The notice came on a Saturday morning, June 2004. “You have one week to vacate your office and one month to vacate your house.” After 27 years at Happy Valley School, my tenure as Director was to end. I was the only person ever to occupy that office, built in 1979. By the late 80s, the Board was so pleased with the growth of the school that they built a house for me and my family so that I would stay for the remainder of my career. It was home to Dylan and Kyra and later home to Meredy, Serra, Jason and Claire. I was allowed to help design it. Our pets were buried there. The fruit trees which were given as gifts at our wedding were planted near the entrance. The clear cedar wood was lovingly transported from the Northwest by Rolf Eriksen, a trustee and friend. He then built a beautiful house.
The tide on my career had actually started to turn more than a year before when I received another letter from the president of the Happy Valley Foundation Board announcing that they had decided to disband the school board…the circle of support that had guided and supported both the school and its Director for over 20 years…some of the wisest and most generous people I had ever known. I was informed that I no longer worked for the HVS school board; I now worked for the Happy Valley Foundation board. It was strongly suggested that I have no further contact with “those people”. After a year of fruitless efforts of protest, pleading, and attempts at promoting some reconciliation, I was told to choose: get on board with the new regime or get out. That was when I reluctantly announced that the 2004-2005 school year would be my last. I would help the school through the transition, aid in finding and orienting my successor, and step away from the school that I loved. In one week, I was ordered to vacate.
In addition to getting the boot, I was notified in a registered letter that I was not allowed to have any contact whatsoever regarding the circumstances of my leaving with any member of my staff, with any parent, student or friend of the school. They would pay me for the following year, as had been previously agreed, but only if Meredy and I maintained a strict silence. We instantly became prisoners in our own house, unable to answer calls, answer the door, or walk out on the land. You see, in my stupidity, I had never negotiated a pension or any retirement package at all other than the house. That was where I would live for as long as I would head the school and then I planned to stay on in some emeritus position to help fundraise, etc. But that was another time, another Board, a kinder, gentler group of people.
To say that our family went into shock would be mild. Suddenly, Meredy and I had to find another place to live, pack up 15 years of accumulated life, quickly assess our finances, and get out. I tried to negotiate a little to buy some time, but I was informed by a friend, a former attorney for the HVF, who long since resigned in disgust, “Dennis, you are a nice man playing softball with these people. They are playing hardball. They don’t just wish to get rid of you; they want to hurt you.” Unfortunately, Meredy heard these words too and it shocked all of her sweet, Canadian sensibilities. In fact, it truly frightened her. She had previously known unpleasant people, but never malevolent ones.
The initial search for a home was frustrating and disappointing, and then there came some luck. I happened online and found a house for sale on North Drown in Ojai that was just what we were looking for and this has been our home for the past ten years. It is a good house with good neighbors, quiet, peaceful, and with only a short walk to town. We are happy here. It is our home and that other home is a distant memory; we have never been back. I heard that a subsequent Director painted the beautiful, clear cedar siding…yet another reason to not go back. They say that you can never go back anyway.
In our leaving, we saw close friends wrestle with their wish to walk out and their need to keep a job. Each did what they had to do. Some did leave, others drifted away over the next few years. In a very Shakespearian manner, a few others bent to their own ambition and tried to make the situation work for them. (I was later to learn that the HVF had been in prior contact with these people, wishing to cover their cards from within by promising advancement and reward.) Needless to say, a lot of faith in human nature was lost. I suppose that everyone must choose the gods they will serve.
Why am I writing this now? After all, it has been ten years and the past is the past. I suppose, like much of my other jottings, I just wanted to get it out. I am past the point that they can hurt me or my family. One family now run the Foundation as if it was their own, all other powers vanquished, the foundation whittled down to a few loyalists and family members. Perhaps I am at the point that I can think of HVS with little remorse, a point where the memories of building a school, forging friendships, of the work, the joy, the creativity, and the beauty of the land overshadow the harsh circumstances of our departure. While the winds of fortune do shift, I know that I was fortunate and am fortunate and I have no complaints. 27 years at HVS were a blessing in my life and I would do it all again (though I might be a bit smarter about retirement plans).