Headmistress imparts lessons, even as she leaves Bryn Mawr GOODBYE, MRS. CHASE

May 22, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

Nearly every school day, headmistress Barbara Landis Chase leaves her office to walk briskly around the rolling hills of Bryn Mawr School. On this cloudy afternoon, she commiserates with fourth-graders frustrated by the complexities of computers, cheers on the lacrosse team goalie and pokes her head into a drama class.

There, a student stands before her peers, her nose high in the air and her fist clenched against her hip. "I'm your worst nightmare," she says like some Cruella De Vil in sneakers, "your new headmistress." Terrible things -- more homework, less socializing, longer uniforms -- are all possible under her haughty regime.

Transfixed by the student's acerbic view of the future, Mrs. Chase laughs, her voice echoing through the auditorium.

The improvisation has a point. At the end of this school year, she is leaving these 26 acres in North Baltimore for a new life some 400 miles away. In July, she'll become the first female head of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., an elite boarding school that counts George Bush, Jack Lemmon and Dr. Benjamin Spock among its graduates.

But more than mere miles separate the two. While Mrs. Chase believes the educational philosophies are similar, Bryn Mawr and Andover are a study in contrasts: all-girls vs. coed; 758 students vs. 1,200; a $9,610 tuition vs. $18,500.

And although Andover is considered a liberal school where students shun uniforms and buy condoms at the infirmary, it routinely dismisses as many as eight students a year for academic and social offenses. In 14 years at Bryn Mawr, Mrs. Chase has dismissed only two, events she still counts among her most wrenching decisions.

But like nearly everything in her life, she meets the unknown with a controlled, thoughtful demeanor that seems both inherited from her Mennonite ancestors and learned from her experience in management.

Sitting in her office eating a tuna fish sandwich and chocolate cookies, she watches the lower school students race by her office -- skipping and giggling and looking blissfully impervious to life's disappointments.

"There's something about a leave-taking that feels like abandonment, even though rationally you know it's not," says Mrs. Chase, who informed the school of her decision during a class assembly in February. "I wanted them to know I hadn't been dissatisfied, that I would miss them. . . . When you're in a school, you're naturally inclined to think about the lesson in everything. The lesson here was that change is absolutely necessary for all of us to grow and move forward in life."

With her chestnut brown hair, trim build and classic taste in clothes, she's hardly the stereotypical headmistress in sensible shoes and a silvery bun. She has a penchant for wildly colorful watches. And at age 49, she still retains an almost schoolgirlish smile, even with her bifocals on.

Her conference table is stacked with letters attesting to her popularity. One corner holds gifts: a porcelain pig (she collects them), a book from alumnae, a photo of Bryn Mawr students, faculty and administrators.

On a larger scale is the $50,000 donated to the scholarship fund in her name, and the dance studio and theater that will be renamed the Barbara Landis Chase Performing Arts Center. When she received the last recognition at a trustees' cocktail party recently, she said modestly: "A building named after one? One should at least be dead."

All this serves as testament to how one person -- with the help of others -- can transform a place like Bryn Mawr with its pre-kindergarten through 12th grade classes. From diversifying the student body and bolstering faculty salaries to dressing up for Halloween and running with the cross-country team, Mrs. Chase has managed to walk the line between serious headmistress and class clown.

"What other job can you have where you get to raise money, balance a $10 million budget, hire people and . . . at the same time drive the tractor in the spirit parade?" she asks.

But if the job has taught her anything, it's how to hold her emotions in check during critical times.

A little switch

"A long time ago, I learned to flip a little switch that keeps me talking, when if I allowed myself to feel what I was really feeling I would dissolve," she says.

The switch has been in danger of short-circuiting lately.

And it will be put to the ultimate test on June 10, when she delivers the graduation speech, an honor the seniors bestowed upon her this year. As she stands in the daisy-filled graduation garden, her ruminations about beginnings and endings are likely to stir many.

At opening convocation in the fall, she prepared the seniors for the tumultuous year ahead with these words: "This will be the first of many lasts in your lives."

What Barbara Landis Chase didn't realize then was the person she could have been talking to was herself.

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