Nat Reynolds, former Head of School, teacher, mentor, has died


BP Photo by Leona Fallas

LITERATURE: Mr. Reynolds, a lover of great literature and the arts, hosted poetry seminars for students and faculty during his time at Shalhevet.

Mr. Nathan Reynolds, who founded Shalhevet’s General Studies department, recruited the first student body and years later left retirement on three separate occasions to fill different positions including Interim Head of School, died in his sleep on June 24 at his home in Ojai. He was 86.

He joined with school founder Dr. Jerry Friedman to open the school in 1993, coming out of retirement because he was intrigued with the idea of a school built on moral development. When the school moved into the old campus at San Vicente and Fairfax, he came up with the idea of turning part of it into a theater, and the Wildfire Theater Lab was born.

He then returned as General Studies principal for three years in 1997 and again in 2003, staying for a year-and-a-half when the position became vacant suddenly once again.

He returned for the last time in 2010, to be interim head of school while officials were looking for a permanent new head of school after the departure of Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach — which turned out to be Rabbi Segal — but soon left after being seriously injured in a traffic accident while commuting to Shalhevet from Ojai.

“He loved Shalhevet,” said his widow, Ms. Laura Loebe Reynolds, in an interview with the Boiling Point. “He knew the school well, and he always wanted to help Jerry Friedman. He and Jerry started the school together so they went back quite a few years, and every time Shalhevet was in between directors, he was called because he knew the school so well, and he would just never say no to them. He just loved Shalhevet.”

At a memorial service held Sept. 8 on the middle school campus of Harvard-Westlake School in Bel Air — formerly the location of the Westlake School for Girls, where Mr. Reynolds was head of school for many years — he was described as inspiring, kind and adventurous. Other than working in education, Mr. Reynolds biked across the country, built a house on a foundation of tires and quoted poetry on the fly.

According to transcripts of the service, all of the speakers said he was among the most memorable teachers of their lives.

Representing Shalhevet was alumnus Ilan Graff, class of 2001.

“Every experience I had with him… and the common theme and so much of what we have heard here today, is that everything he did, he taught,” said Mr. Graff, addressing several hundred people in the school’s theater. “Not only how to experience and enjoy and draw meaning, but how to live a meaningful life…

“He taught by being who he was. He taught me engagement by being engaged, he taught me compassion by being compassionate, he taught me humility by being, well, mostly humble,” — the audience chuckled — “and by gently mocking me every time I did not live up to his example.”

According to Ms. Emily Chase, Shalhevet’s drama teacher, the Wildfire Theatre Lab was Mr. Reynolds’ idea. In the old building, he showed her a room filled with old hospital equipment and said they could build a theater there. The two designed it together and Mr. Reynolds even acted in one of their productions, Stage Door, playing the father of another character.

Every experience I had with him… and the common theme and so much of what we have heard here today, is that everything he did, he taught. Not only how to experience and enjoy and draw meaning, but how to live a meaningful life.

— lan Graff, Shalhevet Class of 2001

Ms. Chase said he was a great mentor to her.

“I learned a lot from him, watching him in meetings with parents and teachers, and how kind he was and how graciously he listened to people,” Ms. Chase said in an interview.

“He was the first to help custodians move desks, he was very relatable, and he taught me a lot about how to treat people with dignity. He was an intellectual and a humanitarian.”

Born in 1933 in Los Angeles, Mr. Reynolds served in the U.S Army for two years, and then graduated from UCLA and spent a year at Johns Hopkins University as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. His first marriage was to Sallie Gilmore, who he met at UCLA and with whom he had three children.

He married Ms. Loebe, who was teaching English at Shalhevet, in 2004 and they moved to Ojai together. The two first met at an English Department faculty meeting, where she was “drawn to him instantly.”

“He had extended his hand and said to me ‘Nat Reynolds,’ introducing him, and I took his hand and I just instantly liked him,” she said in an interview with the Boiling Point. “I sat down and I was just very aware of his presence the whole meeting, and I’ll never forget it.”

“I will always be grateful to Shalhevet for hiring me,” she said. “That’s how I met Nat!”

Mr. Reynolds’ first teaching job was at Los Angeles’ Harvard School, a boys high school he had attended himself. He taught 10th-grade English there for six years and coached their wrestling and football teams, and then moved on to be headmaster of Westlake, increasing enrollment there to 700 students.

His first encounter with Shalhevet was when Dr. Jerry Friedman was first developing the school and he wanted to hire him as a consultant, after hearing of his retirement.

Refusing to accept any salary, Mr. Reynolds worked with Dr. Friedman in 1992 to establish the General Studies department, recruit the first student body and hire the initial faculty members.

Dr. Friedman said he needed help when starting Shalhevet because he had never run a school before. He sought Mr. Reynolds because he knew he had been the head of school at Westlake, a top school, and because his ideology was similar to what Dr. Friedman was hoping to create.

“There was a kind of methodology that he was a natural at,” said Dr. Friedman in an interview with the Boiling Point. “He liked the idea of democracy, he liked the idea of sharing rules and regulations and developing that with the students — Town Hall meetings, Fairness committee and so forth, he was very into it.”

While General Studies Principal, Mr. Reynolds hosted poetry seminars for students and faculty members. “A few kids would come to his office,” said Ms. Chase. “It was an open poetry seminar that he would run with people, so that kids who loved poetry would have a special connection with him and talk with him about books. His office was of course lined with books.”

Dr. Friedman remembers the seminars as well.

“He loved literature,” said Dr. Friedman. “That was his forte, and therefore, when he wanted to do poetry, we were all for it.”

Mr. Reynolds also had an instrumental role with the Boiling Point. In the spring of 2003, when Mrs. Joelle Keene was the new part-time Music Appreciation and choir teacher, Mr. Reynolds noticed her journalism background on her resume and asked if she wanted to revive the paper, which had been mostly inactive for two years. She said yes and became full-time starting that fall.

At his memorial service, Other speakers included three former students spoke who had stayed in touch with him since being in his 10th-grade English class at Harvard School back in the 1960s. Now in their 70s themselves, they described the effect he had on their lives.

Mr. Winston Chappel, an architect who had Mr. Reynolds as a teacher in 1962, remembered some specific lessons.

“His lectures on Moby Dick were electrifying,” said Mr. Chappell. “The day he lectured on the short chapter ‘The Lee Shore,’ about Bulkington, and ‘Better to perish in that howling infinite than to stay safe in the harbor’ — I swear the light changed in the room and I have been different ever since.”

Editor-in-Chief Jacob Joseph Lefkowitz Brooks contributed to this story.