Book buddies and a wish for the new year

On any given G Day, around 1 p.m., you may witness a gaggle of Middle School students venturing into various Lower School classrooms. They’re participating in a new program, dubbed Book Buddies.  Over the past few weeks, seventh- and eighth-grade advisories began a reading partnership with students in grades 1-3.

The purpose of the program is twofold: To promote a love of reading and strengthen ties between the two divisions.

During Book Buddies, LS students practice their listening and reading skills, while middle schoolers act as guides and teachers. Reflecting on his first Book Buddies experience, Jackson, a Middle School student, remarked, “It was neat to step back and let my reading buddy engage, working with him without directly saying he was either right or wrong.”

Aside from a time to idolize the “big kids,” the partnership provokes aspirations of reading fluency in the Lower School students.

As for the Middle School students, who doesn’t enjoy an afternoon respite, in our cozy Lower School, reading a good picture book… or two?

By Sarah Diehl
Lower and Middle School Librarian 

At year’s end

The first semester ends with a whimper.

There isn’t a special event to cap it like Commencement finishes the second semester. All the big events were held earlier in the month. Upper School exams ended, officially, at 11 a.m. Thursday morning, but even earlier in the week students only showed up when they had exams and were noticeable only after school when they practiced basketball. Middle Schoolers had a skating party to round out their semester, which ended yesterday. Only the Lower Schoolers are here today, but with parties and other in-classroom events, they seem pretty scarce, too.

Even the teachers aren’t much of a presence: Those who are here are busily grading exams and preparing report cards. Staff members seem a little more inclined to linger over a conversation in the hallway with a cup of coffee, learning about other people’s plans for break. Lunch will be a small event, as many departments hold their own gatherings on or off campus.

It’s this quiet setting that gets a person thinking about how vibrant a place Liggett is when it’s filled with students. We send out emails with a greeting “Dear Liggett family” and there’s a reason for that — for so many people, it does feel like a big, extended family here. That’s why events like last week’s Lower School Snow Ball, our fundraising events, plays, sporting events and concerts attract such big crowds. That’s why so many students hang out after school, tucked into little corners in small and larger groups, when they surely have other places they can be.

The end of the year always brings recaps and, if not nostalgia, a sense of looking at how we are different than we were at the beginning of the year. Our year began in September with new students who didn’t know what to expect. To see them hugging each other goodbye in the hallways or making plans for next semester and next school year shows they have become part of the ever-growing Liggett family.

Here’s wishing the entire Liggett family a happy and healthy new year full of success, friendship and joy.

See you in 2013.

By Ron Bernas

Alumni Thursday: Headed for D.C.

Liggett Life devotes each Thursday to Liggett’s alumni, because they are such an important part of the life of Liggett. Today’s post is by Savannah Lee, our Alumni Relations Manager.

As the New Year kicks off, the Alumni Office staff will be heading out on the road to visit alumni. This year we have had many generous alumni host events in their homes in cities like New York City and Rye, NY. More on those trips can be found here.

Our 2013 travels will kick-off in January in Washington, D.C. Alumna Susan Thoms ’67 LIG, will host some 30 alumni from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia in her home. This event will bring together alumni from various years and predecessor schools. It is exciting to see alumni from all decades and walks of life come together to learn about the school and network with each other. So far, we have alumni from classes from 1941-2000 signed up to attend. We also have lawyers, authors, doctors, business owners, professors and retirees all planning to attend.

Susan herself will travel from her home in West Bloomfield, to her home in D.C. especially for the event. She’s been making plans with the Advancement staff for about three months. To Susan, helping with events like this allows her to give back to Liggett, and she values the opportunity to support her school. “I have always believed that my Liggett education gave me a big advantage in college and medical school. Even though the school is different from the original Liggett, I can see that it still provides the same quality education. I am happy to support this outstanding educational opportunity for young students and would like to see more Liggett alumni become involved.”

Susan’s efforts will help Liggett engage more alumni regionally, and this trip will be a bookend to the tenth-grade field trip to Washington, D.C., in March. Each year our students travel to the capital for the better part of a week to learn about our government first hand. This trip is further enhanced by connecting students with local alumni in the D.C. area for special opportunities to see the inner workings of the capital. One such excursion will include a tour of the Pentagon by alumnus Lieutenant Colonel David Schilling ’87.

Check back in January and March for posts on how these events went, and learn more about the experiences had by our alumni and current students in Washington, D.C. Are you reading this post from D.C.? If so, we’d love for you to attend the upcoming alumni event. Register for it online here.

By Savannah Lee

An average Monday

People were anticipating a difference at school today. There was and there wasn’t.

To begin with, it was the first day of Upper School finals. But that didn’t seem to alter the usual congenial mood. Students joked in the hallways, sat in the lobby, eyes on their phones, texting and scrolling and doing whatever else it is they do on their phones all day long. They exchanged reviews of the exams — “It was so easy!” or “Wow, that was tough.” There was sadness at the death Saturday of a student’s mother and schedules were adjusted so students could attend the funeral. They were momentarily aggravated at locked doors that forced them into the front entrance.

In the Middle School, it was much the same, except for the exams. There was, again, sadness at the death of another friend’s mother, to which his classmates responded with support and friendship. They complained about the lunch choices (baked chicken and honey-glazed carrots with polenta), but went back for seconds anyway. As head of Middle School Beth Beckmann wrote in a letter to Middle School parents, “The joy of Middle Schoolers is that they always, especially at a time like this, demand our attention, our full engagement and our classroom organization.”

The Lower School kids went about their day as usual. Skipping into school, past staff and faculty greeters outside. They hopped from colored square to colored square in the halls on their way to music or art and bickered over another’s behavior in line. They hung their latest projects in the hallway for everyone to see.

Parents could be identified by the badges they wore announcing themselves as visitors, even those who are here helping out in one way or another on most days. They spoke quietly, though, and changed the subject when children were close, but their eyes may have seemed wet to the students who really looked at them.

There were sports practices after school, students — and some teachers, truth be told — counting down to the holiday break, and seniors exulting over the news they were accepted into the college they wanted the most.

It was, in total, a normal day. An unremarkable one, even. But at times like these, it felt like a blessing.

By Ron Bernas

Liggett students give big

Every year during the holidays, Liggett students are asked to give a little to those who don’t have the advantages they do. We divide the work by divisions, and each year the students come through in the spirit of the giving season. This year is no exception.

Volunteer parents spent much of the week here organizing the gifts students chose for their particular person or family. The floors were so thick with wrapped presents that it looked like what the North Pole must look like now.

Here’s what went down:

The Upper School Student Commission and Liggett Service Corps collected gifts for the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) and Focus HOPE, two organizations with which we have partnered throughout recent years.  Yesterday, representatives from COTS and Focus HOPE picked up 150 toys and other items to be shared with the families they serve.  Students also collected money through “dress down” days and we will give a check for $500 to COTS next week.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Middle School raised more than $500 for Crossroads, a social service outreach agency that helps families in need.  The students celebrated their efforts with a final GobblePalooza assembly, where they presented the money to a Crossroads representative. For our annual Giving Tree, the Middle School student body provided more than 120 gifts for children from The Children’s Center and Nichols School.  Gifts included watches, sweaters, hoodies, socks, shirts, belts, and school supplies.  Representatives from the Children’s Center and Nichols School came to collect the gifts, and Middle School elves helped load their vehicles with sacks full of presents.

The Lower School provided holiday gifts to 140 children in over 50 families through the giving tree and dozens of young children will have warm mittens and books thanks to donations to the Mitten Tree. The gifts will be distributed by Catholic Social Services. A caseworker told the volunteer moms that these gifts will be the only ones under the tree for many of the people they helped.

And we should also give a big thank you to the parents who helped organize the giving, they spent a lot of time and effort making sure a lot of people have happy holidays.

This is yet another reason Liggett and its families are so special.


Alumni Thursday: Bringing art and tea to Corktown

Liggett Life devotes each Thursday to Liggett’s alumni, because they are such an important part of the life of Liggett. Today’s post is by Liggett alumnae Catherine Watson and Sabra Skutt-Morman, who are using their talents, drive and friendship to start a new venture in Detroit. We asked these two ladies to share their exciting new plans for a business with us to showcase the great things young Liggett alumni are doing to invest in our community. Share your stories with us by contacting Savannah Lee, Alumni Relations Manager at

Catherine Watson, left, and Sabra Skutt-Mormon

It’s been five years since we left Liggett, still can’t believe it. Liggett taught us critical thinking, work ethic and exploring our individual creativity. About a year ago we started writing a blog that has served as a platform of knowledge, as well as our personal manual in developing a business. We also wanted to maintain an online presence other than mainstream social networking. It has been a tool that helped center our creative energies while we formulated and developed the concept of our venture.

We are both lifelong Detroiters, born and raised, and the city’s future is very important to us. As Tony Goldman stated when he referred to Detroit as the city of the experimental, “It’ll take (guts), perseverance, and an almost stupid commitment to changing not only Detroit but the course of urban America. It can start here, because nowhere else is in a better position to do it. This is our best chance to do it the right way.” We firmly believe it is the right time to be an entrepreneur in the city of Detroit.

The soon-to-be tea shop and art space in Corktown.

That being stated, we are planning to open an arts and culture tea house in Corktown. We will be serving specialty teas and showcasing and selling art painted by Sabra. The aesthetic design of the space will flow from our blog. We chose Corktown because of the community there. The businesses already there and the ones that are quickly sprouting up tend to be more focused on the artisanal and specialty side.

It is important to us that our establishment be intellectually and culturally stimulating. We have been inspired along the way by The Heidelberg Project, Sugar House in Corktown, Eastern Market, Detroit Institute of Arts, and a number other Detroit institutions. Due to the shortage of intellectually stimulating places in the city, we want our own establishment to provide a safe community place where learning and engagement can take place. And what better place to do that than over a cup of tea in an arts and culture environment!

We plan to open our establishment next year. We are working with two architects, Becky Nix and Tadd Heidgerken, who designed Astro Coffee, Slows To Go and The Red Bull House of Art. They are assisting us through the permit and renovation process. In January, we both plan to study under Mary Jones, a specialty tea expert, and, we hope, start the renovations. In addition, we have been accepted into BUILD, an entrepreneurial program for young adults hosted by D Hive.

If you want any more information, please contact us here. Also, please check out the blog that started our arts and culture entrepreneurial movement at

Thank you and happy holidays everyone!

By Catherine Watson and Sabra Skutt-Morman

Oh, the things our students do

A guest post today from Shernaz Minwalla, associate dean of faculty and director of Upper School curriculum. She’s writing in her capacity as genetics teacher, which is something else she does, about something you probably never did in high school science class.

Bioinformatics is the application of computer technology to gather, store, analyze and integrate biological and genetic information which can then be applied to gene-based drug discovery and development.

The need for Bioinformatics capabilities has been prompted by the explosion of publicly available genomic information resulting from the Human Genome Project. Liggett’s genetics students analyzed a 1,792 base-pair sequence of DNA to determine the genes that code for hemoglobin, then found the exact location for the mutation that causes sickle-cell anemia. They did this without using a computer and doing so, they gained an understanding of what the computer does within minutes.

Experiments with DNA technology continued as students genetically engineered E.coli bacteria to make ampicillin-resistant colonies that glow in the dark using the gene that codes for green fluorescent protein found in bioluminescent jellyfish. The students then cast and loaded a gel-electrophoresis apparatus with DNA cut with restriction enzymes to determine the size of the DNA fragments. It’s something you might have seen people do on “CSI” or other similar television shows.

Following their experiences in DNA technology, students engaged in conversations with the lab techs and Dr. Susan Land at the Wayne State University Applied Genomics Technology Center where DNA and RNA are isolated and sequenced for research institutes around the world.

By Shernaz Minwalla

A World War I museum

Meanwhile, in the main lobby, students in Adam Hellebuyck’s World War I class are busy installing museum exhibits based on one aspect of The Great War they have researched. Among other topics, the exhibits already being installed include trench warfare, poetry that emerged from the war, sea and air warfare, even the Armenian genocide.

Students will act as docents, explaining their research and answering questions of the people who show up at the opening Thursday night at 7 p.m. Those people will be asked to fill out response cards about exhibits that Hellebuyck will take into account when grading the students.

This is the second year and, because it’s a student-driven project, it’s much different than it was last year, Hellebuyck said. “I know what their topics are and I have talked to them about the work they’re doing, but I don’t know exactly what the final product will be. I’m excited to see what they’ve come up with.”

Come and see Thursday at 7 p.m. You’ll be surprised at what the students can teach you.

By Ron Bernas

Face lifts of a sort

The portraits of Ella and Jeanette Liggett, the founding sisters of the Liggett School, hung above the fireplace in the library at the Briarcliff Campus for more than 40 years and before that they graced the walls of the Burns Road Campus in Detroit.

They were painted by Iris A. Miller in 1927 and ’28 and showed their age, so when they were moved over to our combined campus, we wanted them as bright and shiny as their new surroundings. So Head of School Dr. Joseph P. Healey asked art teacher Jim Pujdowski to look into restoring them. Pujdowski found Ken Katz, a Detroit art restorer recommended as one of the best in the country, and this is what he had to say about the portrait of Miss Ella: “There is a thick layer of grime on the surface. The painting is damaged and disfigured. There are horizontal draws on the surface of the painting. There are numerous tears and punctures, specifically in the upper left and along the left side. Treatment would include repair of the tear, removal of the grime and restoration of the damages. Lining the painting to a stiff support is recommended for archival reasons.” And about Miss Jeanette’s portrait: “There is a thick layer of grime on the surface. The painting is insecure, damaged and disfigured. There are localized areas of lifting paint which have resulted in paint loss. There are areas of crackle in these areas. There is a concave dent in the left central area. … Treatment would include securing the lifted paint, reducing the crackle and removal of the grime, followed by proper restoration of damages. Lining the painting to a stiff support is recommended for archival reasons.”

And that’s just what he did, it took six weeks and the results are beautiful. The paintings are of elderly women and one can see careworn faces. They look like women parents would let educate their children. That’s just what they were, women who knew the education of girls was important for the future of the region and the country. You may not see that visionary look in their eyes, but that’s what they were.

And now they watch over the Middle School library on Cook Road, just as they cast their eyes over generations of students at the Briarcliff Campus. They are a vital part of our past, looking at the future.

By Ron Bernas

On robot fighting and bowling

Sophomore Warren Purvin is a mild-mannered kid. He has a friendly smile and a quiet way and you’d never know he spends his free time in his garage with his dad creating robots that fight other robots in death matches.

The metal blade takes out the competing robots.

It’s part of the Robot Fighting League, a national organization that has clubs across the country, though none in Michigan, in which robots as small as one pound battle each other in an 8-foot square arena in weekend competitions. The goal is to win, of course, and robots can do that by destroying their competition; if both robots are still operating at the end of the match, the winner is decided by the officials.

How do you destroy the other guy? Well, Warren’s recent winning robot has a blade that spins parallel to the floor in front of it, which takes out its opponents. (“It spins fast,” he says. “It’ll cut your finger off.”) Prizes are usually parts they can use to build other robots.

The silver metal disc attacks opposing robots. The holes in it not only make it look cool, they are there so the robot makes weight.

“So it ends up paying for itself,” he says. “If your robot gets destroyed, you just put a new motor in and it’s good.” Though Warren fights with only smaller robots, the competitions include robots that weigh up to 320 pounds and can cost $20,000. Those robots, he said, are often sponsored by businesses, usually automotive companies. Warren says he’s one of the younger participants, but that doesn’t bother him, it’s a great way to spend time with his father. His mother goes with them to the competitions (and proudly brought this story to our attention) and his sister videos the matches for him.

This fascination started as a child when Warren watched a television show called “Battlebots.” He took a computer-aided design class that helped him and his engineer dad Glenn create their fighters.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen. It could be one hit and you’re out. But that’s never happened to us.”

Warren is also the driving force behind Liggett’s new bowling club. He’s been bowling since he was 4 and has a 180-190 average, and he recently bowled a smoking 246.

“We didn’t have a bowling club and I thought it would be fun,” he said. “You get to know different people. We had 60 people sign up that they were interested in the club and 40 show up to the meeting and about 10 at the actual bowling.”

Asked whether there’s anything in common between his robot fighting and bowling he said, “Maybe it’s just the destruction and knocking things down I like.” Warren also plays on Liggett’s soccer and basketball teams.

His next robotic competition is the big one: The Motorama in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “People come from all over for this one,” Warren said. “It’s huge.” He doesn’t know what to expect, except that he’ll have fun and that his family will be there to support him.

By Ron Bernas

Introducing Alumni Thursdays in Liggett Life

Beginning today, Liggett Life will devote each Thursday to Liggett’s alumni, because they are such an important part of the life of Liggett.

Each year a small group of about 25 alumni serve as members on our Alumni Board of Governors. This group includes graduates from University Liggett School and all its predecessor schools. The board meets five times a year to discuss alumni issues, learn about what the school is doing and plan events like Alumni Weekend, Homecoming and the Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame.

Stacy Buhler, right, and Catherine Sphire Shell, ’79.

This year, the board is led by President Stacy Buhler ’82. She says the school, and the role alumni are playing in the Liggett community, have grown over the last several years. “I really have a passion for the school and I like what I am seeing,” she said.

Stacy began volunteering on the board when a former classmate encouraged her to get involved. At the time, she had lost track of what Liggett was doing and realized she wanted to know more. “As a student, when you’re at Liggett you don’t always see it for how amazing it really is. The closeness of the community and the tools it provides you make Liggett special.” Since then, Stacy has been an active member of the alumni board serving as alumni board secretary and vice president and on communication and event committees. In total, she has volunteered on the board for six years.

Why does she do it? Reconnecting with the school allows Stacy to give back to an organization she believes in. And she discovered that it has brought her blessings she didn’t expect.

The greatest benefit has been enrolling two of her children at Liggett. “I keep bringing more of my kids to the school every year,” she joked. Stacy found that as she got more invested in the school’s activities she wanted her children to be a part of the community as well. As a volunteer, she enjoys learning from “inside the school and being intimately involved,” she said. “It lets me see what my kids are experiencing every day.”

Stacy also enjoys the networking she does  with former classmates and friends as a huge benefit of staying connected with the school. Perhaps the biggest job of the Alumni Board of Governors is hosting Alumni Weekend each year on campus. This is Stacy’s favorite event to work on, and it was extra special this year as she celebrated her 30-year reunion. She helped plan her class dinner, select photos and memorabilia for the dinner, and connected with long-lost friends as she worked on it. “I was excited to see Mike McCarthy who came from Texas, Kayvan Ariani, who now lives in Florida and Shelley Dolan came in from Chicago,” she said.

Stacy also loves meeting alumni from different years and predecessor schools. Working with such a varied group has led to networking opportunities, and a few laughs along the way: “Samina [Romero ’91], Booth [Platt ‘96] and I worked the Alumni Cook Tent for Homecoming 2011, and it was hilarious,” she said. “It was so blustery that the tent kept blowing around and it got so bad that Pahl [Zinn ‘87] had to hold up the tent pole because it almost crashed into Samina’s head. Our alumni board is so dedicated they are willing to risk their lives!”

With so much gained from her experiences on the alumni board, Stacy hopes to spend her year as president encouraging more alumni to take advantage of what University Liggett School has to offer. “I want to bring awareness that we are here and it’s all hands on deck,” she said. “We have great events and our board is working on alumni mentoring projects. I want alumni to know that when we host events we would love for them to come.”

To learn more about the Alumni Board of Governors, alumni events and communications, our mentoring committee, and how to get involved, contact the Alumni Office at 313.884.4444, Ext. 415 and we’ll see you here again next Thursday.

By Savannah Lee
Alumni Relations Manager

A beacon of light

When senior Robert Babcock goes to see plays, he pays a lot of attention to something the rest of the audience doesn’t notice: The lights.

The lighting design for the spring musical “Crazy for You.”

Robert says he finds himself questioning lighting designers’ choices, even as he watches the play. But he adds that audiences shouldn’t notice the lights, per se. In fact, if they do, it’s not good. Lighting should be designed in support of the production of the play, and only in rare instances should it bring attention to itself.

Robert, a Liggett lifer, has been working backstage on Liggett productions since the seventh grade when Dr. Phill Moss pulled him out of the Middle School and moved him to the big time, well, the Upper School, where he apprenticed older students who taught him the technical aspects of theater. His first Upper School production was “Ragtime” and he’s worked on every play since. He also takes care of the equipment and acts as a manager of sorts for our auditorium, making sure the lights and sound are right for every event from a Lower School assembly to complicated theatrical productions. This year, he received a Superior rating from the Michigan Educational Theatre Association’s festival with the lighting design for the spring musical, “Crazy for You.” It’s there at the left, if you can see it and understand it. Robert patiently explains it and it seems to make sense, but only after the lengthy explanation that includes words like “gel” and “gobi” and “lumens.” He says that designing and setting up the lighting plot, which also includes programming the light board and hanging the lights, will take between 24 and 36 hours of work. That doesn’t include the time spent watching rehearsals and looking for ways to tighten up his design.

But that’s what he likes, “I like the hands-on work, building stuff, hanging lights.” But no one applauds the lighting design at the end of a play and that’s OK with Robert. “If it looks good, I’m fine with that. If not, I have nightmares.”

At that festival, held last weekend, Robert also received a Thespian Scholarship, given by the organization to only 10 students in the state. Moss says a Liggett student hasn’t been given that honor for more than a decade.

Robert also received a substantial scholarship from Wayne State University — one of his two finalists for college in the fall. His other is Webster University in St. Louis. He plans to major in technical theater and sees himself designing lights professionally on or off Broadway.

And with experience like this already under his belt, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

By Ron Bernas