This is a tribute piece dedicated to one of Pune’s best loved personalities – the generous, down-to-earth, witty and incredibly dynamic Frank Freese, who until this year served as Principal of Bishop’s, an institution with a long history. As our casual selfie (above) shows, Mr. Freese remains one of my favourite people to visit when I return to Pune. This time, upon hearing of his retirement as principal (something that I still find difficult to digest, since I love the idea of Mr. and Mrs. Freese remaining in Bishop’s forever), I was compelled to introduce my non-Punekar readers to this great man and dedicate a tribute piece to him on my website.
A Personal, Musical Connection.
I first met Mr. Frank Freese shortly after I finished my schooling in St. Helena’s High School and Junior College, the exact year he began his tenure at Bishop’s in 1999. As soon as I graduated from school, I was invited to accompany the Bishop’s choirs on the request of the then Choir Director Mrs Carol Jolly, also a primary school staff member. Mrs Jolly introduced me to Mr. Freese on my first day as Assistant Choir Director and Accompanist, and I even met his wife, Mrs Freese, who was headmistress of the junior school. The new principal and his wife immediately made a very positive impression on this young pianist. I was struck by their naturalness, their sweetness and their kind manners – they were both very polite, took an interest in musical matters, and asked me lots of questions. I could not believe this powerful couple – newest additions to the Bishop’s family that I knew since my childhood days – were so down-to-earth. “This can’t be the principal of Bishop’s” – I thought; “he’s just so relaxed, like he’s one of us!”
This down-to-earth quality combined with a strong business head and a powerful sense of understanding just what it is that makes the Bishop’s brand such a leader in education in the city is what I will treasure most as my memory of Mr. Freese. He may end up reading this, and I don’t want to embarrass him (or me!) by being too complimentary, but it is a fact that Mr. Freese has proved by the way he has led Bishop’s that it is possible to be in a position of power AND be a decent human being. He has proved that by being approachable instead of egoistical, and gracious instead of greedy, a school legacy like that of Bishop’s remains protected. Whether this pattern will continue after Freese’s departure remains to be seen, but his main parting wish is to ensure – and I quote him here – “that the Bishop’s flag remains flying high long after I’m gone”.
It is very difficult to write a tribute piece about someone you only knew for a short time after all, my tenure in Bishop’s only lasted two short years, during which time I did my best to put the school on the city’s musical map, with success. But I always stayed in touch with my ex-boss and I always kept up to date with the school’s gradual expansions and developments thanks to my colleagues and friends who are still teachers there. It is equally difficult to write about someone you respect deeply in a professional capacity without resorting to an excess of empty praise. But I would like to continue to reflect on just why Mr. Freese made such a profound and lasting impression on this young aspiring teacher back in 1999. I was offered the job of full-time Music Teacher shortly after meeting the Freeses and a meeting and interview with Mr. Freese when I was still very young (a recent graduate of Class 12!) was all it took to secure the job. Of course, I was very well known in Pune as a very good pianist and musician, and I had the Trinity College London qualifications achieved at a very young age to back up a good job interview with the boss man himself. I candidly asked Mr. Freese for advice about how to deal with the pressure of this new job in an all-boys school, given I was starting out in my first teaching position while still very young. Mr. Freese smiled kindly and said “dress and carry yourself professionally, and if you have any problems at all, just don’t hesitate to come to me directly”. I will never forget how happy and relieved I was at this firm but friendly and approachable gentleman – “no better man to lead generations of young men to carve out a place for themselves in society”, I thought. My other thoughts at the time which have remained unchanged over time were “such a quietly dignified presence”; “he may be principal but he has a great way with people”; “Bishop’s is very lucky to have this individual as its team leader and CEO”.
Bishop’s Then and Now: From One Campus to Three.
At this point, I must pause this admittedly personal and subjective tribute to reflect on the wider implications of Freese’s retirement for Bishop’s as a whole, bearing in mind that the school is not what I remember it to be. I’m referring of course, to the fact that what I knew to be “The Bishop’s School” is today actually “Bishop’s SchoolS – plural, with two additional branches at Kalyaninagar and Undri; moreover the historical boys-only LKG – Class X camp branch has expanded to the other campuses to incorporate a co-educational admission system and Classes XI and XII. All these extraordinary developments took place in Mr. Freese’s time, under his leadership, on his watch. It is easy to dismiss these achievements with the comment “but he’s just doing his job; the previous principal also developed the school’s St. Margaret’s facility”, but the reality is that conceiving of two whole schools from scratch is a stunning and remarkable achievement that could only have taken place under the guidance of this modest, unassuming man. It can’t have been easy – Mr. Freese confesses his personal involvement and almost obsessive attachment to these developments and projects when he admits that ” I used to wake up at 3 a.m. and drive across to Kalyaninagar to check on the night shift workers and I really worked hard to meet deadlines…”. We all only know of the glossy finished product – the thousands of children (including those lucky girls who get to wear the famous maroon blazers) who sing the school song and represent the school in sporting activities across the country. We do not know the bureaucracy, the financial and time constraints, the logistical nightmares and management issues that are involved in turning a blank canvas into a bustling educational institute, brimming with life and energy. I was going to request some statistics – facts and figures – from the school’s current management, but in the end I decided to keep this piece personal and readable for the non-specialist reader who just wants to get a flavour of what it is that makes Bishop’s so special to me, and who equally enjoys reading about the man who transformed this school from one much loved city landmark and educational treasure trove, into a group of schools that collectively represent a level of excellence that could easily rival Eton and Harrow, two of the world’s most well known private schools, if Bishop’s were operating in the UK for an elite student population only. Thankfully, the Bishop’s brand is synonymous with non-discrimination, affordability and inclusiveness, but the feel of the school is that of Britain’s best and most exclusive secondary school establishments. To be sure there are many such private schools (or public schools as they are known abroad) worldwide; by mentioning Eton and Harrow by name, I’m also referring to their reputations as famous schools that have a classic historical presence – much like our very own Bishop’s. Mr. Freese did everything in his power to push this kind of branding even further without alienating the people who form the lifeblood of his organisations – the children, teenagers, parents and teachers. But it is undeniable that Bishop’s is emulating a very Western prototype – there are sports facilities that were not seen during my time, and the infrastructure is a cut above the rival schools, because Freese has ticked so many boxes during his 18-year reign as principal.
Capitalism meets Indian Values.
Next, I want to reflect on the combination of a sharp capitalist/business streak combined with a compassionate and humane side to this school principal. It is a winning combination – too much charity and compassion, and the school risks losing its place as one of the best in the country, certainly comparable to its Western counterparts from an academic vantage point. Too much empty capitalism and the school’s brand becomes synonymous with money making and commercialism. But when combined, as in the case of Mr. Freese, the result is a growth and ultimate legacy that cannot be rivaled by any other school principal thus far. There are plenty of areas waiting to be developed on the level of the West (music and the performing arts, for example) but what Frank Freese has done is lay the groundwork and provide us with the finished goods – how his legacy is used and further expanded upon remains a job for his successors.
Another reason why I want to introduce Mr. Freese to my Western readers, is because I want to reflect on what it means to be principal – to lead teachers and students in an institute of learning, in a way that has the potential to change and impact the fabric of our very society. After all, schools are places where lives are made, where dreams are conceived, where destinies are set into motion. Here is a man who may not be world famous in his lifetime, but him and his wife have proved that to make a difference to society and the world, you have to lead by being good and cut-throat; by being smart and sensitive; by being noble and humorous in the fact of problems, challenges and difficulties. If a principal embodies these qualities and values, then he has the potential to change not only the lives of the children that walk through the gates of his school day in and day out for some eighteen years, but also the life of one young teacher, who can never forget her first and favourite job.
Mr. Freese changed my life – he gave me the opportunity to find my vocation. I went on to do great things after Bishop’s – present on BBC Radio 3, perform concerts and teach music at university level. But working under him and his wife at Bishop’s, and knowing the great things Mr. Freese has accomplished and achieved for the school and its rich legacy remains the highlight of my life so far.
You will be missed, Frank. May God be with you both, now and always.
With fondest regards and best wishes,
Karishmeh aka Miss K.Felfeli (ex-music teacher, Felfeli ma’am!).