Retiring headmaster Stephen Repsher chalks up 44 years in education

(Photo used by permission of Stephen Repsher.)
Headmaster Stephen Repsher hands his son Dylan, ’11, his diploma at Dylan’s high-school graduation.

“It doesn’t seem like 44 years, but of course, that’s the way life is,” headmaster Stephen Repsher said.

“It goes very, very fast.”

If you had told Repsher when he was a freshman at Union College in Schenectady, New York, that he would be retiring from 13 years of headmastership at SCDS, he probably would have laughed. As a freshman, Repsher was planning to major in electrical engineering.

But he suddenly had a change of heart when he realized that his love of people was larger than his love of machines.

“I realized that though I was good at (electrical engineering) and I enjoyed it, I was more of a people person,” Repsher said. “I didn’t see myself working in an office somewhere poring over engineering plans.”

Repsher had been taking Spanish as a language requirement and learned that other students were taking study-abroad programs. So he attended a New York University program in Madrid for a year.

“I became so enamored with Spanish culture, history and language that I switched to get a degree in modern languages,” Repsher said.

Repsher spent another year at New York University in Madrid studying for a master’s degree in Spanish literature while teaching to pay the bills.

When he returned to the United States, Repsher began looking for a teaching job on the East Coast, but few schools were willing to hire him because of his lack of teaching credentials until a chance encounter.

One day, Repsher was walking down Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey, with a friend after having brunch when he saw a door with a sign that said I.E.S. (Independent Educational Services). Intrigued, Repsher entered the office and found a man in a tweed jacket smoking a pipe. It was Bill Beckert, who would give Repsher his first teaching position at an independent school.

“A lot of what happens in life is like that,” Repsher said. “John Lennon said ‘Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,’ and there’s a lot of truth to that.”

For 14 years, Repsher bounced around, teaching at schools in New York, Colorado and California. During that time, he coached JV soccer, wrestling, JV ice hockey, tennis and skiing.

“Teaching people how to ski is pretty neat because it’s not like teaching someone how to play soccer,” Repsher said.

“If you miss the (soccer) ball, you just miss the ball, but in skiing if you make a mistake, it could be painful.”

Repsher said that his teaching experience has made him more faculty-minded in his decisions as headmaster.

“Not having that core understanding would make it exceedingly difficult to run the school,” Repsher said. “You could run it from a business standpoint, but the heart wouldn’t be there.”

Repsher said he is also more sympathetic to teachers.

(Photo used by permission of Stephen Repsher.)
Headmaster Stephen Repsher poses while on a hiking trip with Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California, in 1997.

“I know what it’s like to be in the trenches,” Repsher said. “It’s such an enervating, exhausting profession because you’re getting up there five times a day and putting on a performance.”

In addition to being associate head of school at Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California, Repsher was the college counselor, one of his favorite administrative jobs.

In 2003, Repsher moved from a six-year headmastership at Laguna Blanca School in Santa Barbara to SCDS. He took over from Selden Edwards, who had been headmaster for five years.

On the day before Repsher’s first official day, he took his wife Paula and children Emily, ‘09, and Dylan, ‘11, to show them his office. What he was not expecting was for the burglar alarm to be triggered. Luckily for Repsher, who did not know the code to turn it off, maintenance foreman Sailendra Singh came to the rescue.

Former director of advancement Wendy Ross, who worked at SCDS for 27 years, said that when she first met Repsher, she was impressed with his depth of experience, enthusiasm, energy and vision.

“I felt Country Day was going to be in ‘good hands’ and fortunate to have him choose us,” Ross said.

Sue Nellis, history teacher and head of high school of 17 years, said that when she showed Repsher around before he began his position, she noticed he was already driven to complete his mission of revamping the campus.

“He could see there was potential here and that the education was great,” Nellis said. “He wanted to make the physical environment closer to the quality of academics.”

But Ross said that this task was complicated by the economic recession.

“His biggest challenge (was) guiding the school through the turbulent economic downturn while preserving jobs and programs,” Ross said.

Despite the economic troubles, Repsher raised $5 million for campus infrastructure, which cost $2 million; the lower-school buildings, which cost $8 million; and the science building, which was $1 million.

In addition to improving the campus, Repsher also juggled raising teacher salaries and benefits, hiring more staff, increasing tuition and improving the curriculum by adding more APs and honors classes.

“That’s my style,” he said. “I’ve always liked to be busy and have lots of things going on at once.”

Adam Ketchum, Kevin Huang and Manson Tung


But Repsher wasn’t all work and no play. He has participated in numerous student activities, such as the junior and senior class trip to Ashland, which he attended for 10 years.

Nellis said that when she and the other teacher chaperones first heard that Repsher would be coming, they were nervous.

“You never know if a person of authority is going to be collegial or take over,” Nellis said. “But he didn’t pull rank or whatever. It gave us the opportunity to get to know him as a person.”

Nellis said she and the other teachers were relieved that Repsher accompanied them because he was one of the few chaperones willing to go whitewater rafting with the students.

On one trip, Repsher, out of the corner of his eye, saw the boat next to his hit a rock, causing two senior boys to fly out and run into him. All three were then sent sprawling into the river.

“The boys were a little nervous when we surfaced,” Repsher said. “But I found it all very amusing.”

Kelley Taber, mother of junior Zane and freshman Nate Jakobs, said she has also appreciated how hands-on Repsher has been with students and parents.

Taber said she enjoys his greeting students on the curb and opening their car doors in the morning.

“(Greeting the kids) personalizes the experience,” Taber said.

Taber also remembers Repsher’s role as Abraham Lincoln in the annual fifth-grade Civil War re-enactment.

“It was always a scorching hot day,” Taber said. “He did his part in bringing history alive for the fifth graders. He wears many hats, and that giant Abe Lincoln hat was just another one of them.”

Taber has also been on the Board of Trustees for 11 years (and president for three), nine of which have been with Repsher as headmaster. She said she will miss Repsher’s sense of humor, wisdom and experience, which the Board has relied on greatly.

“It’s hard to believe it’s gone by that quickly,” Taber said. “He has been such a steady hand and wise leader. It will be hard to say goodbye.”

Sandy Lyon, middle-school head, said that Repsher gave her a warm welcome when she became middle-school head nine years ago.

“He has always been supportive of me,” Lyon said. “We get along well, and he (was) a good mentor as I learned my new position.”

Paula, Repsher’s wife of nearly 34 years, said that not only has Repsher changed SCDS, but SCDS has also changed him.

“He has seen how a welcoming, supportive community can come together to achieve great things,” she said.

She said that her husband has always been a very thoughtful and caring person in both his professional and personal life.

“(Dylan and Emily) both love their father’s sense of humor and his pearls of wisdom,” she said. “Mr. Repsher frequently has us all laughing.”

At Repsher’s fiesta-themed farewell event on May 20, senior Lifer Aidan Galati gave a speech on Repsher’s engagement with the community. “He has truly invested his heart and soul into this school,” Galati said, “whether it’s opening car doors every morning, running the Jog-a-Thon, or simply knowing every student’s name and interests.”

Repsher said that people have come up to him all year asking if he is “winding down,” but his answer is the same every time.

“There is no winding down in this job,” he said. “It’s either full on or full off. There is no dimmer switch. Right now it’s full on, and on July 1 it will be completely off.”

By Sonja Hansen

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