- Bulletin Features
Rusty Davis & Linda Saarnijoki Retire
This is, at its heart, a love story. It's a love story between two people, yes, but also between these two people and the school they served for four decades. It's a love story that has left an imprint on Taft that will last long after those who inspired it have left the halls for the new adventures that lie ahead.
The two people—Rusty Davis and Linda Saarnijoki—are retiring at the end of the spring term after more than 40 years leading Taft in a wide variety of roles. These two are truly more than the sum of their parts.
"I was very homesick freshman year. Many people didn't think that I could make it through, but Mr. D helped me through it, and I couldn't be happier than I am here at Taft. It is 100 percent thanks to Mr. Davis." —Charlie Himmelrich '17
Davis was Lance Odden's very first hire as headmaster, back in 1972, when Davis was considered by some to be too "radical" a choice. He was a member of the Princeton class of 1970, which had gone on strike to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. He was a Choate graduate, and his hair was perhaps a trifle long, as well, but he came with stellar recommendations and a history of leading adolescents at a summer camp known as Camp Dudley in the Adirondacks in New York state. And he had a master's degree in aerospace engineering, the result of a lifelong fascination with physics.
"I was literally 12 hours from getting into the car to drive to Florida when I got a call from Lance," Davis recalls now. "I called some friends [who] said, 'You should at least go interview there.'"
The two clicked, and Odden hired Davis as a physics instructor for the fall of 1972. He began teaching four classes of physics, and he lived on the fifth floor of HDT, with just three students on the floor to oversee. He was "shown the ropes" by former teacher Toby Baker, and noted that back in those early days, faculty preparations were "a sink-or-swim kind of thing."
Because of his work at Camp Dudley, Davis knew how to get the best out of teenage boys. He taught physics and astronomy (which Davis says was not in his wheelhouse: "In those days, they plopped you into things," because someone higher up than he thought that aerospace engineering and astronomy went hand-in-hand), and for several years generally worked to improve the equipment available for experiments in the old Science Building.
Fast forward to the fall of 1976. It's time for the fall faculty party, where new faculty and old mingle at the headmaster's house to get to know each other before the students start arriving. A new young teacher with long, long dark hair caught Davis's eye. She was Linda Saarnijoki, fresh out of a master's degree program at Teachers College at Columbia University, and she'd been hired by Odden to teach in the English Department. After the faculty party was over, Davis and former faculty member John Sadowsky invited the new faculty members out to the Gildersleeves bar up the road in Litchfield, and Davis spent the evening talking with Saarnijoki.
"I liked her right away," Davis says. "She's a wonderful, amazing woman."
"Linda and I arrived at Taft at the same time, she right out of graduate school, me in mid-career. From the start, she was poised, capable, calm, dependable. Linda was the consummate schoolmaster, taking on every duty, every job that needed to be filled. And she did them all with grace and competence." —Robin Osborn, faculty emerit
The two began spending time together, spending Sunday afternoons doing The New York Times crossword puzzle and taking it slow. Saarnijoki says now that people were surprised that Davis was actually showing interested in anyone, as he'd seemed to be a "staunch bachelor." "Other young women had been interested in him, but he'd sort of pushed them off," she says.
Their courtship unfolded slowly, but after six years together, the couple got married in August 1982 in Lake Placid, New York. Davis was dean of students by then, a position he held for 13 years.
"Life at Taft is not a 40-hour job," Saarnijoki says. "It's very hard to maintain a relationship with someone who isn't in that sort of time schedule. You're always working at night, you've got weekend duty. It's very hard. Any number of young people leave because they can't maintain a relationship. Similarly, lots of people have stayed at Taft because they found their spouses here. A boarding school is particularly unique."
Odden remembers the couple as two very principled people who cared for the students and the school. "I think they are both by nature true enthusiasts for kids. They like them, they've spent their lives with them," Odden says. "They see the better side of them—they see hope and promise in all [students], and kids respond to that naturally. They are so honest in the way they do business. They rise to the challenge. They're nice people—really nice people."
"Together, Rusty and Linda have worked tirelessly for the betterment of the Taft community. [They] have steadfastly maintained a positive and inclusive outlook, always striving to identify aspects that need change and then implementing those improvements. Their impact has been wide-ranging, and they will be missed sorely." —Ted Heavenrich, faculty
The couple threw themselves into life at Taft, where Davis served as a class dean, coach, and dean of students. He coached golf and basketball during his early years at Taft, and started the girls' soccer program in 1974, guiding the team to four consecutive New England Championships from 1988 to 1991. Saarnijoki took on any number of assignments, including coaching field hockey and volleyball, class dean, and dorm head, in addition to her teaching loads.
"I had wanted to be a teacher from the time I was in second grade," Saarnijoki says, "and when I got to high school and college, I admired many of my teachers....My physical education teachers were young, vibrant, smart women, and that's what I wanted to be like."
Torn between wanting to teach academically or teach physical education, Saarnijoki fell upon the perfect match in the boarding school world. One trouble: she did not even really know what boarding schools were when she interviewed at Taft. "I thought they were for delinquents," Saarnijoki says now. But she, too, had been a counselor at a summer camp, and liked the concept of being able to both teach and coach.
"My sport was swimming," she says. "I had done some field hockey [and] I had played some volleyball, so they put me there."
As the pair grew in their teaching and coaching ability, their dedication to the school swelled, as did the quality of the students and the quality of the educational opportunities Taft offered.
"The expectation of teachers at Taft has grown," Saarnijoki says. "I think the pressure on careful prep and planning on a day-to-day and semester and yearlong basis is absolutely expected now in a way that it wasn't when I began.
"There's been so much more research into educational methods, and that has only made all of us much better teachers at Taft," she says.
They each took on increasingly difficult administrative assignments, with Davis eventually being named assistant headmaster and Saarnijoki as dean of faculty. And in 1994, their daughter Eliza was born.
"From all the years...spent giving selflessly to Taft, [Linda and Rusty] each developed a highly trained sixth sense of what was best for the school and its corresponding values. I would also witness Rusty, in response to the latest potential saga or pending crisis facing Taft, place the weight of the school on his shoulders and carry it to shore; putting out fire after fire, he would quietly but assuredly make many of the crucial, often delicate decisions that, in my opinion, made Taft "Taft." And he would do this without as much as batting an eye. Together, Linda and Rusty are as integral to Taft's DNA as any two educators, two souls, I ever met." —Andrew Eisen '04
All was not well, however. Davis began feeling some weakness in his legs, but the feeling would go away after a while. It came back. His mother passed away from cancer, and the stress of dealing with that illness and loss, plus a new baby, led to more episodes of weakness. By 1996, he was finally diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. The disease developed slowly at first, but in recent years, Davis has needed to use a wheelchair to get around campus.
"The effect on us as a family [was difficult]," Saarnijoki says, "but I think actually that Rusty's strength as a person to just grit through this terrible event in his life has made it much easier for me and for us as a family and us as a couple to just continue with life as normally as we can.
"We're both pretty strong, resilient people, and for the most part, we don't get emotionally debilitated," she adds. "We have this saying, 'It is what it is.' This is what we've been handed, and we deal with it, and we go on."
The school rallied around the couple and installed assistive devices to help Davis navigate many of the stairs in the Main Building.
"I learned how enormously generous people can be," Saarnijoki says. "The school has been phenomenally generous in providing the things we've needed, in making accommodations. People offered to do things or were doing things without our even asking. I think the other thing that came out of that illness is just a sense of gratitude to be in such a wonderful place."
Though they had to make some changes, both Davis and Saarnijoki continued to teach. When Odden retired and Willy MacMullen '78 took over as headmaster, he relied on veteran teachers like Davis and Saarnijoki to continue and expand on Odden's legacy.
"Before he became a "proper administrator" (just my joke), Rusty's more mischievous nature was quite evident in the '70s. Along with two other faculty members, Rusty was involved in creating and mailing invitations to my fake wedding, while I was on sabbatical in California. Rusty and Linda are two very intelligent individuals, and caring and dedicated professionals. [It's] hard to imagine Taft without them." —Dick Cobb, faculty emeritus
"It is hard for me to think of how any couple can give more to a school than Rusty and Linda," MacMullen says, "or who have [served] with more compassion and commitment and love and expertise than they have. They are dear friends and daily inspirations to me."
Davis and Saarnijoki have served in a wide variety of positions in the 40-plus years they have been at Taft, including assistant headmaster, dean of students, dean of faculty, head of the residential life program, head of the English Department, director of the library, and class dean. Davis recently began teaching lower mids after 25 years of teaching AP Physics, while Saarnijoki returned to the classroom full time after 15 years in administrative roles.
"One way to understand them is to know that each of them could have gone on to head schools, but they chose not to do so," Odden says. "Each, individually, elected to devote themselves to the students and to building the faculty. They are the moral center of the school. [They are] two very principled [people] with a good sense of humor and not judgmental."
But their roles weren't limited to what happens inside a classroom or an office, MacMullen says. The couple hosted jazz parties, and Davis will be remembered for the end-of-school faculty parties and for giving out the "Rookie of the Year" award for the most entertaining flub of the year made by a faculty member.
"Here's another little thing Rusty does: For years, he's had a table in the Wu [science] building. He puts puzzles on it, literal or figurative. He just leaves it there. That is amazing teaching. There will be kids there trying to figure it out. His love of physics is so pervasive that it can't be contained by his classes. This is a guy who never stopped getting better. To me and to many others, he's just a source of incredible wisdom and perspective, and he's the most humble guy," MacMullen says.
And Saarnijoki modeled commitment for new faculty members, he says.
"It's hard for me to think of a woman who has shaped the course of this school more profoundly than Linda has," MacMullen says. "There is an entire generation of younger teachers... [who] when you [ask] what's the model for commitment, professionalism, and leadership, they would say Linda. Over the years, there's no one on the campus who has stepped forward to take more challenging roles [than she].
"Linda has a generosity of spirit and a belief in serving something larger than herself that is profound," MacMullen continues. "It's incredibly inspiring. There's four decades of what excellence and commitment look like. [Faculty and students] look to Linda and say that's what leadership, excellence, expertise, and passion look like. Linda's depth of caring, it's palpable. Linda has a way of listening to you and looking at you that makes you feel so blessed by the moment. She's really wise, she always gives good counsel, and she has impeccable integrity. If you put Linda in charge of a challenge, you could be guaranteed it would be done perfectly and with total integrity."
"RD and Linda were the great school masters they have been precisely because they could and were willing to do it all. They never begged off a responsibility, and carried them off with deep commitment and passion. Their love of young people was evident from the first time I interviewed them and has never waned, only growing wiser. They have found joy in every aspect of students' lives and their achievements. When things went wrong, they were both masters of the art of listening, not judging, and of helping the student involved begin to understand what they had done, why it was unfortunate, and what to do about it. Only faculty who see the full dimensions of student life can do this. And few can do it as well as they." —Lance Odden, headmaster emeritus
Davis says that over the course of his time as assistant headmaster, he's interviewed every prospective faculty member who has applied to teach at Taft. The most common question those prospective faculty members would ask him is why he has stayed at Taft so long. "When I first came here and Lance had just taken over," Davis says, "I could see myself working for Lance. He seemed like a great guy with a real vision.
When I came, the endowment was [only] $3 million, and we had debt left over from building the library. It was an exciting place, but it was kind of grungy—the maintenance was not great. As I stayed here, I always had the feeling every year things were getting better. I've just felt we're on the right track. We're doing sensible things to make the school better. Being a part of that is exciting. Taft is not a radically innovative place, but they let you do what you want to do. That's why it's been fun to stay here. Every year, you look forward to what is next."
For her part, Saarnijoki looks back at being able to nurture faculty members and students as being the most rewarding part of her tenure at Taft.
"I love being in the classroom," she says. "I love being able to come into a classroom and talk with my students about literature. It's incredibly rewarding to share ideas. What students say again and again [about my teaching] is they enjoy my passion and enthusiasm [for] what we're talking about.
"I think my work with the faculty as dean was enormously rewarding as well. I was able to help people do their best work and be their best selves at Taft. I loved problem solving. I loved being handed a problem and being able to help that person work through their issues. That was enormously rewarding. You have to figure out what faculty you're going to hire, how to frame their job so they can do their best work, resolve issues between faculty. [That has] a significant impact on the way the school works. It's a behind-the-scenes thing, but it's vitally important."
Saarnijoki returned to the classroom full time for a while, but returned to the dean of faculty position in 2013 after a number of top-level administrators left the school for positions elsewhere.
MacMullen "asked me to come back in to be dean of faculty to lend some stability, a job I was happy to do, and I was reminded again about what a great job it is because you get to know faculty and appreciate their strengths and their contributions to the school, and you have a profound sense of what a strong community this is. That job taught me how important community is and what a great place this is," she says.
The couple decided several years ago that it was time to retire when their daughter, Eliza, graduated from Taft in 2012, but stayed on during the administrative transition.
"Even though there are always new things to learn and new and interesting wrinkles to old issues, after a time you find yourself thinking about the same issues again and again," Saarnijoki says. "While I still have energy and excitement about new ways of doing things and working with new people, I can feel it beginning to wane. I feel like I've done what I can do at Taft, and I feel the pull toward doing something entirely different. It's just time to move on, and there are really good people who will step up to take on whatever I've left undone."
"I don't think teaching looks any better and commitment looks any better than what [Rusty and Linda] have done. I am only one of many who would say that to look at those two is to be absolutely inspired in the best way. They've become the measuring stick. It doesn't get any better than what they've done." —Willy MacMullen '78, headmaster
The couple will be moving to their Weston, Vermont home, which is undergoing renovations to make it more accessible for Davis's wheelchair.
And while it will be difficult for Taft to replace two such dedicated teachers and administrators, Davis and Saarnijoki are looking forward to a well-deserved rest. The community in Weston, where they bought a summer home many years ago, has a number of service opportunities, Saarnijoki says.
"It's a very vibrant community," she says. "For now, we want to make it a real 'shifting gears' kind of thing. We're going to settle in and see what life brings us."
That said, it is a bittersweet parting from Taft.
"I'm certainly going to miss the kids because they're really great," Davis says. "It's fun to develop relationships with the kids. And I'm certainly going to miss my colleagues—it's fun to have bright people around me. I'm just going to miss the action. It's nice to know every Saturday and Wednesday there's games going on, there's concerts. There's always something happening. Taft is such a vibrant place. There's more to do than there is time to do it."
And for more non ut sibi...
- Two five-year terms on the Camp Dudley board of managers; awarded the Man of the Year award in 2012 for a life lived in the spirit of the camp motto, The Other Fellow First.
- Head of the Ekwanok Country Club Scholarship Fund (Vermont), which annually provides tens of thousands of dollars in college scholarships for young people who work at the club as caddies, grounds crew, and staff.
- Early 1990s, led a small group that opened the Child Development Program at Taft (day care) and served for several years as president of the board of directors .
- Twenty years on the Litchfield Montessori School board of trustees.
- One term on the Camp Dudley board of managers and leader of the effort to start a successful girls' camp, Camp Dudley at Kiniya, as a complement to the 100-year-old program for boys