Natalie Underwood Shirley '01

As a Pace Academy Lifer, married to fellow alumnus BLAKE SHIRLEY ’01 and mother of Lower School Knights BLAKE SHIRLEY, JR. ’30 and JACK SHIRLEY ’32, it was only natural for Natalie Underwood Shirley ’01 to serve as alumni co-chair of the Accelerate Pace campaign. Natalie is also a Pace Fund volunteer, Lower School grade rep, past Alumni Knight Cap chair and more. She is Pace through and through.

Natalie has fond memories of her time as a Pace student. She recalls being one of the first student-athletes to play basketball in the brand new Inman Center her junior year. “It was so exciting, so big and new—we felt like we were in the NBA!” 

Upper School history teacher HELEN SMITH stands out as a favorite teacher. “Instead of giving me a bad grade, she would have me redo an assignment to improve my writing and research,” Natalie shares. “I was scared of her at first, but then I realized how deeply she cares about her students’ learning and overall growth. I admire how she teaches her students to think critically and encourages them to share their knowledge during exciting class discussions—we had many! Ms. Smith certainly knows how to ‘teach her students a lesson,’ but the older I get, the more I realize they were life lessons.”  

When the time came for Natalie and Blake to find a school for their older son, Pace held a clear distinction for them. “Pace had afforded me a well-rounded education, truly preparing me for college so that I could easily compete in advanced learning and the real world,” Natalie says. But the couple also valued the sense of camaraderie and the faculty, with its focus on the development of the whole child. She adds, “Coming back to tour as parents, it felt very familiar, but Blake and I were impressed by the ways Pace had continued to advance and evolve.

Natalie says seeing Pace grow since she and her husband were students is why she continues to stay involved and support projects like Accelerate Pace. “Pace has to compete with other schools for students, so we need to keep up the pace—no pun intended!” she says. “Families have high expectations when it comes to their children’s education, and our learning environment needs to match those expectations.”

Natalie views Pace as part of every graduate’s legacy, whether or not they become Pace parents. At Pace, “our sense of community is strong,” she says, “and you don’t feel that everywhere. It has to do with the size, but it also has to do with the people.”

“Alumni involvement is so important,” Natalie adds. “Which is why I accepted the position of co-chair. I’m thankful for what Pace has given my family, but also, I want to invest in it for future generations. For Blake and me, it’s a way to pay it forward.”