A crucifix. The American flag. A framed picture of the Holy Father. One expects to find all these in the principal’s office at a Catholic school. But in the headmaster’s office at St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, Calif., hanging just behind the desk, there is something more: a stunning reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son.
The office belongs to Michael Van Hecke, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College Class of 1986 and headmaster at this 4th through 12th grade private school. Students who have had occasion to “be sent to the principal’s office” can testify to the fittingness of this image of the prodigal asking for forgiveness — and generously receiving it. For, there is a fatherly quality about Mr. Van Hecke that is remarkable. To be sure, he can be strict, and he can dole out punishments when necessary; but he retains an underlying respect for and confidence in the young people in his charge. And his students know it.
Shaping Things Up
Mr. Van Hecke has devoted his career to teaching in and administering Catholic middle and high schools in New Hampshire, Virginia, Texas, Arizona, and California. During that time, he has developed a reputation for “shaping things up” wherever he goes.
“While it’s true that I’m in a position to say ‘it has to be this way,’ when I come into a new school, I make very few changes the first year. Instead, I observe; I try to see what marks the community, what is unique about it. Then I evaluate: What do we need to start changing? What do we need to add to enhance the taste? What impurities are bubbling to the top that we need to scoop off?”
After graduating from the College, Mr. Van Hecke attended the Notre Dame Pontifical Catholic Institute, where he received a master’s in catechetical theology. In 1987, he married Jessie Ellis, a classmate and fellow graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, who had just completed her training for Montessori certification. Mike says of his wife that she was a prime force behind his decision to go into education. “Not only did Jessie inspire me to embrace the career, she lifted me through the difficult moments and, most importantly, still today guides me to be ever better at my job by sharing her wisdom and encouragement.” While administrating at the Highlands school in Irving, Tex., he enrolled at the University of North Texas and earned a master’s degree in education two years later.
A Hands-on Headmaster
Though as headmaster of St. Augustine Academy Mr. Van Hecke has substantial administrative responsibilities, and fund-raising and public relations to tend to as well, he nevertheless teaches one class of Latin and another of Mathematics. “Just as we teachers try to be models for our students,” he explains, “so, too, I am supposed to be a model for my teachers. That is one reason why I have always stayed in the classroom.”
It also keeps him close to the students. They remind him of his own days as a school-boy — the basis for his sympathy with those who are less than model students.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Mr. Van Hecke attended Catholic and public schools. When asked to describe his early years, he responds, “Well, I was a good-natured student, who did very scant homework, and I did no more than I needed to do to get by. I had no personal drive to learn.” One couldn’t be faulted for thinking there was little to foretell a teaching career.
But things began to change when during his high school years, Mr. Van Hecke’s parents sent him to a two-week Bible camp in Colorado. There, he encountered an otherwise typical group of high school students who, he recalls, “were nevertheless living a Christian life.” Mr. Van Hecke returned home renewed and on fire, having had his Faith — for the first time — shored up by like-minded friends.
Keeping Eyes and Heart on Christ
Two years later, when he came to Thomas Aquinas College, Mr. Van Hecke recalls, “I fell in love with learning. I realized it could be interesting, it could be exciting, it could be desirable.” That is when he first started thinking about a career as an educator.
Beyond the love of learning he acquired at the College, Mr. Van Hecke says, “I was also formed intellectually, spiritually, and maybe most importantly for me, culturally. What I mean by ‘culturally’” he continues, “is that what I had glimpsed at my two-week Bible camp, I found in full bloom at Thomas Aquinas College: I saw that Christendom was possible and that one could indeed live a Christian life in this world. The world might be tempting us, screaming for us, howling for us, trying to grab us, but my experience at the College convinced me that it is possible to walk through that world and still keep eyes and heart solely on Christ.”
This is why he now counsels high school parents to send their children — for at least two years — to a genuinely Catholic college. “These young people must transition out of their homes and the schools that have given them their Catholic formation, that have strengthened them in their roles as citizens of the City of God and the City of Man. I tell parents, ‘Have them step out into something that’s not so foreign, not so contrary to what they’ve known growing up.’” Mr. Van Hecke is convinced that young adults will then be able to stand firm when the world tests them.
Molding, forming, strengthening — this is the work Mr. Van Hecke believes is essential if parents and teachers are going to succeed in their God-given task of raising and educating children. On his desk there is a small placard given to him during his first year of teaching by a dear friend, a holy priest in Virginia, who became his mentor. Mr. Van Hecke has made it his personal motto: “It is better to build children than to repair men.”
An Apostolate for all Catholic Schools
In the course of his teaching career, Mr. Van Hecke became acutely aware of the dearth of good textbooks in Catholic schools. “Though most people may not realize it,” he says, “for all major subjects, nearly every Catholic school in the country uses only secular textbooks in its curriculum.”
Finding these sadly lacking both in content and presentation, in 1996 Mr. Van Hecke launched the Catholic Schools Textbook Project, an independent non-profit educational apostolate serving Catholic school children in America by producing the first new Catholic textbooks in 40 years. “Instead of boring textbooks that distort or ignore the Church’s contribution to human history,” Mr. Van Hecke says, the Catholic Schools Textbook Project produces books in which “the facts of Christian history are accurately, beautifully, and engagingly portrayed.”
The textbooks feature four-color pictures, maps and graphics. They are full of stories that capture the imaginations of students. Says Mr. Van Hecke, “You want to give kids stories because one of those stories is going to catch their hearts, inspire them, and show them the Church is real and not something you do just on Sunday. They will see that it’s a way of life, and it has been a way of life for great men and women throughout history.”
“In our classroom discussions, we are not only given free rein to speak, but free rein to think. No question is off the table. Anything that can bring a more full understanding of the truth is welcomed and encouraged.”
– Christopher Sebastian (’13)
“I am full of admiration for what the College, its founders, its leadership, its faculty and staff, and its students and alumni have achieved.”
– George Cardinal Pell
Archbishop of Sydney