It’s a long drive from Villa Joseph Marie School to Salesianum School, but there was something about the all-boys institution in Wilmington that drew Thomas Kardish from the all-girls school in Bucks County, Pa.
As president at Villa Joseph Marie, Kardish had helped the school make several advancements. He said the school built a state-of-the-art performing arts center. They added crew, sailing, mock trial, rocketry, robotics and an engineering curriculum. Enrollment was booming, and the students were getting into great colleges. But when he heard that there was an opening at Salesianum, he took notice.
So last January, he had a Zoom meeting with the search committee. There were nine people involved in the interview, including himself. He likened it to an episode of “Hollywood Squares.”
“It went great, to the point that I had to go tell my wife Christine, ‘Uh, I think something just happened,’” Kardish said recently. “So, we rode down here the next day on a Sunday. Walked across the street, and I saw that stadium, and I was like, ‘Woah!’
“From that first contact, I believe in that hand-of-God stuff, it just felt right.”
Kardish, 59, brought a business background to Villa Joseph Marie and now to Salesianum. He studied archaeology at Harvard and was hired by the pharmaceutical firm SmithKline. He earned an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania while in the pharmaceutical industry.
When his children were young, he and his wife bought a lumberyard in Doylestown, Pa., and operated that for 17 years before selling the business. He said he received a phone call from a niece, the athletic director at Villa Joseph Marie, suggesting he apply for the president’s job there.
“I found my vocation,” he said.
Despite the list of accomplishments at the school during his tenure, the thing he said he’s most proud of “is that I think the school better reflects the charism of the founding sisters, the Sisters of St. Casimir, than it did before.”
There aren’t many of the sisters left, he said. “I took it as a great responsibility that that school had to be a fitting and lasting testament to their legacy. It was a great job. I loved it.”
Catholic education has been a pillar of his life. Not only is it his career, Kardish said his time as a student at Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem, Pa., shaped the person he is today. He wouldn’t have thought of going to Harvard had it not been for a priest at the school. When he was a senior, he was stopped by Father Henry Brown.
“I was walking down the hall one day early senior year, and he stopped me and said, ‘Tom, we’ve never had anyone go to Harvard. Why don’t you apply?’ So, I was like, ‘Oh, all right.’ I did a handwritten application.
“I now realize the huge benefit of that well-timed suggestion. He saw something in me I didn’t even know to look for, let alone not even know it was there.”
He has been busy getting to know the Salesianum community since his official start date of July 1. The students returned the week of Aug. 23, and Kardish likes being around them. He can be found greeting them by the front door in the morning, or perhaps at the various athletic practices.
“There’s just great energy from the young men that are here. They’re really wonderful. The actual spirit and charism here are tremendous,” he said.
Salesianum has a master plan that includes a major upgrade to the facilities for the performing arts. Over the past 20 years, the school has added a wing and a fitness center, and last year Abessinio Stadium opened. Just recently, alumnus Miguel Bezos created a fund for need-based full scholarships. Kardish said making Salesianum accessible to anyone who sees value in its education is important. He wants to keep expanding the fund for need-based aid.
He also will focus on attracting students in a changing educational environment. It is not enough for Catholic high schools to expect Catholic grade schools to provide the numbers necessary to remain healthy.
“I think we’re going to have to more creative about how we find people, how we reach out to them, how we think. We have to acquire new skills about listening to what people are motivated by when picking schools,” he said.
He said his previous school, Villa Joseph Marie, shows that this is possible.
“There is a way to do it. There is a story that people will grab on to, but we have to get creative about how we do that,” he said.
Kardish has degrees from two Ivy League institutions, but he is not done with his education. He is working on his dissertation and expects to have his doctorate in education from New York University, perhaps as soon as January. The topic of his dissertation is why families pick the high schools they do.
“It’s very interesting. My research has shown me that what is important to many people isn’t necessarily what I thought was important. It’s almost different for every family,” he said.
He enjoys traveling with his family, which includes four children in their 20s. Getting all of the clan together now is difficult, so he appreciates the trips they took over the years. He also likes running and exercise, and fly fishing is a passion. He fishes 12 months a year, often in the Poconos because the water is colder.
“I make sure I catch a trout once a month,” he said. “It’s just so peaceful. Very relaxing.”