On October 13, 2011 HKIS co-founder Mel Kieschnick delivered a lecture to the R-12 faculty entitled, “Past and Future: Big Dreams, Deep Commitment, and Abiding Faith.” Here Mel and I hold the plaque commemorating the establishment and dedication of HKIS in 1966. Rick Herman of Wheatridge Ministries and Erik Dierks, HKIS Chief Advancement Officer, are also pictured.
Dialogue Across the Decades:
A Conversation with HKIS Founder Mel Kieschnick
Institutional “creation stories” matter, for their initial energy can leave a lasting legacy on an organization. For this reason, I came to the October 13th lecture by Mel Kieschnick to the HKIS faculty, “Past and Future: Big Dreams, Deep Commitment, and Abiding Faith,” with anticipation. Mel was among a small group of founders of HKIS in the mid-1960’s. Now 81 years old, I wondered what clues he would provide about the original institutional impulse of HKIS, and, more personally, where do I fit into the historical and ongoing vision of the school?
Right before Mel spoke, I had the chance to greet him, and I asked him about coming to Hong Kong in the 1950’s. Mel came as a called Lutheran teacher at the age of 27. He was given the responsiblity to work with local Hong Kong Lutheran schools, and he learned to speak Cantonese. Even this small disclosure triggered some self-reflection. I came to HKIS at age 25 as a Lutheran teacher, married a Cantonese speaker, and I have also enjoyed working with the local Chinese community both in school and church contexts.
As Mel began speaking and taking command of his audience, I found myself drawn into his vision and imagination. The more he talked, the more I was struck by the inner story continuity between Mel’s initial intent for the school and what many of us feel is the best of what HKIS can be.
In the days since his lecture, I have given much thought to his speech. In the following hypothetical conversation, I have gathered various questions for Mel and allowed his prepared remarks to speak in response.*
A Conversation with Mel
Marty: Mel, it’s a great privilege to have you return to HKIS 45 years after helping to found the school. Wow – even to say 45 years, that’s remarkable.
Mel: Yes, a long time. It’s a privilege to be able to have that long view.
Marty: Thanks, Mel. If I could start with a quote from our faith tradition, we know that “without vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). As someone who cares deeply for the mission and vision of HKIS, it’s important for me to understand what the initial impetus was that brought the school into being. Many of us who have taught at HKIS for some years would like to find ourselves supporting something that has come before us; I hope to learn more about the founding vision in our conversation.
Mel: Well, I share the HKIS story with joy, and it’s one that I love. As I mentioned in my speech, HKIS is “a South China Sea I love to swim in!” You know that picture we took of the plaque of the school’s founding. I look at those names on the plaque, and most of those faithful servants have now passed away. It’s a privilege to be here.
Marty: Thanks for taking the time to speak to the faculty today. My first question is about Hong Kong in the 1960’s. What was Hong Kong like at that time as you considered the possibility of starting an international school?
It was a different world than today! Consider that:
- HK was a British Crown Colony.
- Universal education at any level was only a dream.
- No cross-harbor tunnel existed.
- No diplomatic relations between China and the USA.
- The International Airport was Kai Tak in Kowloon.
- There were hundreds of thousands unemployed, street sleepers, squatter huts, Resettlement Estates with Boys and Girls Clubs on their flat roofs.
- The principal US presence was closely tied in with the Vietnam War.
- There were no international schools.
But some things were the same. Of course, even then, the business of HK was business!
Marty: What was your dream for creating HKIS at that time?
In the midst of this cauldron all parents, whether they lived in a squatter hut in Kowloon or in an elegant apartment overlooking the opulent Repulse Bay Hotel, dreamed of a good education for their children. All parents wanted their children to be able to go to a school where they could be educated to more nearly become all that God intended them to be.
This, of course, was true also of the American parents of kids. But it was hard for them, especially if they lived on the Island and most especially if they lived on the South Side of this island. It meant they had to send their teenaged kids to King George V. They had to adjust to a British School System. They had to make choices about O and A level matriculation exams. They had to travel some 90 minutes to get to school for a parent-teacher conference.
So in the heart and in the minds of some there began to develop the dream of a school with an American curriculum, a school on Hong Kong Island, maybe even in Repulse Bay.
Two of those dreamers were a couple with the name of Joe and Dottie Mache who had 3 kids. They were Lutheran Christians who every Sunday made the trip with their 3 kids to church in Shek Kip Mei in Kowloon. There they met colleagues who were very active in the education of the Chinese children of Hong Kong, and there I met them, for that, too, was my assignment. And so, soon a dream developed:
- A K-12 school
- An American curriculum
- High quality academics
- Concern for the whole child
- Somewhere close to Repulse Bay or Stanley
And yes, with particular religious tradition – Lutheran – and yes there was the hope that a church/chapel could be a part of this dreamed-for facility.
The dream took on a more specific shape – maybe 24 classrooms – maybe a school, which at the height of its success could reach an enrollment of 500. Soon the number of dreamers increased. Len Galster, the American Community, leaders of the church in the USA – and through the years there were always people who made the dream bigger: Bob Christian, Werner von Behren, Dave Rittman, Earl and Jan Westrick, Darrell Wallis, Chuck Dull, Jim Handrich, Linda Anderson, Lois Voeltz, Bruce Kelsh, Richard Mueller, – you know the names. And the teachers of today continue that dream, too. Always the dream got bigger, yet it always focused on kids and their families.
Dreams without action are pure fantasy, which evaporates with the break of day. Dreams need, first of all, the underpinning of commitment. HKIS is the story of people of deep commitment.
Marty: As a Christian teacher, I’m curious about how the school’s Christian mission has developed over time. What was the vision for HKIS as a Christian school when it began?
I often asked myself in those years, and of course still today: what does it mean to be a Christian school in a multi-faith school setting? What about the religion curriculum, the chapel services, etc.? There has been a steady commitment to be faithful to its roots without becoming a doctrinaire, parochial school. Some tough commitments, but always a commitment to be true to the vision of the founders and to a great variety of religious or nonreligious diversity of the student body and the families from which the students come.
In the 60’s an HKIS student tragically died from an overdose of an illegal drug. Some of the school’s constituents then wanted to turn HKIS into a fundamentalist Law and Order school. Straighten those kids out. Shape up or ship out! But wiser people were committed to a higher, more appropriate ideal and they were sustained.
It has taken the abiding faith of the teachers that all their efforts will help each child be all they can be, healthy, spiritual, contributing members of the world.
For some there is also an abiding faith in the spiritual dimension of faith. It is their faith that in this school the students will learn of a God who is a God of grace and mercy, who cares for the redemption of all creation, a God who has a special love for children, a God who sets for education the goal of setting each child free to more nearly become all that he or she is destined to be.
Marty: A number of us that teach at HKIS come from the Lutheran tradition, and I think the majority of non-Lutherans sometimes wonder what we really stand for here at HKIS. What does it mean to you to be a Lutheran educator at HKIS?
I can say with quiet pride that my dream for HKIS emerged out of my Lutheran tradition. Although not unique to that tradition only, I would say that Lutheran education emphasizes two components:
(1) A daily affirmation of each individual as a unique child of God, created in the image of God, loved by Christ and open to the Spirit’s leading.
(2) A strong sense of vocation, or calling of each individual. Martin Luther strongly rejected the notion that only a select few like priests or nuns had a calling from God. He affirmed that every person in whatever situation in life, whether parent, scientist, bus driver, computer scientist, teacher or cook could within that “station” achieve purpose and bring to the world service for hope, joy, beauty and fulfillment. As a Lutheran educator I say, bring that to each student.
Marty: Let’s turn now to our Asian context. What role do you foresee HKIS playing with regard to the rise of China?
I believe that HKIS can play a critical role in the new China. I must admit that in my wildest dreams I never thought that HKIS would be a school of China, an International English Language School with an American curriculum and Christian sponsorship.
It is my judgment that the 19th Century was the Century of the British Empire – Hong Kong is a part of Exhibit A. My judgment is that the 20th century was the Century of the USA- this school is Exhibit B. It is my belief that the 21st Century will be the Century of China – this school is Exhibit C.
And here is my dream: that the graduates of HKIS will actively help shape how China plays out that role 50 years from now. Grads of this school will be in positions of influence in business, technology, education, government and international relations. They and their children will be electronically connected with each other and the world by whatever replaces Twitter, Facebook, Skype or whatever they will be using 50 years from now.
Your graduates will absolutely help shape that world. I pray that they will shape it in the direction of democratic freedoms, individual rights, international cooperation in the interest of justice, peace and adequate food, shelter and health care for all.
And if I could add something about the environment. China’s “The People’s Daily” has reported that already China has 171 cities, each with a population of over 1 million. Ten have more than 4 million each. That number is only to increase dramatically during the lifetime of your current students. That means many will lose touch with the earth, rivers, trees, fields – nature. You know about that because to some extent that describes life for some Hong Kong residents. My dream is that HKIS continue to foster and nourish programs which help kids stay in touch with the earth and that they will carry good memories of this with them into the cities of China and other countries of the world.
Marty: Beyond China, do you have any thoughts about the role HKIS might play in the development of education in Asia?
I hope that HKIS will continue to be a part of the birthing of new schools internationally, not limited to, but especially those related to the Lutheran Church, as you have done and are doing with Concordia International School in Shanghai and Hanoi.
Yes, help establish sister schools, but also consider your outreach directly through this school. Those nearly 200 cities of over 1 million inhabitants each in China will also have expatriates, English speaking leaders. They will have families. They will be looking for assistance in educating those children. Can HKIS be helpful? I look at how in the USA, especially colleges, but also high schools are doing distance learning. Over the Internet they provide academic options, many even the International Baccalaureate.
With your tremendous technical assets, your very competent staff, your international outlook – maybe, just maybe HKIS can become a dominant force in Asia to help isolated parents doing home schooling, or isolated young people who desire the learning and the access you could provide. Dream it. Do it!
Marty: Mel, let’s go another step further out. What contributions might HKIS make in the field of education beyond Asia?
My dream is that you increasingly tell the HKIS story, especially also in the USA. Tell the story of the many marvelous ways you enrich the lives of your students. In the USA there is currently such an obsessive emphasis on passing government tests, that often other important lessons are overlooked. You seem to have found a good balance. Please share your model, especially your Service Learning.
I recently served as a consultant to a very good Lutheran high school in the USA. But when I held up a model of how they could be even better I referred them to your Service Learning model. I was surprised at the amount of resistance it got from the staff. They all had their personal reasons for being reluctant. So in my dream I imagined you sharing your story, how you deal with objections, how your vision drew you into a preferred future for your kids. My point: Share the good story of your efforts and their results.
I stress this commitment to Service Learning for to me it is a sign of what you are doing so wonderfully here. You have high academic standards and you also provide Service Learning which connects knowledge with service, academics with faith life Its cross cultural context helps students clarify their values and in the process assists them to get in touch with the highest dimensions of their humanity.
I recently attended a meeting of Lutheran school educators from around the world. I was enriched by my conversations with school administrators from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hanoi and also from Australia, India, Canada and South Africa. What struck me was how much these school leaders have to teach the USA educators, especially Lutheran urban schools. They are looking for new models, for new energies, new alliances.
One of the leading players in this critical search for new or improved models is the Center for Urban Education Ministries, in which your former long time high school principal, Jim Handrich, is a principle leader. You have so much to share. My dream is that you will do that, find partner associations and schools, share information with principals, visit those schools and invite their teachers and leaders to visit yours. In this shrinking world HKIS can play a unique and wonderful role. As you share your model and make connections I would hope these connections include the Center for Urban Education and Wheatridge Ministries.
Urban schools in America are in crisis. Dropout rates are unacceptable. Teacher turnover rate is incredible. School violence is frightening. The Urban Center is looking for new models, new partners, and new lessons. You are doing so many things of the very kind the urban school in America, both public and non-public, need. Please find ways to share and thus show that you care.
Marty: If I can ask a more personal question about vision. How did you develop a sense of vision for HKIS – something that many years later is still palpable as I sit here with you today?
As a leader, I always felt that I had to have a vision for a preferred future. Take what you have now, and always ask, what could we improve? And when the time is right, and even when it’s not [smile], move towards that future. But I have to also say something else, too, about vision. And that is, a vision is something of a calling. A vision in some way is presented to a person as a gift, and then it’s that person’s responsibility to walk through that door.
Marty: And if I can ask about that vision with regard to HKIS today. Do you feel that the vision with which you started the school is consistent with the HKIS mission statement today?
I’d like to answer this question in a personal way. Some time in the next year two of my grandchildren will move to Hong Kong.
Marty: Wow – that will be really special to have them at HKIS – you must be pleased.
Mel: [with a broad smile] Of course, I am! The details are still in the works . . . but I have this dream that it will work out for them to be students of this school – and here is what I say, “If that happens then I have absolute faith that HKIS will meet all the dreams, hopes and expectations that I could possibly have for my two most precious grandchildren for that is not only my faith, but yours as well, and that of every lover of HKIS.
May that faith find full commitment for it is my faith in you, this faculty and staff, for the 2011-12 school year. I have faith that in your daily encounter with each other, the kids, the parents that you will celebrate each day and that you will help achieve the mission of
Dedicating your minds to inquiry,
Your hearts to compassion,
Your lives to service and global understanding.
You will provide an American-style of education grounded in the Christian faith and respectful of the spiritual lives of all.
Marty: Tomorrow is Friday and we again head back to our classrooms to teach our students that are in our care. In order to carry out the educational vision that you’ve described for us today, what practical advice do you have for us?
Allow me to close with one more personal statement. In a way everything is finally personal for that is all we can control – and on the other hand nothing is ever only personal because we are all connected by our common humanity. So I speak personally. The last time I spoke here was 14 years ago. I shared with the colleagues then some visions based on my own family. I spoke of my son-in-law who is Chair of Computer Science at the University of New Hampshire. I urged you to be computer and technology wise and wow, how you are doing that! I spoke of my daughter who was a professor at Mt. Holyoke an all-women college in Massachusetts and of my son who is openly gay – and I urged you to be inclusive of all, regardless of ethnicity, color or sexual orientation. I know you have responded to that. I also spoke of my grandson who has attention deficit disorder and I urged you to utilize a wide variety of teaching-learning styles to accommodate all the different ways your kids learn. And once again you responded. Great!
I come with the conviction that finally it all comes down to people; people like you and your predecessors. It is you and your predecessors who each day just do what it takes and you do it so magnificently. I bow my head in respectful gratitude.
Marty: It all comes down to people – advice to live by. Mel, I can tell that the reason you have been so well received not only back here at HKIS, but also at your old stomping grounds at Concordia Lutheran School in Yau Yat Chuen is that you have always valued each person that you have met. In fact, I think my enduring image of you from 14 years ago was you speaking Cantonese with the cleaning staff! Mel, thanks for spending time with us today. On behalf of all the students and teachers here at HKIS and, if I can speak for them, those from over the last half century, a simple, heartfelt thank you for all that you have done over the years, and that you have remained firm in your vision that HKIS should be a place where every individual is a gift of God, and each member thrives in accordance with that gift. Thanks, Mel.
Thanks, Marty, and I hope we can stay in touch.
Following Mel’s presentation, I was asked to respond with a comment and question before the HKIS faculty, and I said then what I still feel now: I felt I had learned more about the HKIS heritage in one hour listening to Mel than in my previous 20+ years combined! And what I think of today as the best of HKIS was very much present in the creation of HKIS. Mel’s vision was and remains consistent with the foundational values of an HKIS education, which to me means to:
- Meet the whole-child needs of all students.
- Value all children as a gift from God and serve them as a divine calling.
- Respect the religious and spiritual traditions of all students.
- Value service-learning as a way to connect students to the world beyond the HKIS campus, and assist students in finding purpose in relationship to global realities.
- Serve as a cultural bridge between Asia and the Western world.
- Never forget that the primary calling of educators is the personal encounter in the classroom between teachers and students.
As an HKIS teacher, I find that the vision with which Mel formed the school in the 1960’s resonates with administrators and teachers in 2011. The fact that our mission statement so clearly reflects Mel’s own personal vision for HKIS speaks of the importance of visionary leadership, especially when institutions begin.
Personally, I also feel affirmed in the broad outlines that have framed my time at HKIS: teaching in an interdisciplinary department that welcomes innovation, valuing an inclusive Christian education, learning Cantonese, and exploring service as a means to reach out to people in Asia and cultivate an ethic that shares all of God’s blessings with others.
Finally, nearly 50 years later, what did Mel do right in making a lasting contribution to HKIS and to the thousands of students and teachers in this community? What makes a difference 50 years later?
- Based on his own personal values, church heritage, and local conditions in Hong Kong, Mel developed an educational vision that still inspires.
- He lived out his vision in his daily relationships with all members of the community, for ultimately, everything is personal.
- He trusted his colleagues and developed trust among the school and church community.
- He continued to stay in touch with and tell the HKIS story.
Many thanks, Mel! May your vision and leadership remain a guiding light for HKIS and other educational institutions in the future.
* * * * * *
To learn more about Mel’s career, see this excellent summary.
* Note to reader: Rather than simply sharing Mel’s speech in its entirety, I have chosen to re-frame his remarks with questions I would have liked to have asked him. In this hypothetical conversation, Mel’s “responses” to my “questions” come from his prepared lecture notes. About 95% of the conversation comes from these notes, although I have taken a few liberties to provide transitions at certain points. His comments in response to my question about how to develop a vision come from my memory of oral remarks he made during the presentation that were not part of his prepared notes.