to school. “I started running down this trail,” said Crosby. “I must have slid 30 to 35 yards — all the way down. I crawled back up and I said, ‘Jake, we are not having school today!’” Soon after, The Suburban published a headline: “We found out how Crosby decides snow days.”
John Crosby gained a reputation for his reluctance to close school. At one middle school winter concert, the eighth grade chorus wrote a song about how the radio never mentioned Radnor’s code number 457 when all the neighboring school districts chose to close schools. John Trauma, teacher at RMS, asked Crosby to accompany the chorus and jazz band on drums. Sadly, Crosby had to attend a regular school board meeting the same night. At the time they were held in the administration building adjacent to the middle school.
Instead of turning the middle school kids down, Crosby went to Trauma and said, “I have an idea. Tell me the exact time you want me to come over.” At 8:30 Crosby quietly walked out of the board meeting. When he got to the door, he ran to his office, picked up his drumsticks, took two steps at a time down the steps, and ran over to the middle school. He sat down at his drum set just in time for the song. The chorus began to sing, “and as we were all listening to the radio, we heard 454, 456, 458,” with the absence of the number “457” signifying that Crosby had chosen not to cancel school. The song was a hit and received a rousing applause by the audience.
After the song, Crosby ran back to the board meeting: “I walked very calmly to my seat, and they all thought I’d gone to the bathroom, so no one was any wiser.”
While occasionally practicing with the high school band, Crosby met then-student Tom Wilson, who later found fame as an actor playing Biff in the Back to the Future trilogy. Tom played tuba, and he would later use the instrument as a prop in his standup comedy skits. “One day I went home,” Crosby said, “and was thrilled to see Jack and Tom Wilson in the pool.” Thinking he would swim with them, Crosby rushed to his closet, but he couldn’t find his bathing suit. He yelled, “Jack, I can’t find my suit!” Jack yelled back, “Tom has it on!”
Tom Wilson & Carla Crosby at The Crosby Pool, 1978
Dr. C became a mentor to Tom while he was in high school. “I would go to Tom’s English, history, math and science classes and he was not in class,” remembers Crosby. “I would find him in Mr. Morgan’s theater arts room or out on the football field playing frisbee. One day I walked down to where he was playing frisbee and said, ‘Tom, every time I come to the high school, you’re not in class. You’re playing frisbee or you’re in the theater arts room. Why do you come to school?’ Tom responded, ‘Doc, I like it here!’” When Wilson was inducted into the Radnor High School Hall of Fame, he told this story at the ceremony.
John Crosby also enjoyed connecting with Radnor students during Trick or Treating. “A huge number of kids would come to my house because they knew where I lived,” he said. One time, Billy, the same student who tried to trick Crosby into calling school off by packing snow on his bedroom windows, placed a stink bomb in his front door. “I smelled the smoke, ran out the back door, and ran around my house,” said Crosby. “Billy was still on my doorstep and saw me coming. He started running through the trees and I started chasing after him. Within 40 yards I tackled him. He was scared to death. I pulled him up and said, ‘Hey, Billy, that was a neat trick,’ and we had a good laugh.”
The student community supported the superintendent as he supported them each day. One incident never to be forgotten came when Dr. Crosby, around age 42, broke both arms jumping a tennis net. He was attending a conference of superintendents in Delaware County, and when they weren’t in meetings, the superintendents would play tennis together. “I’ve always been very energetic,” said Dr. C. “I was a cheerleader in college; I did cartwheels and back handsprings. When playing tennis I was always jumping the net. Not sidestepping but hurdling.” While playing with fellow superintendents, Crosby decided he would hurdle the net coming back with the can of tennis balls. “I was jumping near the post,” he said. “Where the net is highest. My right tennis shoe cleared the tennis net, but my left shoe tipped the tape. I went sprawling over and landed on both arms.”
“I stayed at the conference for two days but when I got home, I drove myself to Paoli Hospital and came out with casts on both arms. I was so embarrassed I wouldn’t let anyone drive for me for the next six weeks, but I was never stopped by the police,” said Crosby. “The entire school district knew their superintendent had broken both of his arms jumping a tennis net.”
While in his casts, Crosby received many humorous cards and letters from teachers and students. Despite his injury, he continued business as normal — with a few added challenges. He once dropped the phone while on a call with Elyse Fiebert, head high school librarian, and couldn’t pick it up for a whole minute. When he explained what had happened, Elyse laughed and laughed, and then tried to apologize. At the LM Pep Rally, one of the football players wore fake casts on his arms to playfully mimic their superintendent.
Dr. Crosby often faced unexpected challenges head-on. One Saturday this included driving a school bus illegally when there was no one else to do it. For Yellow Day at Ithan Elementary, a fun field day for students, the high school band was scheduled to kick off the event with a parade down the long driveway. While mowing his lawn, Crosby got a frantic call from the band director, Jim Capolupo, saying the two buses hadn’t shown up to take the band students to Ithan. Crosby immediately called the transportation director, Jake McCarthy, with no answer. He then called the assistant, Julius Gray, who said there were no drivers to be found. “Julius!” Crosby said, “Meet me at the bus garage in 10 minutes.”
“It was a long bus and the cockpit looked like an airplane,” Crosby remembered. “And I told myself I’ve got to drive this bus.” When Crosby arrived at the high school, he opened the door to see a confused flute player named Dolores. “Dr. Crosby, is that you?” she exclaimed. “Yes, Dolores,” Crosby replied. She said, “I’m not getting on this bus,” and she didn’t. She turned and boarded Julius’s bus. “I drove the bus with my knees shaking and my arms quivering,” said Crosby. But despite his nervousness, Yellow Day was a great success including the parade, and he paid special attention to weekend bus schedules from then on.
Upon retiring from his superintendency, Dr. Crosby started a second career as the co-founder of the Uncommon Individual Foundation, a non-profit organization with the goal of bettering people’s lives through mentoring. He established the foundation with Richard Caruso, a parent with two young children at Ithan School when Crosby was serving as superintendent.
“Like most parents in Radnor, Mr. Caruso wanted the best for his kids and requested special favors,” said Crosby. “He was persistent but my answer was always no. At one point Caruso felt his boys were being picked up at a hazardous bus stop and he wanted them picked up at his cul-de-sac. A year later he wanted to add a teacher to Ithan’s third grade so the class size would shrink from 23 students to 17. After ten years of being a burr under my saddle, he asked, ‘Dr. Crosby, would you have lunch with me. I’ve got an idea.’”
Caruso explained how he had gotten a full scholarship to play football at Susquehanna University. “I’ve had four people in my life who if I hadn’t met them, I would have been a car mechanic after graduating from Atlantic City High School,” explained Caruso. “I’ll start you off with a million dollars, and I want you to do for others what these four men did for me.” When Dr. C asked, “Are you sure you want me to do this?” Caruso responded by saying, “You’ve always been kind to me, listened to me, and always respected me, so I want you to run this foundation.”
Thirty-five years later the Uncommon Individual Foundation is the only private, nonprofit foundation solely devoted to mentoring and has implemented many mentoring programs throughout the United States and in the UK, Sweden, South Africa, and South America.
After Richard Caruso was named the 2006 Entrepreneur of the Year of the United States of America, and the following year came in second as the Entrepreneur of the Year of the World, he began writing his memoir. But his mind began to fail him. He developed dementia and Dr. Crosby decided to write his book for him. “Sadly, Richard doesn’t know who I am now or know I’ve written his book,” said Dr. C. “But it’s a story that needed to be told to keep his legacy alive for his family and future generations. Everyone wants to read the book because it tells how mentoring happens in a person’s real life.”
Marlene and John Crosby signing 150 books at Integra LifeSciences, Princeton, NJ―Dec. 2019
The foundation’s headquarter is located at 80 West Lancaster Avenue between the BMW dealership and the Devon Horse Show. “I’ve been very fortunate to have this as my second career by doing things for others,” said Crosby.
After our zoom interview, Dr. C asked me to stop by his house to pick up a copy of his book, Built to Help Each Other: Mentoring in the Life of Richard Caruso: An Uncommon Man.
When I got home and opened the book, I found a personalized note on the title page in which he told me “to set your life’s goals skyward into the highest clouds,” and signed “In friendship, affection, and gratitude, John C. Crosby.”
As a message to high school students, Dr. Crosby says, “My Golden Rule is to soar with your strengths and manage your weaknesses. I am a very poor speller. I am 85 years old and I still can’t spell, but if you go to any of my letters and work at Radnor over those eleven and a half years, you will never find a misspelled word because I managed that weakness. Your best bet is to do those things in life you’re good at and enjoy, and learn to manage those things your job still requires you to do.”
Dr. C emphasized the importance that students find a mentor-teacher who will take a personal interest in them and help them identify their strengths, much like Tom Wilson found in Brian Morgan, his theater arts teacher.
“Being superintendent of schools is 90 percent hard work. You have to have fun with the other 10 percent, which is what I tried to do. And 100 percent of it was the most important job of my life: my time in Radnor, which I loved so much.”
Three years ago, at the district convocation, Dr. Crosby had cards made for every teacher with a beautiful saying for educators: “Only the brave teach, only the men and women whose integrity cannot be shaken, whose minds are enlightened enough to understand the high calling of a teacher and whose hearts are unshakably loyal to the young…it takes courage to be a teacher, and it takes unalterable love for the child.”
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About the Contributor
Ellie Davis, Editor-in-Chief
Ellie Davis, class of 2022, has been a Radnorite reporter since 2019. Her piece, The Disparity within Pennsylvania's Education System, tied for first...