One of Jean Waller Brune's first acts as head of Roland Park Country School in October 1992 was to wind up a toy cow and watch it make a mooing sound as it walked across the conference table in her office.
"This is the dignified me," Brune, then 50, told a Baltimore Sun reporter.
As she begins her 24th and final school year before retiring next June, the windup cow is long gone, but a cow mask that she bought way back when and wears every Halloween sits on a bookshelf, one of more than 300 cow collectibles for which she is known. One year, she recalls, students put a life-sized cow cutout in her office as an April Fool's joke.
Cows are part of Brune's character and consistency, a lasting sign of her ability to connect with students even as she has maintained a reputation over the years as a disciplinarian.
"I hold to standards," she said.
Brune, a Roland Park resident, graduated from Roland Park Country in 1960, just as her mother, Jean Waller had done in 1933, and her daughter, Marion Paterson, would do in 1984. Brune was the first alumnae to be named head of school. She has become such a part of the firmament at the all-girls private school that it's hard to imagine her leaving.
"I could do nothing else but spend the year figuring out how to pack everything," she said, sitting at the same conference table for an interview last week, across the hall from her original office.
Brune is leaving, but she will not be forgotten. In October, her 24th anniversary, she will host a luncheon for the 55th year reunion of her own graduating class and will receive the McCauley Bowl, the highest honor the school's alumnae association can bestow.
Beyond personal accolades, Brune's legacy is everywhere on the sprawling, bucolic campus off Roland Avenue. Under her administration, the prestigious school of 670 students has grown its endowment from $9.9 million to more than $50 million, doubled its faculty to nearly 200, greatly expanded foreign language offerings and created a STEM Institute that offers a special certificate for advanced studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
This week, Brune announced that the Charles T. Bauer Charitable Foundation has granted Roland Park Country an endowment gift of $1 million. The Evelyn R. Zink Emergency Assistance Endowment, named for the school's longtime director of development, will provide financial assistance to students whose families experience an unexpected financial need that affects their ability to pay school expenses, according to a press release.
As part of a three-stage campus master plan, Brune oversaw the building of a new science wing, an athletic complex, the Macfarlane Arts Center, which includes the Sinex Theater (now home to the Young Victorian Theatre Company), and two libraries – Faissler for middle and upper school students and Killebrew for the lower school.
She also has built rapport with her students and faculty, starting with her declaration to the Sun in 1992 that she had an open-door policy and that, "It is important for the students to know that I have a personality. The collecting of cows came about because people who have known me as a teacher know that I love cows. It goes along with the nurturing part of education."
Last week, in a coda to her career, Brune said, "I'm proudest of our product, which is the kids. That's what we're all about, and that's certainly what I've always been about."
"Jean has been a visionary leader who embraces change, " Catherine McDonnell, president of the board of trustees said in a written statement announcing Brune's retirement plans.
"Jean Brune is one of the most compassionate people I've ever met," said Lisa Diver, 27, of Homeland, a 2006 graduate of Roland Park Country and now the school's performing arts department head and upper school music teacher. "I think she's everybody's biggest cheerleader. I try to instill that in my students."
Before coming to Roland Park Country, Brune had a whole separate career as an educator.
After majoring in English and graduating magna cum laude from Middlebury College in Vermont, Brune started educating in 1967 as a kindergarten teacher at Pimlico Elementary School in the mornings. She also taught English at the old Baltimore Junior College, now Baltimore City Community College, and adults to read on Saturdays.
In 1968, she joined Gilman School, a boys' school, as an assistant first-grade teacher for a year, and then spent the next 12 years as a third-grade homeroom teacher. Then, she was promoted to lower school admissions director and also taught reading and study skills before being promoted again to head the Gilman lower school.
She said she had no plans to leave Gilman until Roland Park Country's then-head of school, Margaret Smith, left after nine years.
Reading the job description, Brune thought, "I could do this."
"Go for it," her daughter said.
Twenty-four years after arriving at Gilman, Brune moved across the street to take the reins of her old school as the sixth head of school in the history of Roland Park Country, which was founded in 1894.
"I left [Gilman] because this is my alma mater," she said.
Brune likes the symmetry of having spent 24 years at Gilman and then 24 years at Roland Park Country.
"It's a nice balance," she said.
Changing face of education
As an administrator, Brune has seen many changes in education, for better or worse.
Technology and the Internet have changed the face of education, she said, placing much more information at students' fingertips and making it easier for them to do research online.
"If you want to know how to change a tire, go to YouTube," she said by way of example. "There's much less need to memorize things."
Education is also much more global, she said.
"You're not restricted to the walls of the school. The world is our village now."
That hasn't negated the need to teach students to apply and analyze what they learn.
"It's what you do with that information," Brune said.
There is also more attention paid to the environment and sustainability, which Roland Park Country School under Brune has embraced with everything from gardening and composting projects to a backwoods gazebo, public benches made from recyclables, and solar panels on the flat roof of the lower school. Roland Park Country School was designated as a Maryland Green School in 2003.
"We are teaching our kids to be responsible stewards," Brune said. "It certainly wasn't part of education when I was growing up."
As the popularity of charter schools rises, Roland Park Country this fall will open the Lillie May Carroll Jackson Charter School for girls from Baltimore City in grades five through eight. The school will be housed in the old Chinquapin Middle School and its board will include several Roland Park Country School administrators, including Brune, Head of Lower School Beth Casey, Assistant Head of School for Academics Carla Spawn-van Berkum and Assistant Head of School for External Relations Nancy Mugele. The chairman of the board is 1998 graduate Monica Butler Mitchell, a vice president and senior relationship manager for Wells Fargo Bank.
Some trends in education aren't as welcome from Brune's perspective.
"Sadly, there is less respect for education and educators," she said, adding that a lot of parents and students are asking educators to prove the relevance of educational decisions and policies. "It has added another dimension to education. There's less trust in society."
Although saying that the school has a strong financial aid program, Brune is also concerned about the rising costs of tuition, including at Roland Park Country, where tuition has jumped from $9,000 a year when she first came to nearly $27,000 a year.
Still going strong
In her final year, Brune is as active as ever, immersed in maintaining accreditation JOHN for Roland Park Country School, a process that is undertaken every 10 years.
"This is my third go-around," she said.
Brune also just finished a new strategic plan for programs and financial stability that she says will help make a transition to a new head of a school and provide "a road map" for her successor, who is expected to be named by November.
Brune shows no signs of slowing down, saying, "I've got another year to go."
When asked what she would most like people to remember about her, tears came to her eyes.
"I hope they know how much I love what I do, and how much I really care for the school," she said.