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PD Profiles: Jeff Lucia By Matt Spence

Jeff Lucia has been a fixture in the Upper School math department and on the baseball coaching staff for thirty-six years. He is well-known for his ability to help his students understand complex mathematical concepts, his encyclopedic knowledge of baseball, his talent for being able to talk and sing backward, and his uncanny memory. So, he was an obvious choice for someone to talk to about his perspectives on his long career at Providence Day and on how the school has evolved during that time.

Lucia grew up in a small village of just one thousand people in Upstate New York, close to Watertown and Lake Ontario. It was a rural community, “So I grew up with the sights, sounds, and smells of farming” Lucia recalls. Both of his parents were teachers – his father taught music and his mother taught second grade – so the idea of becoming a teacher was something that was always in his mind. After high school, Lucia attended Niagara University and then went on to earn his Master of Arts in Teaching at the University of Chicago.

While he was at the University of Chicago, Lucia met a fellow student during the summer term who was a teacher at an independent school. Before meeting this person, he had never considered working at a private school and had assumed he would return to New York to teach in the public school system. Because the independent school hiring cycle typically started before the public schools, Lucia decided to apply for a position at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio. This is where he would start his career that would span more than four decades.

Jeff Lucia as a young math teacher at Western Reserve Academy in 1979. Photos are courtesy of Thomas M. Germain at Western Reserve Academy.

Lucia and his wife, Sally, chose to relocate to Charlotte because Ben Topham, who was the Upper School Director, sold them on the city. “He [Topham] made this place seem like it was going to be a wonderful opportunity and that Charlotte was going to be a wonderful opportunity because it was a city on the rise and growing in lots of ways. Truthfully, we’ve totally enjoyed our time in Charlotte.”

When Lucia started at PD, the school had just over seven hundred students, and the physical campus was made up of the Williams Building, Providence Hall, Overcash Hall, the Ridenhour Gymnasium, the Headmaster’s house, and the Original House. (The last two buildings mentioned have been removed.) All of the students ate lunch in what was called the Multi-purpose Room, and parent volunteers served the food.

These edited photos from Google Earth show how the school has changed from when Jeff Lucia first started teaching and coaching in 1985 . . .

. . . to today, thirty-six years later.

Lucia says that of the three largest independent schools, Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Latin, and Providence Day, PD was the smallest, had the lowest tuition, and was generally considered “kind of a blue-collar independent school.” According to Lucia, many of the families at PD were not part of what he called “the executive class” but wanted an independent education for their children. The parents were a constant presence on campus and “were intent on making this a good environment, so they were volunteering for everything.”

Jeff Lucia with Brian Cockerham in 1985.
“We were viewed, not in a negative way, . . . as kind of a blue-collar independent school. It was still a terrific environment – always characterized as family – and I don’t really think that’s changed.”

Lucia fondly remembers how the entire school would come out for the home football games, and the faculty had its own cheering section. The field had just gotten lights, so the school was able to host Friday night games for the first time. After the games, people would gather at someone’s house to socialize and watch the 11:00 news to see to see if PD had been featured in the broadcast. Lucia explains that this was a big deal because there was no social media that allowed people to watch games whenever they wanted to, and it was exciting to see the school receive attention from local news networks.

Jeff Lucia teaches John Webb in 1990.

When Lucia started in 1985, the math department had just six teachers for the Middle and Upper School (there are now sixteen), and they were also the ones who taught computer science. In his first year, he had to teach a seventh grade computer science class, which he says was very challenging for him because of the incredibly high energy level of his students. After one year, he happily returned to teaching only Upper School math classes.

Lucia was also the JV Baseball coach his first year; however, he wanted more of a challenge and was promoted to the varsity coaching staff after his first season. He recalls that the team was talented but failed to make the state playoffs, but the next year a new head coach came on board, Jim Cerbie. Lucia and Cerbie would coach that team to win the state championship in 1988, and they have been coaching together ever since. “I imagine that whenever he (Cerbie) decides to retire from that position, I’ll probably give it up, too. But as long as he’s doing it, I’ll do it, too.” Lucia said with a chuckle.

Jeff Lucia in class, circa 1988-1990

Coaching for such a long time is difficult for many people, and Lucia admits that there are times when it can seem like a grind, but he adds, “There’s an excitement every year, every single year, the newness of the season, the anticipation of what it’s going to be like, what kind of a team you’re going to have, what kind of your relationships you’re going to build with the kids – all these things are a part of it.” And this is one of the main reasons he has been coaching at PD for thirty-five years.

“I really don’t think I would have lasted this long if this wasn’t a great place to come to work – every day.”

When Lucia was asked to recall some especially poignant memories from his time at Providence Day, he first talked about watching Monique Regan (class of ‘89) perform at commencement. He had known that she was a gifted singer, but when she sang “One Moment In Time,” he felt “inspired beyond belief” by her mature talent. He also described the feeling of great pride that he and the rest of the school felt when Rupal Naik Romero, (class of ‘86) became the school’s first recipient of the Morehead-Cain Scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But the other vivid memory he shared was about the death of long-time teacher and coach Gil Murdock. “He lived an example of being good, being fair, being a mentor to kids, being a friend to kids, going out of his way to open doors for people . . . and when we lost him, I mean, it was one thing to think about him retiring and not coming to work every day, and then, three days later, he was gone completely, and that really shook me up.” Lucia talked about the powerful eulogy that the Rev. Matthew Heyd, class of ‘88 delivered at Murdock’s memorial service and how it was remarkable that one teacher, coach, and colleague could have such an impact on so many people.

When asked about how the school has changed since he first started in 1985, Lucia smiled and said that everything has changed. He talked about how the academic programs had developed across all disciplines, and he reiterated that the size of the campus and enrollment has grown dramatically. He talked about how impressive the new buildings are, and he said that they have provided teaching spaces that are full of light.

Lucia also said that teachers have far more access to technology and resources than they did in his early years. “In the past, we were stringing things together as much as possible with whatever resources we had.” Lucia credits this growth to the incredible vision that the founders and early school leaders had for the school. This helped subsequent administrations to be in the financial position to acquire land and construct buildings when there were opportunities to do so. Lucia also said subsequent administrations have put in place systems that have streamlined the day-to-day operations of the school and made fund-raising a much more efficient process.

When asked to envision the school when it turns seventy-five, Lucia said that he could imagine that Providence, Williams, and Overcash would eventually be replaced. He also wouldn’t be surprised if the school built a pool at some point in the future. However, he doesn’t think the school will be any bigger physically because it has essentially reached its geographical limits. He also doubts that there would be a satellite campus for one of the school divisions because that would disrupt the family atmosphere that is such an essential part of Providence Day.

Most of all, Jeff Lucia hopes that the family atmosphere that has been a part of the school since its beginning will continue. He is proud of the fact that many graduates have valued their own experiences so much that they sent their own children to Providence Day. He finds it remarkable that there is now a third-generation of PD students in Lower School (James and Natalie Freeman are the children of Beth Ann Freeman, class of '05 and grand-children of Donna Godwin, '83 and Buddy Jordan, '80). Lucia also loves the fact that he was able to send his own sons to Providence Day (David, class of ‘11, and Michael, class of ‘13), and that so many of his colleagues have done the same. Further, he enjoys working with his former students who have returned to teach and coach at PD, and that three of his former AP Calculus students, Stephanie Vanderford ‘95, Neely Gutierrez ‘92, and Courtney Inscoe ‘06, are now members of the math department with him.

Jeff Lucia enjoys talking about his former students and players, the growth of the school, and its family-like environment. However, it is important that Lucia understand that he has played a major role in all of that. A veteran teacher who has taught and coached hundreds of people, Jeff Lucia is one of the reasons that Providence Day is where it is and how it is today.

Here is what a few of Jeff Lucia's former students who are now his colleagues have to say about their memories of him and his affect on them.

From Steve Bondurant, class of 1998:

"As one of Coach Lucia's former players and now coaching alongside him, it's apparent from the beginning he has a brilliant analytical mind. He's an outstanding coach working with the outfielders but what's most impressive is his baseball IQ and his knowledge of baseball facts. I refer to him as the human Google machine because if you want to know the score of Game 7 in the 1962 World Series, just ask Coach Lucia. It's no wonder he's one of the best math teachers around, and I was lucky to be taught by him in the classroom and on the baseball field."

From Stephanie Eichenbrenner Vanderford, class of 1995:

"Mr. Lucia's AP Calculus class my senior year really challenged me, but he believed in me and cheered me on all year. He made difficult content fun, and my confidence grew through his encouragement."

From Neely Porter Gutierrez, class of 1992:

"Mr. Lucia was iconic when I was in high school. Every student had him for math at some point - either in AP Calc or Algebra III/Trig (in those days there were only two options). As brilliant as he is, he was always extremely patient with students across the board. I remember this patience often when I am helping a struggling student. He has a unique ability to take a complicated math problem and break it down so that everyone could understand it.

My favorite memories of him are returning papers (he would snap them out of his fingers send them flying across the room and somehow they would land on the correct desk) and when he would talk backwards in class. I also have fond memories of his AP help sessions. The entire class would gather with him at someone's home and work practice problems for the upcoming exam. Of course there was always food involved!"

From Courtney Inscoe, class of 2006:

"I learned so much from Mr. Lucia during the two years he was my math teacher in high school. When I had the chance to return to PD as a teacher, one of the biggest factors in my decision to come back was the opportunity to get to work with and continue to learn from my former teachers, including Jeff. Now, he has been my colleague much longer than he was my teacher, and it's still so special to me that I get to teach math alongside Jeff."

Jeff Lucia today, now in his thirty-sixth year at Providence Day.

The photos in this story are courtesy of Bobbie Hinson and the PDArchives.