The History of Oakwood
In the beginning...
A small group of parents decided to create a school where their children could flourish as thinkers, as artists, as athletes, and most of all, as human beings.
By the fall of 1951, the school they had named Oakwood opened in Jessica and Robert Ryan's backyard. Three years later, those pioneering parents, including the Ryans, Sidney Harmon and Elizabeth Schappert, Wendy and Ross Cabeen, and Charles and Emilie Haas bought and built the elementary school campus on Moorpark Street.
Since then Oakwood has grown to become a K-12 coeducational independent day school on two campuses, where young people prosper in thought and imagination, in competence and character, as individuals and as members of a school community.
The First Backyard
Oakwood began in the hearts and minds of a small group of parents who had three things in common: 1) one or more of their children attended the same nursery school; 2) they were equally disturbed by post-war overcrowding in the public schools; and 3) they disagreed about almost everything else!
At the suggestion of her pediatrician that she "do something - start your own school!" - Jessica (and Robert) Ryan hosted several meetings at their North Hollywood home, in the spring of 1950. At those meetings with Emilie and Charles Haas, Elizabeth and Sidney Harmon, and Wendy and Ross Cabeen, it was decided to open their school the following fall in the Ryan's backyard. Shortly thereafter, they moved to an abandoned religious building on Chandler Boulevard, under the direction of a gifted Quaker educator, Bryson Gerard. Mr. Gerard's educational philosophy appealed to these founding parents, who had rich and happy memories of their own progressive educations.
The Elementary School - Innovative Beginnings
In 1951, Oakwood purchased its present elementary campus with personal guarantees from Robert Ryan, Sydney Harmon and Ross Cabeen. Those early years were pretty rough and in the spring of 1954 the founders had voted to give the school away. But they decided to give it one more try and Elizabeth Harmon departed for the east coast in search of a new director. As fate would have it, Marie Spottswood, then Director of New York's Ethical Culture Fieldston School, was looking for a change. It was Miss Spottswood who gave Oakwood the special and innovative character of its humanities curriculum, teaching methods and administration. She imparted to students, teachers and parents her passion for education centered on the needs of the individual.
During the next decade, under Miss Spottswood's excellent stewardship, Oakwood became known throughout Southern California as a center for fine elementary education. Along with Marie Spottswood's progressive teaching methods, alums from the earliest years also fondly recall Mabel Pratt's freshly baked cornbread and Virgie Van Bark's daily tolling of the school bell. After five decades, that bell is still rung each day at the elementary school. But, as happy as they were with Oakwood, it soon became evident to the parents they wanted more. They strongly felt the need for a secondary school with the same educational philosophies.
The Secondary School Expansion - Progressive Progression
In the winter of 1964, an Agoura summer camp became available and, that fall, Oakwood opened its secondary campus: a humanistic, college preparatory day school, grades 7 through 9; the assumption being that one grade would be added each year should the school prove a success. To head this new campus, Marie Spottswood hired Hamlin Smith, from Chicago's North Shore Country Day School. Ham gave the school its moral emphasis, its accent on the arts, and its quality as a "learning community" where individual teacher-student exchange was a constant and enriching process. A tenth grade was added in 1965, an eleventh in 1966 and a twelfth in 1967.
In 1967, after Oakwood outgrew its Agoura Campus, founding parent Elizabeth Harmon Schappert generously donated the down payment for our current Magnolia property. A bronze plaque dedicating this campus to her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Max Wallerstein, stands outside the library. Over the years that followed, many improvements have enhanced both campuses. Learning became a matter of educating the heart and hand, as well as the mind, just as the founders originally intended.
The Founding Families
Jessica and Robert Ryan
Jessica Ryan was tall, handsome, bright, full of talent and humor, somewhat shy, spoke infrequently but always to the point. She came from a Quaker background, and found the first Director of Oakwood, Bryson Gerard, at a Quaker school in Pasadena.
Robert Ryan had a wry twist to his expression suitable for villainous film roles which he was reluctant for his children to see. He had no "actor's ego," was down-to-earth, intelligent and willing to work for any cause he saw as important. When Oakwood bought and built the Moorpark campus, the Ryans, Harmons, and Cabeens guaranteed the loans.
Elizabeth and Sidney Harmon
Elizabeth Harmon was small, gentle, and had attended Fieldston, a progressive school in New York where, in 1954 during an Oakwood crisis, she found Marie Spottswood and convinced her to become the third and most significant head of Lower Oakwood. Later Elizabeth Harmon made another decisive contribution: $50,000. as down payment on the present secondary school campus.
Sidney Harmon was an independent film producer. In his early twenties, he became a "boy wonder" when he produced Kingsley's "Men in White" on Broadway. At meetings, his meadering speech concealed a man who usually accomplished whatever he set out to do.
Wendy and Ross Cabeen
Ross Cabeen was a conservative among liberals, a Republican among Democrats, a businessman among artists, an open-minded gentleman who had fallen among friends with firm opinions about almost everything. A petroleum engineer with his own exploration company, his hair was red, his complexion ruddy, his expression nearly always amused, and he could sell ice to the Eskimos. It was visits from Cabeen and Ryan which convinced our Moorpark neighbors that what they most wanted next door was a school playground.
Wendy Cabeen looked like a tall, red-blonde, university homecoming queen, and gave endless energy to Oakwood.
Charles and Emilie Haas
Charles Haas, a film director, and his wife, Emilie, both of whom had gone to superb "progressive" private schools, along with Jessica Ryan and Elizabeth Harmon, were the only founders who knew exactly what they wanted, so they had a decisive influence on the kind of school Oakwood became. It was Charles Haas who found Ham Smith, first principal of the secondary school.
More about Charles Haas.
Other Important Members
Marian Doran knew shorthand and for years kept the minutes of all meetings. Mark Merrick took time from his accounting business to keep Oakwood's financial records. Sid Kuller, a writer of comedy acts, helped to create our earliest fund raisers. Heidi Edwards was often the office force, David Lipton of Universal handled publicity, Frances Lustgarten, professional pianist, was our music department.
When the founding fathers finished cleaning the toilets and washing the floors of our first home on Chandler Boulevard, they built the cupboards in the front buildings at the elementary school. John Sturges, the film director, lent his table saw, and he and Charles Haas took turns supervising other fathers who had never built anything with their own hands. Already we were a "learning community.