Remembering Mr. Cavalier

By: Kolia O'Connor, Head of School

It is with great sadness and a profound sense of loss that we share with the community that James E. Cavalier, our revered founding Head of Senior School, passed on Tuesday, January 5, 2021, at age 93 due to complications from COVID-19.

A teacher, a leader, an extraordinary philanthropist (a word which finds its roots in the Greek for “lover of mankind”), “Mr. Cav” was an extraordinary human being, whose loss we all profoundly feel.

The inspirational founder of Sewickley Academy’s Senior School, Mr. Cav touched hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and parents who benefitted from the wisdom, leadership, and guidance he provided over the years.

At the time of his retirement from the Academy in 1992, Whitney Snyder ’79 wrote, “We can think of nary a soul who has anything but fond remembrances of Mr. Cavalier. Always quick to laugh and slow to scold, it would be difficult to find a man who exhibited more empathy for his students. He sought to understand the unique circumstances of each of us, and our travails stood little chance against Mr. Cav’s soothing tone and his un-patronizing wisdom. His informal manner always put us at ease and made him easy to approach … For many of us, he was the guiding light that reassuringly led us through the jungle of prospective schools … As much as we sought his advice as we faced our myriad challenges, we also sought his camaraderie in our triumphs. A handshake and a smile from Mr. Cav after telling him of a college acceptance or as we took in hand our high school diplomas served to validate those experiences, for we all realized that he, in some measure, helped pave the way for these successes.”

In 1963, Mr. Cav was hired by Headmaster Cliff Nichols to design and launch a Senior School at Sewickley Academy.  At the time, Mr. Cav taught Latin at Shady Side Academy.  He had worked for Cliff Nichols in the summer at Camp Robin Hood in Maine, a camp directed by Mr. Nichols for many years.  Mr. Cav had previously been introduced to the Sewickley community as an assistant at Mrs. Burgwin’s Dancing School (which later became the Barclay Classes) at the Edgeworth Club.

As Mr. Cav remembered clearly, many of his colleagues at Shady Side tried to dissuade him from taking on what at best was an uncertain venture.  Needless to say, we are fortunate that Mr. Cav saw the opportunity to build a Senior School from the ground up as an exciting personal and professional opportunity.  He began by visiting high schools around the country, choosing the best practices he could to achieve his vision of an inspiring learning environment that would set high standards, afford significant autonomy and responsibility to students, and reflect the best of what a premier college-prep program could be.

Mr. Cav helped with the design of the building, and he was fond of explaining that, because there was some uncertainty about how well a new Senior School might fare, the school-building started small.  Of course, within just a few years, additions needed to be built to accommodate the growing student population, and the result was ultimately a building with more eccentricity than logic, but housing a thriving community of teachers and learners.

Since the earliest days, Mr. Cav hired teachers who were masters of their subjects but who were also keenly interested in and committed to the lives of their students.  Always a scholar at heart, Mr. Cav continued to teach Latin, occasionally coached, and served as a college advisor.  In all that he did, he inspired the high standards that characterized the Senior School and prepared students for the challenges they would face in college.  

After stepping down as Head of Senior School in 1989, Mr. Cav became Assistant to the Headmaster and Director of Alumni Relations, serving the school with loyalty and devotion for three more years. After finally retiring from Sewickley Academy, he embarked on a second career working part-time in the Admissions Office at Carnegie Mellon University and continuing to serve as a mentor and wise sage for his former colleagues here at the Academy.  He was known to drop by campus to see how things were going, and he made himself an indispensable resource for every single one of his successors as Head of Senior School.  He was also extremely generous with the new Head of School in 2003, sharing the history of the school and his insights into the community. 

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the first graduating class in June 2016, Dr. John (”Jack”) Liggett, representing the Class of 1966, many of whom were in attendance, made Jim Cavalier an honorary member of the Class of 1966.  In 2017, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, the home that Mr. Cav, Patty, and their three daughters shared on campus was dedicated as the Cavalier House, now home to the Advancement Office, including Alumni Relations.  In this fitting tribute to Mr. Cav, alumni will always be able to return home to Sewickley Academy to the Cavalier House to reconnect with the school and one another.

Ultimately, Mr. Cav was a man who understood that the strength of a school and a community rests with the relationships that are formed and strengthened through daily interactions both large and small.  No detail of a student’s life was too minor for Mr. Cav’s attention, and no detail of a graduate’s life seemingly escaped his notice.  Mr. Cav possessed an uncanny ability to recall where an alumnus went to college, what their first job was, when they got married and had children, and where they were living now – all this years after graduation!  Graduation was not the end of the relationship, so Mr. Cav had former students, now friends, across the country.  One former student, whom Mr. Cav taught in Latin class at Shady Side Academy, remembers how Mr. Cav made a difference by advocating for him with his parents and notes that, to this day, Mr. Cav was one of the most important and influential people in his life.

Stories like this abound, and each of those who knew Mr. Cav understood that they were in the presence of a man whose generosity of spirit, whose kindness, and whose prolific memory for the details of their lives meant that they mattered, that he believed in them, and that his high expectations for them would be ones that would inspire them to become the best version of themselves.  

As Hamlet said about his father, we may also say about Mr. Cav: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”  His gifts have become our treasures, and we hold those close to remind us of him still.

Let us also keep in our thoughts Jim’s family: his devoted partner in life, Patty, and his daughters whom he adored, Teresa ’76, Elisa ’77, and Carolyn ’82.  The entire Sewickley Academy community extends our deepest condolences to the family at this sad and challenging time.

Correspondence may be sent to the Cavalier family at 201 Grant Street, Apt. 305, Sewickley, PA 15143.  For additional information and to read the family’s obituary, please visit the R.D. Copeland website.