Traditions at Governor French Academy

Any Governor French Academy student or alumni will tell you that the traditions at this school matter. From the hall of flags to Winterfest, our traditions and way of doing things help to enrich life at GFA.


Each morning the Governor French Academy begins with Convocation in the Oliver C. Joseph building. Here all the students, faculty, and staff are joined by one to two dozen parents for morning announcements and the start of the school day. The idea for convocation came from the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Mr. Paeltz read about how this old East Coast boarding school held the program and then stole the idea for Governor French.

At exactly 8:00 a.m., Mr. Paeltz (or a senior substituting in his absence) calls on each faculty and staff member positioned around the room in turn. Next to Mr. Paeltz is the faculty member with the highest seniority. Then student and parent announcements are allowed. Birthday announcements may be made for a dollar donation to the Mu Alpha Theta’s community service fund if this is requested in advance.

After the announcements, the Question of the Day is posed: “Why do we go to school here?” Students around the room raise their hands. Whoever is chosen correctly answers, “To go to college and stay in college.”

Finally, everyone rises for the Pledge of Allegiance and convocation closes with the instruction, “Do your best and go to class,” which is the Academy’s advice to students as they head off to college.

Hall of Flags

The first thing one likely sees when entering the first floor of the GFA classroom building is an array of international flags suspended above the walkway between the classroom areas. Governor French is known as a place for international students to come and learn. It is also the academic home of American students whose families come from many different nations. The student body at Governor French is very diverse, which is unusual for such a small school. This diversity builds racial and ethnic harmony among the GFA student. Each flag in the hallway represents the home country of students and faculty members who have been part of the Governor French family.

GFA Crest (symbolism)

The Governor French Academy crest has the symbols of the French fleur-de-lis on the upper left hand corner. On the right hand corner there is a hunter’s horn as appears on the flag of the city of Belleville. Lastly, on the bottom appears a lantern. This represents the lamp of learning.

Collegiate Banners and Mugs

Renovation of the computer lab has temporarily removed them from view, but one wall of the second floor of the classroom building used to be covered with banners from colleges and universities across the United States. Some of these came from the alma maters of faculty members and graduates. The rest of these banners and a collection of collegiate coffee mugs have been brought back to the Academy through the years by students returning from college visits.

The Bench

In many schools, students who get sent out of class for behavior reasons are told to go to the Principal’s Office. At Governor French, students are told to “Go to the bench.” Two of these dark green wooden benches sit at the entrance to the Headmaster’s Office. Three additional benches are outside the first floor classrooms. Students sent out of class wait for the Headmaster or another faculty member to ask them why they are there and to discuss any punishment before being sent back to class.



Uniforms were not added to the Governor French Academy until four years after the school was started. Initially there was a dress code that required upper school students to dress in “business attire.” Mr. Paeltz, founder of Governor French, says that this dress code was an irritating inconvenience to the faculty, students, and parents alike. During the first four years, students found it difficult to prepare clothes. Students then asked to have a uniform. The educational advantage of uniforms was also taken into consideration. Studies say that the presence of a uniform corresponds to higher test scores. Today the upper school students all wear navy blue blazers that boast the Governor French Academy crest.

Visit to the Past and Future – Visit to Julie Heiligenstien’s Grave

One of the most important and unique traditions of the Governor French Academy is the annual senior class cemetery visit. Each year on the last afternoon of school, the Headmaster takes the senior class to the grave of Julia Heiligenstien, who developed cancer and died during her senior year at the Academy.

Traditionally, the seniors then rip off their uniform patches and leave them on Julia’s grave. They then return to school for the last two rites of passage in their high school careers: the eighth grade graduation and upper school awards ceremony that afternoon, and the upper school graduation the next evening. At the awards ceremony, a high school student may receive the school’s Julia Heiligenstien Award for Bravery if their life experiences have earned this distinction.

Math Team

Each upper school student is expected to participate in at least one academic competition outside of the Academy per year. This may be a math or physics competition, a speech competition, WYSE Academic Challenge, a chess tournament, or the like. In addition, however, each fall semester the GFA mathematics faculty carefully selects a group of students to represent the Academy at Southwestern Illinois College for Southwest Math Conference competitions. These students typically perform very well at these math contests. Governor French has brought home the first place trophy all but three of these last 34 years, bringing home the second place trophy the other three.

Pi Day

Pi Day celebrations at Governor French Academy on or near March 14 (3.14) started shortly after the Academy chartered a chapter of Mu Alpha Theta. Several highly enthusiastic upper level math students planned lunchtime activities including a Pizza Pi luncheon and a contest to see who could memorize the most digits of Pi. Through the years these activities have remained central to the celebration of the day. An Albert Einstein look-alike contest was added in honor of the famed scientist’s March 14 birthday. In recent years, a Math Bee for the lower school has been added. Modeled after the Spelling Bee, the Math Bee has students representing each classroom compete with oral answers to conceptual math questions and calculations.

“WYSE Guys”

Each year, Governor French Academy upper school faculty members nominate their best students to be members of the Academy’s Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering Academic Challenge team. Fondly known as the “WYSE guys”, these students bring back many trophies and ribbons at the regional, sectional, and even state levels. Competing as the smallest team in Division 300 (high schools with under 300 students enrolled), this team placed second in the division at the regional competition in 2000 and has maintained first or second place ever since. The GFA “WYSE guys” made their first trip to the Sectional Academic Challenge competition at SIU-Edwardsville in 2001. The team placed second at the 2002 sectional and has placed first at the sectional level almost every year since then. Individuals from the team have advanced to the State Academic Challenge every year since 2002; the team as a whole has advanced nearly every year since 2003.


Winterfest is the Governor French Academy’s equivalent to a high school prom. Winterfest, however, is held around Valentine’s Day rather than late in the school year. This separates it from the other schools’ dances and avoids conflicts with preparations for the end of the semester. Another difference is that Winterfest has traditionally had the focus of training students for future participation in formal events. Manners classes have sometimes been held to prepare student for the event. The first several Winterfest events were held at the Cheshire Inn in St. Louis, MO. At that time, it was common for most of the faculty and many parents to attend with the students. Students were greeted with a handshake by the Headmaster as they entered. This evening was also when the seniors presented their Senior Gift to the Headmaster. Through the years, Winterfest has evolved and has been held at various locations, including The Regency, Bellecourt Manor, The Falls, and most recently, The Jewelbox in Forest Park.


Senior Tea

The Senior Tea tradition began in 1988. It was believed by some of the faculty that the Academy’s upper school students needed experience using manners in public social events. Therefore, each spring semester the GFA seniors are invited to a social event exclusively to display and exercise their social etiquette. In the early years of the Governor French Academy, students were taken to High Tea at a hotel in St. Louis near the end of their senior year. Like Winterfest, this was an opportunity for students to learn proper etiquette at a semi-formal function. Later, Senior Tea was moved to the house of one of the Academy faculty members. In more recent years, the event has been hosted each May at the home of one of the graduating seniors. Two or three junior students are chosen as assistants to help the host during the tea.

Senior Orals

On the morning of the last day of each school year, graduating seniors face, “Senior Orals”. These oral examinations are set up by the Headmaster and faculty:

  1. to see if the student can articulate the answers to serious questions
  2. to give the faculty the chance to question students about important, but non-curricular issues

Each senior is given a list of three questions a week in advance in order to prepare for the Orals. On the morning of the exams, each senior takes a turn picking up a card from a table where he or she sits in front of any available faculty member. The student then presents his or her prepared answer to the question. Questions are then posed by the faculty; only some of these relate to the question just presented.

Over the years, the questions have varied from compositions of the Headmaster to essay questions from highly selective universities. In general, though, the three questions consist of one related to each of literature, the social sciences, and science and mathematics.