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Posted by on April 14, 2014

Lane and DennisI was shut in an empty classroom with 3×5 cards color coded and spread across two tables. I was trying to create class schedules for the some 20 odd students that comprised The Happy Valley School in 1978. Dr. Lunt, the HVS Director, keyed into the room followed by a tall bearded fellow, a prospective teacher on a tour. Dr. Lunt was immediately called away and I was left to converse with Garland Lane Toler, a conversation that impacted and set the course for both of our lives for years to come. Somehow in the course of the next hour (who knows where the hell Dr. Lunt went) we discovered a mutual enthusiasm for teaching and for young adults, a common philosophy of optimistic pragmatism, and a shared love for tennis, guitars, literature, and a good laugh. Unhappy teaching in a small San Francisco college, Lane was looking for something new. The HVS salary was embarrassing. We had yet to construct a campus. The hours would be daunting and Lane would have to leave his wife and two daughters in the Bay area until he could afford to bring them down or perhaps until he could decide if this leap of faith would pan out. Still, he took the job and together we taught, counseled, crisis managed, supervised, cajoled and otherwise nurtured a school back into existence. The next year I became the director of the school and Lane remained at my side as teacher, dean, and trusted advisor for the ensuing 25 years.

I believed, and still do, that the secret of a good school is to put students in daily interaction with intelligent, moral, creative, and dedicated people. Of course I hired for subject expertise, but mostly I tried to hire for character. I reasoned that you could help a person learn to teach, but character was first and Lane was not only a character he had character in spades. Working with him as long as I did, I can write that Lane was without exception one of the kindest people I have ever known. There was no meanness about him and he brought that spirit into the school. When students struggled, he offered aid, an encouraging word, a hug, a joke, and perhaps some advice. It was a remarkable gift for a school to have a Dean of Students who was completely non-judgmental, who was capable of calling the toughest miscreant to task and having them feel better after leaving the office. I can’t recall a single important decision that I did not first consult Lane Toler and his response was almost always to look at what was best for the students.

When the school went out on backpacking trips, which we did for over two dozen years, Lane was my pack partner and we came to mark the passage of time by seasons in the Sierras. At talent shows we usually performed together. Lane was a much more accomplished guitar player than I, but he always preferred to just accompany and perhaps throw in a solo. Having the bigger ego and less talent, I would be the front man. In between songs, Lane would tell a joke…usually something awful that made people groan. The louder the groan, the better he liked it. He was absolutely full of these jokes and seemed to bring a new one to school each day. One of his favorite aspects of teaching in a high school was that Lane could recycle his jokes every four years. Lane simply believed that laughter was good medicine and the best gift he could give was that of a smile.

Lane could also regularly kick my ass on the tennis court. I am a reasonable player, but for over 15 years I played a weekly match with Lane and it was well over the first two years before I took a set. After a while, either I got better or I just sensed when he was about to unleash one of his patented slimy drop shots or rocket forehands and the matches became pretty even, both of us knowing the others’ game so well that each point usually ended with one of us splayed out on the court and both of us laughing. By far the best tennis I ever played was with Lane. Of course, he had been a public courts champ up in SF, but like all else, he did not brag about it. When we were troubled by some circumstance at school, it was always best to discuss it over a beer following a set of tennis.

Thus, together we helped to build a campus, to grow the school to nearly 100, and to survive good years and bad, through satisfying achievements and bitter disappointments, sweeping brushfires, washed out roads, High Sierra blizzards, heartbreaking expulsions, a burned dormitory, a lifetime of faculty meetings and, eventually, through the sad circumstances that led us both to walk away from the school that we loved. Together we gave each other a memorable journey. There is no aspect of it that I do not recall sharing with Lane, nothing that I achieved that I achieved alone.

On my 36th birthday (that’s right, 36 years ago) Lane wrote to me:


I have made a friend

(And, I think,  I have)

I’ve always thought: “Hey,

How many? How many

Do you make in a lifetime?”

In a life

Time goes slowly


It is good

It is good

To have a friend.

…Right back at you, Lane, and thanks for more than could ever be mentioned.


6 Responses to Lane

  1. Janell

    In my grieving for Lane I am thoroughly enjoying your reflections of moments with Lane and of HVS going back to the Dr. Lunt days when we were camped out at that place down the the road. It is bringing back all 21 years of memories with Lane (and you) at the core. I think I understand now why he disappeared from our view. Still can’t believe he is gone.

  2. Brian Brophy

    Lane was the exceptional and rare man who used patience and humor as the tools to lead. A lesson his memory will continue to teach. Fortunately, I can’t remember a single one of his jokes. Though not one was ever funny, I laughed with him every time. Thank you for your remembrance.

  3. anne briandet

    Very beautiful tribute… I always like to read about HVS back in the days, and after… Thanks for sharing with us.

  4. David Forsyth

    Avalanche Pass, October (1980?). Dennis and I celebrated out birthday before it began to snow. The group was still headed towards the summit when it turned into a blizzard. Dennis and Lane had a pow-wow and decided it was time to cut the trip short and get off the mountain as fast as possible, but we were in the middle of nowhere. Lane and I each carried one of the girl’s backpacks, in addition to our own. I could tell that he and Dennis were becoming increasingly concerned, as was I, by the unseasonal snow storm. We were now off our planned course too, which could prove problematic if conditions got so bad that a search party was dispatched. This was long before cell phones and GPS. We reached a fire-road and followed it down the mountain. Spirits soared when we spotted a 4×4 truck in the road ahead of us, only to be dashed when we realized that it was up on a jack with one wheel missing. We were still miles from civilization and the temperatures had been below freezing for hours. Nightfall wasn’t far off and none of us looked forward to pitching camp in the midst of a blizzard. We pushed on and discussed breaking into any Forest Service cabin we came across. Finally we were surprised by the sound of vehicles coming down the dirt road behind us. A jeep and a pick-up truck driven by some hunters pulled up. You’d think that would be the end of the story, but there was not enough room inside the vehicles for all of us. Lane and I, along with one or two others, had to ride in the open bed of the truck with all the backpacks. This was the most memorable part of the adventure for me. The blizzard raged as we drove another ten miles to the Lodge above Kings Canyon. I was colder than I had ever been, but it was hilarious to watch Lane’s beard freeze solid during the drive. I’ll never forget that. Priceless memories. Dennis’ mention of a blizzard brought it all back into focus.

  5. Jeanie Kim

    My memory of Lane. There are just too many. I was a troubled kid since I got there. I didn’t speak any English and got into a fight with girls from upper dorm and he called me to his office and tried to explain why I was in trouble and need to work off some hours- my first kitchen work hours. Haha. That was just beginning. Anyways that was my first visit to his office and by the time I graduated, I just visited him randomly and had small talks. I even took one of his ESL class, which was fun. One of precious memories I have with him would be the prom I went to when I was junior. I told him I don’t wanna go just cause- then he asked me out. He asked me and Seohee as well. It was Seohee’s senior prom so he wanted her to go as well. He was so sweet the night of prom. He brought us corsages so it looks like we have him as a date. Haha. But I was wearing a tux – I was going through tomboy phase so. Anyways seohee and I had fun that night. We have photos from the night. Dennis knows I got in many troubles and Lane was always there. Haha. I miss my time in HVS. I had hard time after I graduated at new environment. I never once regret going to the school inside of mountain middle of nowhere. Haha. We were all family and Lane was like my grandpa. I miss him a lot. He always wrote me a poem on my year book. “Kiddo” something something. You will be always in my heart Lane. Miss you very much.

  6. Kim Maxwell

    A lovely homage to the loveliest of friends.

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