International school founder loved to learn, teach

Alex Horsley might have been a business executive, but inquisitiveness and an aptitude for languages led him to reject a role in his father's successful company.

That decision decades ago set him on a path to touch the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of Atlanta children.

Mr. Horsley, born and raised in England, came to the United States in 1978 to run a language department at a Baltimore school. He later moved to Atlanta and, in 1985, opened the Atlanta International School, and ran it for a decade. It started with 51 students in a rented Quonset hut. Now, the Buckhead institution is one of the city's premier private schools, with more than 1,000 students from at least 70 countries.

Though Mr. Horsley went on to administer other institutions -- the International School of Beijing and the Chinese International School in Hong Kong -- he was most proud of what he built in Atlanta, said his widow, Gillian Horsley. He spoke several languages fluently and could communicate in five others, knew the Capitol of just about every country and believed it was crucial for children to understand the world beyond their borders.

"Intellectually, the man was a giant," she said. "He absolutely understood that communication was the essence of the future world."

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Mr. Horsley, 67, died at his home in Ansley Park Thursday evening after battling pancreatic cancer. His old Atlanta school recently announced it was naming a new building after him. The current headmaster, Kevin Glass, said Mr. Horsley was a pioneer in using dual languages in teaching. Students at the school learn subjects in English one day and in Spanish, French or German the next. Eventually, they dream in a foreign language.

"He's a famous figure in the field of international education," Mr. Glass said.

Reid Mizell, admissions director at the school, was among the parents who hired Mr. Horsley. She studied business in Paris in graduate school, and realized she was at disadvantage against students who spoke multiple languages. She wanted to giver her own kids that advantage, and served on the board that started the Atlanta International School. She said Mr. Horsley, fluent in multiple languages, had a "global mindset" long before it became popular.

"He was what we wanted our children to grow up to be," she said.

Curiosity about people and an early interest in languages led Mr. Horsley to a life of travel -- and teaching.

As a young teen, he arranged a trip to Switzerland to lodge with a French-speaking family and practice the language. A couple years later, before college, he traveled with his older brother beyond the Iron Curtain in Germany. After graduating from Oxford University with a degree in French and German, he moved with his first wife, Caroline, to New Zealand. He went there to work in business and prepare for a role in his father's company, Northern Foods. But that didn't sit well with him.

On a whim, he called a local school and asked if they needed a teacher. Indeed they did, said the headmaster, for a teacher had just quit. Mr. Horsley taught there for several years before moving his family to India, where he also taught, and then to England, where he pursued advanced degrees in education.

A towering athlete -- he stood 6-foot, 5-inches -- Mr. Horsley guarded goal on his college soccer team and as a semi-pro player in New Zealand. After his headmaster days, he returned to Atlanta and ran the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association, building a popular field on the city's east side.

After his first wife died of cancer, Mr. Horsley married Gillian, and they merged their families. During two decades together, they had lively political debates at the dinner table, and quiet time in the backyard nature sanctuary that he planted. They traveled, and he was often heard mumbling around the house, learning a new foreign language.

In the hospital recently, he had a nurse from western India. Mrs. Horsley overheard him addressing the woman in her native tongue, Gujarati. "Wow," she heard the nurse say. "Most people don't even know what the language is."

Mr. Horsley is survived by three children -- Natasha Weston of Haddonfield, N.J.; Anita Horsley of Eugene, Or., and Dylan Horsley of Falls Creek, Penn. -- and by two step children -- Steven Maskell of New York City, and Bronni Karatassos of Atlanta. He also is survived by three siblings, all in the United Kingdom -- Valerie Gribbin of Hull; Gilda Haskins of Skidby, and Jefferson Horsley of Taunton -- and by seven grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. on Jan. 14 at Atlanta International School, 2890 N. Fulton Drive NE.

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