Happy Birthday David

Updated 7/25/17

I’ve used this post before, starting from your younger years. For THIS update, I’ll start with the latest and then go back to early.


Some graduations


Commencement HNHS and Duke copy.png
Commencement address at Huntington North High School (2001) and Duke University (2005).


David Penn Graduation copy.jpg
PhD Graduation at Ivy League University of Pennsylvania



You were Valedictorian in high school with a perfect grade point average. Shortly after that, the school went to weighted grades. You were one o five hundred valedictorians in your freshman class at Duke University with an SAT score slightly above their average, and yet you were in the top 1% when you graduated.

You were accepted into several universities for grad school, including Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Berkley and almost a dozen others — and you selected Ivy League Penn. You went directly from undergrad into a PhD program. Do you even have a Masters Degree?

Philips Academy, Andover

Philips Academy, one of the top ranked boarding schools in the country (alumni include two Presidents Bush & Jeb)…yeah, that kinda school.

Philips Academy Central Campus

Your first two years, you were the “dorm dad” for seven freshman boys in this building (left). The ground floor was your apartment and they had the upper two floors. You teach upper level English in a really cool, old building (right).

In your third year, you were promoted to “Cluster Dean”, responsible for several dorms in a “cluster”. You oversee both students and the dorm staff. With your promotion, you got your own house, donated to the school by the Class of 1929. When we visited you, we stayed in the servant’s quarters, complete with our own stairway down to the kitchen.

Donated to the school by the Class of 1929. Added on are facilities used for cluster group activities.


Andover Campus Map
Campus map. Larger yellow circle shows David’s Cluster Dean area of responsibility. The smaller circle is the English Building.

Uncle David

Your nieces and nephew adore you, just so you know.


Now back to the original post, written mostly chronologically.

You thrived in Pre-School settings and in baseball (starting with T-ball) and swimming. Eventually you would opt for the swimming focus. You were good at it and liked it because even though it was a team sport, most of the emphasis was on improving personal scores and you have always been about self-improvement. The only challenge to swimming was your asthma. Your mother and I enjoyed those often hot mid-day t-ball games and then the usually warm and steamy swim meets.

You have always been an achiever. Did you ever get a grade lower than an A in any academic class through high school? You and brother John both thrived in the Project Challenge program. Too bad it no longer exists.

You received several “Math Counts” trophies for competitions during your middle school years.

You and Casey aced the 8th grade Algebra course as 7th graders and after that fist banging encounter with your principal, the school made arrangements for you to come to the high school during 8th grade year to take two math classes.  Sophomore year, you and Casey received the highest AP Calculus scores (5) in your class and received math awards on Senior Recognition Night.

Junior year, the high school released you to take a junior level math class at Huntington College.  The HC professor called the high school to ask why they were sending a high school junior to his class and was told to “just let him take the class”. When the other students in the college class asked if you were a junior, you honestly answered yes and let them assume you were a college rather than high school junior.

Remember the problem when the professor questioned whether you were doing your own work when you were turning in problems solved in a portion of a page that were supposed to take multiple pages to solve? You stayed after class one day to work problems in the prof’s presence. As I recall your description, the discussion with the prof went something like this:

“You’re not doing the proper calculations to solve the problem.”

“Did I solve the problem?”

“Yes, but you didn’t do all the steps.”

“Did I get the correct answer?”

“Yes, but you can’t do it in too few steps.”

“But I did get it, right?”

“Yes, you’re right. But you’re not doing the steps.”

“Is the purpose to do steps or to solve the problem?”

As happens in most of your arguments, the professor relented and eventually invited you to take an advanced statistics class. You got a 4.0 in that class as well.

You had an amazing run in the Varsity Singers all four years. I was almost saddened that I was asked to do the backup band that year because it meant I couldn’t see your live performances up front and center your final year. One of the most inspiring and moving things you did was to sing that solo, “Tell My Father”. I remember the first time you were going to sing it in competition and you dressed up in that authentic Civil War uniform and went walking through the halls of that school…..and onto the stage with such amazing confidence. It was after that performance that I heard a couple students from another school in a hallway talking and a girl was saying,


“…and there was this guy in a Civil War uniform singing about his father
and it made me cry.”

I enjoyed your evaluations when you shared “notes” during some of those rehearsals. Did I ever tell you about Adrian B. (one of the singer/dancers) coming up to me during a break and saying,

“You know, he had us almost rolling on the floor laughing as he was going through those notes. We really enjoyed that. But if you really listen to what he said, he cut us to shreds and we loved every minute of it. How does he do that?”

I was always impressed with how you pushed the character of the dancing performer. It never mattered when someone snapped a picture, you were always “on”.

13718604_10157215386635352_5319343523775606844_n.jpgYou were also involved in school musicals. The part everyone remembers was “Tin Man”. your solo always got a rousing applause.

Your High School Achievement Day was amazing. I can’t even remember how many times you were called to walk across the platform to be recognized or awarded. I remember recognitions for….

* the English Department
* the Math Department
* the Science Department
* the Vocal Music Department (National Choir Award)
* the Instrumental Music Department (Sousa Award)

…and for participation/recognition in
* the National Honor Society
* the Journalism Department

At the conclusion of that evening, your choir director said to me, “You’ve got to be a proud father.”

I was so proud of your achievement of Valedictorian of your class of 469. Prior to the current system of weighted grades, your perfect grade point average was, well, perfect. I wish I still had the list of your “Top 10 Things I Learned in High School” that you delivered in your commencement address. I don’t know of any other commencement address that had the students and audience laughing as yours did.

Do you remember when you told me you were going to be the Valedictorian? I do. It was after the conclusion of first semester of your Freshman year, when they had published the Top 25 students list and you were on the list. You clearly stated to me that you would be #1 in your class by the time you graduated. You have always been good at setting a high goal and then meticulously achieving it.

It was as we were preparing for your Graduation Open House that I realized just how successful you had been in Solo & Ensemble Festivals. I thought I had a good run with 15 “Gold” medals during my high school career. You had 43 of those medals just stuffed in a box. Forty three Gold Medals has to be a school record. They came from a combination of district and state participation in both instrumental and vocal solos and ensembles.

David ISSMA medals1 copy.jpg
40+ medals from high school solo and ensemble participation. Blue are Gold at District. Red/White/Blue are Gold at State. This has to be a school record.

Duke University

The only college you applied to was Duke University, one of the most difficult to get in and one of the most expensive in the country. When I asked “Why Duke?”, your answer was. “Dad, I’m tired of being the geek. I’m tired of ruining the curve. I’m tired of people getting mad at me when I do the extra credit work anyway…. I want to go somewhere where I can be normal; where it is okay to be an achiever.”

I really didn’t know the entire Duke setup until we went for a “visit”. After the tour, we sat in the admissions office with an admissions counselor showing us the “package” they wanted to offer. Do you recall how I struggled with the concept of the “Early Decision” contract they wanted you to sign in September of your high school senior year? That binding contract stipulated that if accepted, you would immediately withdraw your name from consideration at any other school — and attend Duke. But September was before any announcement or awarding of scholarships. As I considered walking away from the process, the counselor said, “I’ll make you two promises. The first promise is that if we want him, we will get him here.”  I asked for clarification on what that meant, in terms of addressing the total package amount. She would not answer me. So I asked for the second promise, “He will not graduate and look for a job”. At the time, I found that arrogant, but it turned out to be true. The main reason for an early decision was that it increased your chances of being accepted, as they take only 10% of students who apply, but 50% of those who apply ‘early decision’, and they claim to select from the top 1% in the nation. You wanted to take the deal.

The admissions process was intense. Not only did you have to take the SAT, but also TWO SAT-II’s (subject tests). In addition to filling out the FAFSA (Federal Application For Student Aid) we ALSO had to fill out the Profile from the College Board. The counselor at Huntington North said the university called her four times to check on specific aspects of your high school record. She was nervous because she didn’t want to cost you admission.

When I was questioning part of the financial package the school had put together for you, the admissions counselor said,

“Mr. Gardner, if you don’t like the package we’ve put together for your son, just say so.”


“We have 15,000 applications and 1,500 spots. If you don’t like the package we have for you, just say so.”


Duke’s price tag for the 2001/02 year was about $48,000 and went up about $1000 per year during your four years there. What was really depressing about the price and the financial stuff was a headline in a Duke publication that bragged that “approximately 40% of their students receive financial aid.” That means the other 60% of parents just whip out a checkbook! Sorry we couldn’t do that for you.

On the day you arrived on campus, all the parents were taken to an auditorium and one of the university brass shared something that hit me like a hammer,

“Parents, you have raised the brightest students in your school, but you have to realize that half of them will be ‘average’ here.”

9/11 happened during your first semester and knowing Duke to have a diverse,  international student population, I called to reassure myself that all was well there. The conversation went something like this,

“We’re very safe in my dorm, Dad.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, do you know who the King of Jordan is?”

“King Abdullah, right?”

“His son is in my dorm.”

You really became a world traveller during your Duke years. I can’t imagine living what you described during your six weeks studying in Ghana, Africa. I still have your emails from those Internet cafes. Then there were the five weeks in San Jose, Costa Rica living with the family that spoke zero English, and the Fall Semester at New York University in Manhattan. Then you were approved for that summer of 2004 Duke-funded research project in Chile. You deserved to be Duke’s sole nominee for that $32,000 graduate school scholarship. And we loved your commencement address at the English Department graduation ceremony.

In 2005, you graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with a 3.9 GPA and in the top 1% of your class. When you consider that 500 of the 1500 in your class were high school valedictorians, that’s a pretty amazing achievement.

With your GRE scores for grad school at 780/800 in English and 800/800 in math, you reinforce my often used statement that “good grades do pay”. Was it 13 grad schools that accepted you, including Yale, Cornell,  Princeton, Columbia, UC Berkeley, Stanford and more? You accepted a full fellowship from Penn.

With all your work as a GA in your dorm and as coordinator for the Arts House, you still have time to participate in a dance group and swim club. Wow.


The rest of this post is now at the top (newer stuff).

Love and admiration,
mom & dad


2 thoughts on “Happy Birthday David

  1. Happy Birthday. I always knew you were a special boy(now a man) but I had no idea you were all that. Im even proud of all you have accomplished in 25 short years and consider you amazing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s