By Amy Wenk
amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

For five decades, Pace Academy has prospered on West Paces Ferry Road.

The Buckhead school started in September 1958 after its founders acquired the estate of Atlanta banker John Ogden. The 20-acre site had stood vacant since his death in 1948, held in trust by the Citizens and Southern National Bank. The president of the bank, Mills Bee Lane, was integral in Pace’s establishment.

The initial 178 students attended class in Ogden’s mansion, modeled after the European castles Ogden admired from his travels.

That location would influence the character of the independent school for years to come, said 1978 graduate Betsy Brady Orr. Inspired by the castle and notions of chivalry, Pace’s first headmaster, Frank Kaley, developed courage and knighthood as two defining characteristics of the school.

“Values such as generosity, courage, care for the needy, adherence to truth, and love of one’s place or community were those values that Kaley wished to inspire in Pace students,” she said.

Early memories

Martha Pafford Schindhelm can recall the early days at Pace Academy, where she came as a ninth-grader in 1960 when Kaley hired her mother to teach second grade.

“The castle alone … was enough to take your breath away,” said Schindhelm, one of 12 students in Pace’s first graduating class in 1964. “The gardens stretched far back from the rear of the castle. May Day was held here when the azaleas were in full bloom.”

Every room in the castle was used for education, she said. The library served as the study hall and the lunchroom, where the cook, Doris, and her crew served meals prepared in the kitchen, which retained the home’s original green-and-black tiles.

“We learned how to type in the attic,” Schindhelm said. “Music class was held in one of the lower-level rooms, and the basement was used for art and other activities.”

She said Kaley was the school’s guiding force in those formative years, permanently shaping the Pace culture. He is credited with the school crest, motto and mascot.

“I’ve always felt so strongly about the Pace Academy motto, and that is ‘to have the courage to strive for excellence,’ ” said Robert Chambers, who worked at Pace from 1963 to 1983, first as a teacher, then head of the Upper School and ultimately assistant headmaster. “We were building a culture that was driven by that motto. It became the mission really of the school to aid children in developing that attitude and that approach. Personal best was the focus.”

From all accounts, Kaley was dedicated to Pace’s success, as was his wife, Helen.

“I think exceptional is really the word for him,” Schindhelm said.

Kaley also had a homeroom class and taught biology. He even helped lay the brick for the first addition to the school in 1961. That building added classrooms, a cafeteria and a library. Athletic fields also were established during that period.

“We were all in the same boat back in those days,” said George Kirkpatrick, the school’s second headmaster, who succeeded Kaley in 1972. “There was always one more job to do, and you always did it.”

Growth at Pace

Kirkpatrick led the school for the next 22 years with the support of his wife, Belle.

He instituted the dress and honor codes, then took the academy through its greatest period of growth, increasing enrollment from 375 to 830.

“We always remained small enough because it was important that the staff and I knew all the kids,” Kirkpatrick said. “And we did. You knew them and … could inquire about their activities or complement them on something they did.”

Chambers said the rapid growth in the 1970s brought great challenges “to hold ourselves together and maintain a focus that everyone could concentrate on.”

Kirkpatrick’s “dedication to that effort was very inspiring to me,” he said. “He would work as hard as anyone I have ever worked with or for.”

In 1976, Kirkpatrick coordinated the school’s move to acquire the adjacent Randall property. He developed a three-phase campaign for facility upgrades, including the completion of a separate Lower School in 1983.

Before the addition opened, Kirkpatrick said, there was panic about whether everything would be ready for the start of school. The contractors were finishing construction, but the furnishings still had to be moved in.

“For three Saturdays in a row in November, Pace parents, teachers, kids and administrators all came together and worked at the school,” Kirkpatrick said.

He said the community worked 2,080 hours those three weekends. “The last thing that we had to do was move the library. We got a daisy chain starting in the Lower School over 200 or 300 yards of people every five feet, handing desks or handing books. We had enough people to get them all the way up to the library, and then somebody was putting [the books] on the shelves. That was a lot of fun.”

The completion of the Fine Arts Center in 1990 was a key moment in Pace’s history. For years, the school excelled in drama but had to travel across town to perform.

The center served as the long-awaited home of the visual and performing arts programs and included a 600-seat theater. Robert Shaw, then the director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, gave the opening address.

“It was a big deal when that building opened,” said Pace’s director of stewardship, Jane Barrett, who attended the school from 1982 until she graduated in 1995. “I feel like it really … brought a lot of citywide attention to Pace because it was such a fine facility.”

Peter Cobb was named headmaster in 1994, the year the castle was named Kirkpatrick Hall. That fall, Pace Academy welcomed four former U.S. secretaries of state for a roundtable discussion at the Fine Arts Center. The Southern Center of International Studies sponsored the conference, which aired on PBS.

Michael Murphy, the head of the Lower School from 1989 to 1996, was named headmaster in 1997. During his tenure, Pace added the Inman Student Activities Center in 2000, which includes a gymnasium, wrestling room, dining hall and bookstore.

Murphy also led the charge for the $16 million Middle School building, raising the money in 16 months. Completed in 2004, the 57,000-square-foot structure includes 25 classrooms and a 200-seat natatorium.

Pace today

In the fall of 2005, Pace welcomed its fifth and current headmaster, Fred Assaf.

Pace embarked on a $32 million campaign in 2007 to improve athletic facilities, renovate the Lower School and establish a faculty endowment for continuing education. The school has $9 million left to raise.

“We have expanded our campus,” Assaf said. “We now have new off-site athletic facilities, and that has been a really great move for us.”

The school acquired property on Warren Road for a baseball and softball complex and a 23-acre tract on Riverview Road in Cobb County. When all phases are complete in 2010, the Riverview complex will have the Charlie Owens baseball field, a 2,600-seat performance stadium and track, a multipurpose field and a 27,000-square-foot field house.

Pace now has 995 students from pre-first to 12th grade. The 37-acre main campus has separate buildings for the Lower, Middle and High schools. The class size averages 15 students.

The school reveres its drama program and a debate team that has won 21 consecutive state titles. Pace has 50 athletic teams, including varsity football that just completed its first season.

Despite the growth, Pace veterans say the school retains the family atmosphere and community spirit with which it was founded 50 years ago.

“We call it the Pace family,” Barrett said. “It’s a really nurturing school and nurturing community. I think that definitely shows in the teaching. The classroom sizes are small, and you really get a lot of individual attention from the teachers.”