From a young age, Ben Dougherty knew he wanted to be a doctor, maybe one who specialized in sports medicine. Growing up on the North side of Portland, Maine, he played baseball throughout his adolescence and high school years. Unfortunately though, a bad shoulder injury ended his prospects during his senior year. He decided to spend a year backpacking in the Colorado Rockies before college, eventually moving to Oregon to further his love for nature and wildlife. Eventually, he went on to the University of Montana, where he received a degree in Forestry and Wildlife — no surprise there. After college, Mr. Dougherty worked for Outward Bound, leading backpacking and canoe trips for students. That began a lifelong fascination with the wonders of the world and incorporating it into methods of curriculum and pedagogy, leading to a three year stint at the Island School on the southwestern part of the island of Eleuthera, whose 110 miles boasts a wide expanse of beautiful beaches and a rich marine coastal life. It was there that he married his wife, and it is there he will return after the end of this school year.
The school itself is a marvel: pre-kindergarten through post-grad, with a high school 100-day-semester opportunity for students from around the world to engage in a hands-on investigative research experience. The campus utilizes an eco-conscious platform for their infrastructure, housing a biodiesel production plant to run all their vehicles, a wind turbine, solar panels, cisterns for rainwater collection, and my personal favorite, the poo-poo garden, which breaks down and recycles human excrement for the fertilization of other plants. Any ideas, Derryfield? The island itself is pretty remote, and there isn’t a lot of industry outside of the school and a cluster of resorts. In total, it has a reported 11,165 residents. For Mr. Dougherty and his family, this will be a pretty big change. His kids will go to a one-room schoolhouse, and his wife will take over communications at the Island School. The nearest grocery store will be a 45-minute drive away. When I asked him what the biggest challenge he thought his kids would face, the answer was simple: isolation. He worried about them having a small friend group and growing up with that feeling of being separate from the rest of the world. But he and his wife have always wanted their kids to live internationally, and so they will accept the challenge. When I asked Mr. Dougherty what he personally felt the most scared about, he spoke of the variety of people he will end up working with, as the CEO and Head of School. What overpowers that doubt, however, is his excitement for the breadth of opportunity to do meaningful, positive work for the students, the island, and our environment.
In his six years at Derryfield, Mr. Dougherty has “grown up as an administrator” here, surrounded by what he deemed to be “incredible colleagues… a whole team that has helped me learn through experience,” with every day being a new adventure. “We do complex work raising human beings,” he told me when I interviewed him this past week. And there were plenty of hard moments along the way. Junior Paige Davis attests to Mr. Dougherty’s unwavering spirit, even amongst complaints, and told me, “He really is super passionate about his students and his work, and always searches for a solution that will benefit everyone.” And for someone who has always loved working with people, going home every day feeling tired is simply a part of his mission. When I asked his advisee Charlotte Rohlfs what it’s been like having him in her corner she said, “Mr. Dougherty always has a warm, welcoming office where we talk through important things and play fun games in advisory.” And maybe that’s what says it best: that mixture of energy and intention, working hard and seeking joy. After twenty years in education, Mr. Dougherty still feels like he is learning, and that hopefully the work of an independent school like ours or the Island School will have a ripple effect on our society.
In terms of who positively impacted Mr. Dougherty, it all started with a sailboat in the Bahamas, and its married owners, Tom and Ione, who at 70 were still living on it when they met Mr. Dougherty and employed him. They were “the most inspiring people I had ever met...” he told me, smiling at the thought of them, “They took full advantage of their lives.” And perhaps now, as we bid Mr. Dougherty farewell, this is precisely what he is about to do.
by Ruthie Zolla for Lamplighter