From opening the doors to navigating a global pandemic, Prairie has long benefitted from great leadership.

By Brendan O'Brien | 12 Days of Giving, all school

At 3:00PM on September 12th, 1965, Prairie had nowhere for students to sit.

This was no good because kids were coming in the morning. September 13th was to be the first day in school history and with no other choice, Jack Mitchell began calling local Unified schools to borrow desks. A short time later, however, his phone rang: it was the trucking company calling to tell Prairie’s first Head of School the driver was running late and would be in Wind Point around 7:00PM.

What followed, as described in the book “Prairie School At 25″, would prove to be a nice microcosm of the kind of community Prairie would become.

“Who was there to receive the delivery? You guessed it: 13 faculty members, several members of the Board of Directors, one Headmaster, one Headmaster’s wife and two dozen children. Believe it or not, the desks and chairs came knocked down! The message was clear, so McDonald’s received the largest order of the evening and the crew set to the task of assembling, cleaning and placing the newly arrived rose, taupe and chromium desks and chairs in the Lower School. It was 1:00AM before the Headmaster issued his first Prairie command – “Go home and go to bed…we have a big day tomorrow.”

Whether it was Jack Mitchell literally helping to build the school in 1965, or Dr. Coffman leading us through a global pandemic in 2020, Prairie has been fortunate to have a history of Heads who have stopped at nothing to further the dream of Mrs. Johnson.

Jack Mitchell often told another story about a phone call he once got from a gentleman named Wilson Parkhill, a retired headmaster who had become a headhunter. Parkhill’s job was finding the most qualified individuals to lead independent schools all across the country.

“The call came from Wilson from the airport in Portland,” remembers Mitchell. “He was on his way home from a trip to Racine. He extolled the virtues of the countryside in the Racine area, the lake, the Waxworks, but he particularly underscored the “stubborn drive of those two ladies” who were going to see an independent school built “come hell or high water.”

Built and built again following the Prairie fire in 1975. That kind of drive has continued through the decades and it continues to propel Prairie forward to this day.

Below, we look back at Prairie’s five Heads of Schools in their own words.

Jack Mitchell (1965 – 1978)

“Look at yourself. You have stretched – and we have encouraged it. We have provided new experiences if you have wanted them. We have encouraged self-reliance and your exploration of new fields of study and we have watched you become exhilarated by learning – at times frustrated and exhausted by it. We were the cause, the credit, and the blame, and you told us so. You have confronted yourself and the environment through the media of academics, sports, work, and the life of the community. Try to continue these confrontations wherever your are, for through them, and the encounters arising from them, education will happen. Bless you!”

Letter to the Class of 1973

Tony Fruhauf (1978 – 1984)

“A recent poll of college freshmen has indicated that nearly 70% of them regard formal education as a pathway to material and worldly success. Whether you feel that way or not, there is another, more significant aim which I would like to suggest for all of us. It is that we always try to practice and progress in the art of giving. Too often we spend our early adult years being as busy and successful as opportunity allows, only to find that the ability to see others’ needs and meet them remains underdeveloped. Perhaps, as time progresses for us, we all will be able to define success more in terms of satisfying and enriching other people’s lives as we move through our own.” Letter to the Class of 1983

Jim Van Hoven (1984 – 1993) 

“I think Prairie’s future will be both the same and different, in the way Prairie, under my leadership, has changed while continuing both Jack Mitchell’s and Tony Fruhauf’s work. The bedrock upon which the school was founded, for example, must continue. I’m referring to that special ethos that is hard to explain but which pervades the Prairie experience. It’s about people and how they are treated.”  Letter in the book “The Prairie School at 25”

Mark Murphy (1993 – 2014)

“To have the opportunity to work so closely with Gene, propelling her vision of “a child-centered college preparatory day school positioned to serve a wide range of Southeastern Wisconsin’s college-bound children both well and successfully,” has been a gift and a blessing. Just think of all the successes our students and their teachers have achieved in their studies, the arts, in service to the community and on our playing fields.” Retirement Announcement to Prairie Community, 2014

Nat Coffman (2014 – Present)

“I want to thank all of you for your support, patience, and commitment to our school community. We are truly tied to each other (especially in the pandemic) and we are at our best when working together to help our children grow. At Prairie, we have long believed strongly in both the individual and a duty to the greater good. Our mission emphasizes both collaboration and exploration with an eye toward the future. Our children’s success depends on all of us contributing to ensure that their teachers and classmates are healthy enough to continue learning and thriving.”

Back to School Message, Summer 2020