After 24 Years, Headmaster Finney Is Heading Off Into the Sunset


April 05, 1992|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,MIKE KLINGAMAN is a reporter for The Sun.

It is midmorning at Gilman School as Redmond Finney strides into the classroom to exercise his basic rights as headmaster.

He is going to stand on his head.

The first-graders are expecting Mr. Finney. They aced their last spelling test, and this is their reward. R-E-W-A-R-D. Gilman kids will spell anything to see their 62-year-old, gray-haired headmaster turn upside down.

Mr. Finney's arrival is a welcome intrusion. Children tug at him good-naturedly, as they would a grandfather who has finally relented to sharing the secret of wiggling his ears.

Naturally there are questions, concerns.

"Can I hold your jacket, Mr. Finney?"

"Will it hurt, Mr. Finney?"

"Don't fall on us, Mr. Finney!"

Mr. Finney, a former college All-American, does not fall. Hands on floor, he kicks up his legs and proceeds to stand on his head for a good five seconds. He does this with such grace that his glasses never leave his face.

The class erupts in a collective "Wow!" as the headmaster jumps back to his feet. Then everyone gives a hearty Gilman cheer, and Mr. Finney is gone.

Some say that's how he should depart the Roland Avenue campus when he retires in June.

After 24 years at the helm and a total of 49 years at the school, Redmond Conyngham Stewart Finney is leaving Gilman, his alma mater, the once-stuffy private institution in North Baltimore that he dragged into modern times. Mr. Finney has in fact put himself out to pasture, retiring to his son's 190-acre farm in Upperco to raise race horses.

He is not deserting education entirely. He will serve on the Board of School Commissioners for Baltimore City, a post for which he was actively sought by Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

He leaves behind an institution rich in ethnic diversity, dollars and decorum. Gilman graduated its first four black students in 1968, Mr. Finney's first year as headmaster. The school's minority enrollment now stands at 30 percent, out of a total enrollment of 945.

Only Mr. Finney could have met that challenge, Gilman officials say.

"He used all his strength to make diversity almost a non-issue," says Ron Shapiro, a member of Gilman's board of trustees. "People may not have believed in [integration], but they believed in him. He's a touchstone in a turbulent time."

Alumni also approve of the direction in which Gilman is headedWitness the school's endowment fund, which has grown from $1 million to $24 million during Mr. Finney's tenure.

Gilman's new $5 million athletic center bears Mr. Finney's name. a nice gesture, but the building is made of brick and cement and thus stands as a cold and impersonal reminder of an extraordinarily warm and compassionate man.

He makes it a point -- no, a rule -- to know the first and last names of all 412 boys in the Upper School, and some of those in the Lower School as well. He has offered his residence on campus to students desperately seeking an uncluttered after-school study environment. He pressed for linkage with two neighboring girls' institutions, Bryn Mawr and Roland Park Country School, breathing a healthy heterogeneity into Gilman for the first time since it opened in 1897.

"Boys need to see girls in something other than a party setting," he reasons. "They need to know girls have brains, too."

It works.

"Finney's legacy is making Gilman more than an academic institution," says David Drake, the school's public relations director. "His legacy is making it human."

He seldom sits at his official-looking desk. He prefers to greet visitors from behind a small table instead. "I don't like having a desk between me and somebody else," he says.

Or an office, for that matter. More likely you'll find him at a school concert, assembly or ballgame, or cruising the halls with his crooked gait, patting kids on the back with one hand and spearing litter off the floor with the other. Mr. Finney is the highest-paid custodian at Gilman.

"You have to give the school your presence," he says. "Too often, what's missing from educational institutions is the personal touch. You've got to get out of the office. It's easy for me; I'm a terrible administrator."

Mr. Finney still teaches a class, in freshman religion, to maintain a rapport with the students.

"You've got to keep your ear to the ground," he says. Of course. Why else would he stand on his head?

His sincerity and self-deprecating humor are treasured by youngsters who could spot a phony clear across campus.

"With Reddy Finney, there is no posturing and very little ego," says Sherman Bristow, the associate headmaster. "He believes that every student has greatness inside of him. With some, you just have to work harder to get that greatness out."

Having to expel a student cuts him to the quick.

"The hardest thing is to let a kid go," Mr. Finney says softly. "It takes an awful lot to do that. We frequently give kids a second chance."

Or even a third.

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