Brad Gioia has been the beloved headmaster at Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy for more than 25 years, leading the efforts to fulfill the all-boys school’s mission of “providing each MBA student with the tools to reach his maximum potential as gentleman, scholar, and athlete.” At a school assembly in late October, Gioia shared the sad news that he was facing a recurrence of lymphoma, a disease he had previously battled bravely. While many of the students were quite upset by the news, Gioia shared that his prognosis is good and that he has already begun chemotherapy treatments that will keep him in and out of school for the next few months. What followed was a remarkable story of what can happen when a group of strong-willed boys get together to try to support an important cause.
One MBA student, Cole Williamson, has a father who is also a Lymphoma survivor, and the young man took it upon himself to raise funds for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Tennessee chapter in honor of these two important men in his life. His efforts led to Williamson being named LLS Student of the Year in 2018 for his efforts to raise more than $70,000 to aid his father, Mr. Gioia, and millions of others suffering from these cancers. With the announcement of Gioia’s latest battle, many of the students immediately knew they wanted to do something to help.
Annie B. Williams is another long-time MBA employee and the sponsor of the school’s Service Club. She quickly found herself in the middle of the efforts to make statements of support for the school’s leader. “One boy left the assembly and went straight to his art teacher to say he wanted to create something,” Williams shares. Taking inspiration from noted muralist Logan Hicks who was serving as artist-in-residence at MBA, the student created a lovely stenciled painting of Gioia standing in front of his students at assembly. The art teacher helped turn it into a large card, which was then signed by the students and presented to Gioia as a morale booster.
The next initiative from the students was also creative, but in a quite different way. “The seniors told me they all wanted to shave their heads in support of Mr. Gioia,” explains Williams. “I told them that they should turn it into a fundraiser. They already had a bake sale planned to benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure cancer fund later in the week, so we decided to turn it into an event for LLS instead.”
Meeting quickly on the Wednesday two days after Gioia’s announcement, the boys found four students and four teachers who were willing to have their heads shaved at that Friday’s pep rally. “We ended up losing one of the teachers who had agreed to participate after his wife reminded him that he had to attend a wedding and couldn’t show up bald,” recalls Williams with a chuckle. “We quickly got eight bags and put each student’s and teacher’s names and photos on them and announced that the four who had the most money in their bags would get their hair buzzed on Friday.”
Williams reached out to Amy Tanksley, the owner/founder of Uncle Classic Barbershop, an upscale traditional men’s grooming salon with seven locations around Middle Tennessee. She immediately agreed to send four of her barbers to the pep rally to do the trimming as well as to offer $25 buzz cuts to anyone who wanted one to help raise more money for the efforts. Tanksley was happy to oblige: “From my perspective – when I asked my team at Uncle if they could help – there was ZERO hesitation. Yes, they would be there – staying late, missing work, driving in from Murfreesboro. Their commitment to Uncle and our clients and their families and friends is incredible. I don’t take any of the credit – this was ALL them. I was proud to take photos and laugh with them as we shaved heads.”
First, there was the issue of deciding on who would publicly part with their locks. Williams explains, “We were in a rush to choose who would participate when I saw Sam Kirkpatrick walking through the lunchroom. Sam is one of Brad’s advisees and has beautiful flowing hair, and I thought Now that’s a head of hair I could raise some money with!” At first, Kirkpatrick was loathe to part with his hair, but he said yes after so many of his classmates said they would pay to see him shave his head. In fact, he jumped in with gusto and even went walking around his neighborhood that evening to ask for donations. Williams shares, “At the end of the night, Sam had already raised $520 to get his campaign rolling and ended up with $1,100 by the time the pep rally rolled around on Friday!”
But Williams hadn’t played her own trump card yet: “I’ve got a pretty good head of curly hair, and at 1:15 p.m. at lunch on the day of the pep rally, a student walked by and said ‘I’d pay $100 to see you get your hair buzzed!’ I told him that a hundred bucks wouldn’t cut it (literally,) but if we could raise $3,500 by the time the pep rally started at 3:30, I’d do it!”
She continues, “So I fluffed up my hair and put a picture online with requests to everyone I knew to contribute. The donations started pouring in, as much as $500 at time. What I didn’t realize was that not all of my friends and family wanted to see me bald, so they told me they wouldn’t contribute. My mom wouldn’t even give any money. So I changed it up to say that if we raised $3,500, I’d do it, but if we managed to raise $4,000 by 3:30, I wouldn’t. Once it turned into saving my locks, one college friend who had already given $200 begrudgingly gave $100 more. It turned out that between 1:30 and 3:30, we raised more than $5,000 on my head, and the total between the bake sale, haircuts and buzzcut donations came to more than $12,000!”
“Everyone was happy,” says Williams. “Well, some of the boys were disappointed that I didn’t get my hair cut, but everyone was excited. What had started out at a lunch table on Wednesday with a few students brainstorming had become an amazing show of support and love for Mr. Gioia and a major fundraiser for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society!” The students who raised the most money for the honor of getting shorn were Sam Kirkpatrick and his flowing mane along with Bradford Cummins. The lucky faculty members wearing stocking caps for the next few months were Academic Dean Dr. Tim Boyd and Robert Sawyer, MBA’s Dean of the High School. In another nice bit of news sure to raise Gioia’s spirits, the MBA football team came away from that pep rally fired up enough to narrowly defeat Christian Brothers from Memphis in a come-from-behind 10-7 gridiron victory that evening at MBA’s home field.
The fundraising and Uncle’s involvement hasn’t stopped with the pep rally, though. On Tuesday, November 12, Uncle Classic Barbershop will be devoting a portion of all their haircut proceeds all day long at their Belle Meade location at 4326 Harding Pike #106. Tanksley is honored to be able to help out again: “Please give all the credit to my team – they rock. And those young men. Certainly an impressive group!” Drop by for a trim to help out LLS, or if your ears don’t need lowering on that particular day, you can always make a direct donation to the LLS in honor of Mr. Gioia and the remarkable and compassionate young men of Montgomery Bell Academy.
Williams is especially proud of what the students were able to accomplish in such a short time, and a little surprised by how tickled she was at their efforts. She explains, “Maybe I’ve matured in reverse, or maybe kids are just a lot more fun than in my day. Back then, these sort of things like shaving heads would have driven me nuts, but now I just find them delightful!” The staff and students at MBA will continue to support their headmaster as he moves forward in his treatments, but the group of charitable young gentlemen he has helped to create at the school should be of great solace for him as takes the fight to the disease.
If you would like to participate, book your appointment for Tuesday, November 12, at Uncle Classic Barbershop’s Belle Meade location, as, again, a portion of all their haircut proceeds that day will be donated to the LLS.
All photography provided by Annie B. Williams.