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GOODBYE TO GILMAN After 24 Years, Headmaster Finney Is Heading Off Into the Sunset


It is midmorning at Gilman School as Redmond Finney strides into the classroom to exercise his basic rights as headmaster.

He is going to stand on his head.

The first-graders are expecting Mr. Finney. They aced their last spelling test, and this is their reward. R-E-W-A-R-D. Gilman kids will spell anything to see their 62-year-old, gray-haired headmaster turn upside down.

Mr. Finney's arrival is a welcome intrusion. Children tug at him good-naturedly, as they would a grandfather who has finally relented to sharing the secret of wiggling his ears.

Naturally there are questions, concerns.

"Can I hold your jacket, Mr. Finney?"

"Will it hurt, Mr. Finney?"

"Don't fall on us, Mr. Finney!"

Mr. Finney, a former college All-American, does not fall. Hands on floor, he kicks up his legs and proceeds to stand on his head for a good five seconds. He does this with such grace that his glasses never leave his face.

The class erupts in a collective "Wow!" as the headmaster jumps back to his feet. Then everyone gives a hearty Gilman cheer, and Mr. Finney is gone.

Some say that's how he should depart the Roland Avenue campus when he retires in June.

After 24 years at the helm and a total of 49 years at the school, Redmond Conyngham Stewart Finney is leaving Gilman, his alma mater, the once-stuffy private institution in North Baltimore that he dragged into modern times. Mr. Finney has in fact put himself out to pasture, retiring to his son's 190-acre farm in Upperco to raise race horses.

He is not deserting education entirely. He will serve on the Board of School Commissioners for Baltimore City, a post for which he was actively sought by Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

He leaves behind an institution rich in ethnic diversity, dollars and decorum. Gilman graduated its first four black students in 1968, Mr. Finney's first year as headmaster. The school's minority enrollment now stands at 30 percent, out of a total enrollment of 945.

Only Mr. Finney could have met that challenge, Gilman officials say.

"He used all his strength to make diversity almost a non-issue," says Ron Shapiro, a member of Gilman's board of trustees. "People may not have believed in [integration], but they believed in him. He's a touchstone in a turbulent time."

Alumni also approve of the direction in which Gilman is headedWitness the school's endowment fund, which has grown from $1 million to $24 million during Mr. Finney's tenure.

Gilman's new $5 million athletic center bears Mr. Finney's name. a nice gesture, but the building is made of brick and cement and thus stands as a cold and impersonal reminder of an extraordinarily warm and compassionate man.

He makes it a point -- no, a rule -- to know the first and last names of all 412 boys in the Upper School, and some of those in the Lower School as well. He has offered his residence on campus to students desperately seeking an uncluttered after-school study environment. He pressed for linkage with two neighboring girls' institutions, Bryn Mawr and Roland Park Country School, breathing a healthy heterogeneity into Gilman for the first time since it opened in 1897.

"Boys need to see girls in something other than a party setting," he reasons. "They need to know girls have brains, too."

It works.

"Finney's legacy is making Gilman more than an academic institution," says David Drake, the school's public relations director. "His legacy is making it human."

He seldom sits at his official-looking desk. He prefers to greet visitors from behind a small table instead. "I don't like having a desk between me and somebody else," he says.

Or an office, for that matter. More likely you'll find him at a school concert, assembly or ballgame, or cruising the halls with his crooked gait, patting kids on the back with one hand and spearing litter off the floor with the other. Mr. Finney is the highest-paid custodian at Gilman.

"You have to give the school your presence," he says. "Too often, what's missing from educational institutions is the personal touch. You've got to get out of the office. It's easy for me; I'm a terrible administrator."

Mr. Finney still teaches a class, in freshman religion, to maintain a rapport with the students.

"You've got to keep your ear to the ground," he says. Of course. Why else would he stand on his head?

His sincerity and self-deprecating humor are treasured by youngsters who could spot a phony clear across campus.

"With Reddy Finney, there is no posturing and very little ego," says Sherman Bristow, the associate headmaster. "He believes that every student has greatness inside of him. With some, you just have to work harder to get that greatness out."

Having to expel a student cuts him to the quick.

"The hardest thing is to let a kid go," Mr. Finney says softly. "It takes an awful lot to do that. We frequently give kids a second chance."

Or even a third.

"He administrates compassionately," says Mr. Bristow. "Frankly, yes, there are times when he's a naive person. But there is a fine line between his naivete and his belief in the greatness of humanity."

But woe to those who offend his sense of honor. Off come the rose-colored glasses. Justice is swift.

Mr. Shapiro recalls an incident involving a part-time coach who blurted out an ethnic remark: "Reddy's disappointment was deep, his anger even deeper. Disciplinary action was immediate; the coach was gone."

Several years ago, a group of Gilman students were found heckling a classmate who had turned them in for cheating on a quiz. Mr. Finney became enraged. The honors violation bothered him less than the fact that the student who reported it had been harassed. The culprits, all seniors, were disciplined, their colleges notified.

"What do I expect here? Honorable behavior and a trusting climate," says Mr. Finney. "If somebody violates that trust, you have to use it as a teaching moment without overly castigating the violator."

Gilman averages two or three expulsions a year, and it is partl to Mr. Finney's credit that in later life, some of those former students become loyal and generous alumni.

I explained all this quaint nostalgia to a couple of kids on the Gilman school newspaper staff who were interviewing me not long ago, and even over the phone I could hear them chortling and slapping their knees at these accounts as if I was describing my upbringing in the Ming Dynasty.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Gilman wasn't substantively much different from the rest of Baltimore then. Even many of the public schools were still single sex and everybody was segregated. Tip O'Neill made the famous remark about how all politics was local; well, all Baltimore was local, too. Very little of it seemed to be shared -- only the downtown, for

sure, and the Sunpapers; the Block, for slumming, and the Colts and the Orioles, which were both just coming in.

Gilman was just homogeneity taken to a higher power. It was wonderfully stable and secure if you were a child. But I also knew that I had to grow up sometime, and it was too insular to encourage that. There were only 41 guys in my class, and many of those I'd been in class with since I was six years old. Hardly anybody ever left Gilman, and nobody new ever came in. There was barely even any turnover on the faculty, and when Reddy showed up he wasn't necessarily noticed because he was physically big and prepossessing, but simply because he was a rarity for us -- fresh meat. His baptism of fire was an American history course I was in, and he ruefully remembers the experience still, because we realized he had been thrown into the breach and didn't know much more about the subject than we did, and so we worked him over pretty good. Even beloved legends have to start somewhere, though, and I take great pride in that I helped to break the kid in.

Altogether, Gilman then was something like living in the Gulf Stream. You were smack in the middle of an ocean, only you were apart, going at a different pace than everything on either side. Years later, after Reddy had been headmaster for sometime, it suddenly occurred to me that not once in my entire six years at Gilman had I so much as heard the name of H. L. Mencken -- let alone been taught anything about him. That would have been like going to school in Mississippi and purposely avoiding Faulkner. So I wrote Reddy a letter and said that if Gilman was really going to try and be a part of Baltimore, then we ought to be ashamed not to be teaching about the most influential Baltimorean who ever lived.

The city games of baseball and basketball were also declasse at Gilman when I attended. The sports that mattered the most were wrestling and lacrosse, which we were very good at, and football, where we got clobbered. But, anyway, it was those "muscular Christianity" games that counted. I'm sure that Reddy would have been outstanding at any sport he attempted, but it was exactly football, wrestling and lacrosse that he starred in himself. He wasn't just from Gilman, he was of Gilman.

He was also at the very height of his physical powers when he arrived back home. Massive all over, I especially recall his neck, which was so huge it was no neck at all. You got this kind of neck, I believe, from "bridging," which is what wrestlers practiced to avoid getting pinned.

With the neck, Reddy also had some kind of involuntary twitch, which made you think twice even if he looked so benign. It was awesome.

Absolutely no one ever thought he was phony, which is an extraordinary tribute for a teacher so rah-rah. He was just terribly genuine, and even cynical little teen-age creeps could tell that. I've always thought that if you wrote a story about Mr. Chips in America, he wouldn't be a Latin teacher -- or, primarily, a teacher of anything. First, he'd be a coach, for in America coaches seem to be able to touch boys in ways that no one else -- sometimes, sadly, even their fathers -- can. That was Reddy. He was the quintessential American coach teacher. In that sense, he risked a great deal when he gave that up to be headmaster.

I will be honest, too. I thought it was a mistake when the Gilman board of trustees selected him. This was no reflection on the man, but simply on the fact that I thought it was time for Gilman to break out, and that required new blood. Of course, as it turned out, I was wrong on all counts. I didn't give Reddy nearly enough credit, and I didn't comprehend that the only-Nixon-can-go- to-China analogy prevailed here. Probably, if some outsider had been brought in, and he had sought the same dramatic change that Reddy did, he would have been resisted. Reddy might have been the only one who could have done what he did -- lead Gilman ahead in time and back into Baltimore. He pulled off all the difficult, sensitive things when he could have just played it safe and grown old and beloved.

And he became beloved anyway.

He also wrote me back that time a few years ago, and said he appreciated my thoughts, but it had already been taken care of )) and Mencken had been installed in the curriculum for several years now.

It just took them a bit longer to get the greatness out.

"Finney has a Father Flanagan philosophy: There is no such thing as a bad boy," says Nick Schloeder, the dean of faculty. "He'll work with problem kids. He really believes you can change people. He's as genuine a guy as you'll meet.

"I've seen ninth-graders bump into him on purpose. It's tactile; they want to be around him. They want him to call their names and talk to them."

He treats them with dignity. With respect. These are critical teaching tools, says Mr. Finney.

"If a kid feels that an adult really cares about him, he'll at least try," he says.

He took Keefe Clemons, among others, under wing. Mr. Clemons, class of '85, enrolled at Gilman from a foster home in West Baltimore. He studied, starred in track and field and went on to Princeton University. He is currently attending Harvard Law School.

Mr. Clemons says Mr. Finney nurtured him along at Gilman and that without the headmaster's initial support, "the odds of my getting into trouble would have been much higher. I might have been a very intelligent criminal on Carey Street instead of a lawyer-to-be."

Even now when the two men meet, they hug.

Mr. Clemons remembers Mr. Finney as "an excellent role modewith a crushing handshake. He never needed to command respect; he simply won it by his actions. He'd make a great president. He has more of a sense of social responsibility than some of our recent ones."

U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, whose two sons attended Gilman, call Redmond Finney "an extraordinary headmaster with boundless energy and a sterling character."

Barbara Chase, headmistress at Bryn Mawr School, calls hi "incredibly wise, the kind of person who can give you advice and make you feel like you knew it all along. Sometimes leading a school can be very lonely. It helps me to know Reddy is over there."

And there is this testament from Harold Xanders, Gilman '45 and a longtime friend of Mr. Finney:

"I'd do anything for the guy except give him strokes in golf."

Ah, sports. Mr. Finney's passion for athletics is legend: A standout at Princeton in the early 1950s, he remains one of only two men ever named All-American twice in one year, in football and lacrosse. The other was Jim Brown of Syracuse.

Mr. Finney played center and captained Princeton's undefeated football team in 1950, then led the Tigers to a share of the national lacrosse title the following spring. A religion major, he turned down an invitation to play in the North-South football all-star game in order to complete his thesis on "Protestantism and Catholicism in 19th Century America." He received a B-plus.

In his senior year, Mr. Finney was named Princeton's besall-around athlete as well as "most modest," an honor most certainly bestowed for his off-the-field behavior. Intensely competitive, he proved considerably less restrained during contests.

In a game against Rutgers, he tackled a particularly combative rival by lifting the 225-pound player over his head and slamming him to the ground, pro wrestling-style. Then he fell on him. Then, for good measure, he sank his teeth into the poor guy's abdomen.

Say it ain't so, Reddy.

"Unfortunately, I did bite the man in the stomach," Mr. Finney says apologetically. "It was wrong. I shouldn't have done it. But it's true."

He is equally driven in other sports. Though he never coachebaseball, he loved working out with Gilman's team as one of the guys. One afternoon, while batting, he struck out on a slow knuckle ball thrown by a young pitcher named Walter Buck. Mr. Finney was fooled badly, and Walter Buck felt darn happy as he waited for the next hitter.

But Mr. Finney refused to leave the plate. Instead, he pointed his bat menacingly at the young pitcher and roared, "Throw that ball in like a man, Buck!"

Rattled, the youth obeyed. He threw a fastball which Finney smacked 450 feet into center field.

As he rounded the bases, Mr. Finney applauded the disheartened pitcher: "That's the way to throw it in like a man, Buck!"

Such tales hardly diminish the man, say acquaintances.

"There's not a mean bone in his body," says Nick Schloeder. "He's just a tremendous competitor who wants to win."

It has always been so. As a student at Gilman, Redmond Finney lettered in football, wrestling and lacrosse. He also served on the debate team, the school newspaper and yearbook. In 1947, he received Gilman's coveted Fisher Medallion, based on scholarship, leadership and character.

Mr. Finney returned to Gilman in 1954 as a teacher and coach. He was, by all accounts, superb at both. "He was a very enthusiastic teacher," says Mr. Schloeder, who worked beside Mr. Finney in the history department. "He liked to move around the classroom as he talked, and sometimes he'd get so excited about what he was teaching that he'd run into the furniture. You'd hear a bang! and Finney had knocked over a podium, map stand or empty desk.

"He was absolutely unconscious about what was in his way."

In the coaching department, his wrestling teams won back-to-back Maryland Scholastic Association titles in the early 1960s, and football was riding a 17-game winning streak when Mr. Finney grudgingly turned in his playbook to become headmaster in 1968.

The shock of leaving his players so abruptly proved unbearable. For several years, Finney moonlighted as an assistant coach.

"I can still see him running out of his office for the start of afternoon practice, ripping off his suit jacket and tie, rolling up his sleeves and teaching kids to block and tackle in his white shirt and suit pants," says Sherman Bristow.

Even in retirement, Mr. Finney promises to attend athletic events. Gilmanites appreciate the warning.

"Sitting next to Mr. Finney at games is dangerous," says a former student. "He gets very excited and grabs hold of the person nearest him."

Sometimes that person is Jean Finney, his wife of 35 years. Jean Finney cannot imagine life without Gilman. For one thing, doing laundry will be easier. There will be no more picking loose trash from the pockets of a headmaster who has a habit of cleaning the campus as he crosses it daily.

"I don't know how it will all play out," she says. "A faculty member once described Redmond as having an iron fist under a velvet glove. He has a tremendous determination, but is very gentle in using it.

"He'll miss his association with the kids. He missed coaching tremendously. It'll be difficult to go cold turkey. But he has his horses and four grandchildren."

The Finneys themselves have four children: Jeannie, a homemaker and a former Baltimore city schoolteacher; Stewart, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital; Ned, a farmer; and Beth, who works at the National Arboretum in Washington.

In three short months, Mr. Finney will yield to his successor, Archibald Montgomery, currently a history instructor at St. Georges School in Newport, R.I.

Mr. Finney believes he is leaving Gilman in capable hands.

"Arch Montgomery is a good man," he says. "He really likes kids, so . . . "

He pauses, smiling.

"He can learn the rest of the stuff."

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