Joseph W. McPherson, founding headmaster of Brookewood School, Kensington, and longtime educator to generations of students in Montgomery County, was remembered for his deep faith, his love and devotion to his family, and as a fierce champion of Catholic classical liberal arts education, during an Oct. 1 Mass of Christian Burial at St. John the Evangelist Parish, Silver Spring. McPherson died on Sept. 26 of a heart attack. He was 71 years old.


“He was keenly aware of God’s blessings and proud to share (them) with everyone he knew. He touched your lives and made a difference, a blessing to everyone,” said Father Joseph Calis, St. John’s pastor, in his homily to several hundred former students, colleagues, friends and family who filled the church beyond capacity.


A native of Boston, McPherson attended Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton, Massachusetts, and later graduated from Harvard with a degree in political science. He went on to earn a master’s degree in economics from the Center for Research and Communication in the Philippines, and a law degree from Georgetown University.  He and his wife, Madlyn, had recently celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.


“He used his education to make a difference in this world,” said Father Calis, adding that McPherson’s love of teaching helped pass on the Catholic faith to countless young people, among them his six children, 12 grandchildren and thousands of students throughout his nearly five decades as an educator.


In 1972, McPherson began teaching at The Heights, an all-boys Catholic school located at the time in Washington, D.C. When the school moved in 1978 to its current campus in Potomac, McPherson became its lower school headmaster. In 1984, he was named headmaster of the entire school, a position he held until 1997. He then served as provost of The Heights for two years.


In 1999, he became headmaster of The American School (TASIS) in Lugano, Switzerland. Five years later, he returned to the United States and became a founding board member of The Avalon School, an all-boys Catholic school now located in Wheaton. He also taught at Avalon during the school’s early years. In 2006, he founded Brookewood School, an all-girls Catholic school in Kensington, where he served as the school’s first headmaster and taught for 10 years until 2016. After stepping down as headmaster, he continued teaching classes at Brookewood and was still teaching at the time of his death.


“Joe was an accomplished teacher, a great teacher of teachers, a great family man, a defender of the family, a tremendous friend, and a mentor of too many to count,” said Kevin Davern, headmaster of The Avalon School. “Over the years, I never lost my admiration for his tremendous personal and intellectual gifts and for the fact that he devoted those gifts to serve Jesus Christ.”


In a eulogy, James McPherson, said one of his dad’s favorite quotes was from St. Iranaeus who said, “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” “Joseph McPherson was a man fully alive. His life and work gave glory to God. Keep him in your prayers, keep our mother in your prayers. He was well loved...,” he said.


One of the great avocations of McPherson’s life was poetry, especially sonnets, of which he was a prolific author, having penned almost 2,000 on topics such as history, art and nature. He also had a great affinity for his adopted home state of Maryland, which inspired him to write The Ark and The Dove, Lord Baltimore’s Venture to Maryland, a 2017 historical volume about Maryland’s founding written in epic sonnet sequence.


Throughout the book, McPherson’s sonnets are eloquent and moving tributes to the faith and fortitude of Maryland’s first Catholic settlers, who left their English homeland in search of religious freedom and landed on St. Clement’s Island on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation. 


Richard McPherson, Joe’s younger brother and teaching colleague for the past 32 years, first at The Heights, then Avalon and finally at Brookewood, said he admired his brother’s sharp intellect and prodigious mind. “He was interested in everything. He loved teaching because you have to learn so many things yourself first. It was very fulfilling for him,” Richard McPherson said of his late brother. “He was the smartest guy I ever met.”


McPherson said his brother had a keen interest in natural history and never lost his wonder and appreciation for God’s creation. He said Joe loved his vocation as a teacher – whether it was in the classroom or taking friends and family on historical tours of Southern Maryland or regaling his students with ghost stories around a campfire. Years ago, he said Joe coined the expression, “The Four Pillars of Boyhood,” when referring to snowball fights, creek walking, fort-building and Capture the Flag, and was pleased to find out from his tenure at Brookewood that the girls enjoyed those outdoor activities just as much as the boys.


Tributes to McPherson from former students filled their former teacher’s Facebook page in the days following his death. Many wrote of their gratitude to him for his example of faith and his sense of humor, describing him as a mentor and a “true teacher.”


McPherson was a longtime member of the Knights of Malta. He also served on the board of the Chelsea Academy, an independent classical liberal arts school for grades 4-12 in Front Royal, Va., and was working toward founding Dominion Hall, an international boarding Catholic liberal arts school in south central Virginia.


McPherson is survived by his wife, Madlyn; his six children, James, Elizabeth, Catherine, Joseph, Mary and Anne; and 12 grandchildren. Interment was at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Silver Spring.