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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.

Absolutely no one ever thought he was phony, which is an extraordinary tribute for a teacher so rah-rah. He was just terribly genuine, and even cynical little teen-age creeps could tell that. I've always thought that if you wrote a story about Mr. Chips in America, he wouldn't be a Latin teacher -- or, primarily, a teacher of anything. First, he'd be a coach, for in America coaches seem to be able to touch boys in ways that no one else -- sometimes, sadly, even their fathers -- can. That was Reddy. He was the quintessential American coach teacher. In that sense, he risked a great deal when he gave that up to be headmaster.

I will be honest, too. I thought it was a mistake when the Gilman board of trustees selected him. This was no reflection on the man, but simply on the fact that I thought it was time for Gilman to break out, and that required new blood. Of course, as it turned out, I was wrong on all counts. I didn't give Reddy nearly enough credit, and I didn't comprehend that the only-Nixon-can-go- to-China analogy prevailed here. Probably, if some outsider had been brought in, and he had sought the same dramatic change that Reddy did, he would have been resisted. Reddy might have been the only one who could have done what he did -- lead Gilman ahead in time and back into Baltimore. He pulled off all the difficult, sensitive things when he could have just played it safe and grown old and beloved.

And he became beloved anyway.

He also wrote me back that time a few years ago, and said he appreciated my thoughts, but it had already been taken care of )) and Mencken had been installed in the curriculum for several years now.

It just took them a bit longer to get the greatness out.

"Finney has a Father Flanagan philosophy: There is no such thing as a bad boy," says Nick Schloeder, the dean of faculty. "He'll work with problem kids. He really believes you can change people. He's as genuine a guy as you'll meet.

"I've seen ninth-graders bump into him on purpose. It's tactile; they want to be around him. They want him to call their names and talk to them."

He treats them with dignity. With respect. These are critical teaching tools, says Mr. Finney.

"If a kid feels that an adult really cares about him, he'll at least try," he says.

He took Keefe Clemons, among others, under wing. Mr. Clemons, class of '85, enrolled at Gilman from a foster home in West Baltimore. He studied, starred in track and field and went on to Princeton University. He is currently attending Harvard Law School.

Mr. Clemons says Mr. Finney nurtured him along at Gilman and that without the headmaster's initial support, "the odds of my getting into trouble would have been much higher. I might have been a very intelligent criminal on Carey Street instead of a lawyer-to-be."

Even now when the two men meet, they hug.

Mr. Clemons remembers Mr. Finney as "an excellent role modewith a crushing handshake. He never needed to command respect; he simply won it by his actions. He'd make a great president. He has more of a sense of social responsibility than some of our recent ones."

U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, whose two sons attended Gilman, call Redmond Finney "an extraordinary headmaster with boundless energy and a sterling character."

Barbara Chase, headmistress at Bryn Mawr School, calls hi "incredibly wise, the kind of person who can give you advice and make you feel like you knew it all along. Sometimes leading a school can be very lonely. It helps me to know Reddy is over there."

And there is this testament from Harold Xanders, Gilman '45 and a longtime friend of Mr. Finney:

"I'd do anything for the guy except give him strokes in golf."

Ah, sports. Mr. Finney's passion for athletics is legend: A standout at Princeton in the early 1950s, he remains one of only two men ever named All-American twice in one year, in football and lacrosse. The other was Jim Brown of Syracuse.

Mr. Finney played center and captained Princeton's undefeated football team in 1950, then led the Tigers to a share of the national lacrosse title the following spring. A religion major, he turned down an invitation to play in the North-South football all-star game in order to complete his thesis on "Protestantism and Catholicism in 19th Century America." He received a B-plus.

In his senior year, Mr. Finney was named Princeton's besall-around athlete as well as "most modest," an honor most certainly bestowed for his off-the-field behavior. Intensely competitive, he proved considerably less restrained during contests.

In a game against Rutgers, he tackled a particularly combative rival by lifting the 225-pound player over his head and slamming him to the ground, pro wrestling-style. Then he fell on him. Then, for good measure, he sank his teeth into the poor guy's abdomen.

Say it ain't so, Reddy.

"Unfortunately, I did bite the man in the stomach," Mr. Finney says apologetically. "It was wrong. I shouldn't have done it. But it's true."

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