By Lara Sokoloff
The future President of Harvard-Westlake School sits with his son in a window seat, reading E.B. White’s “The Trumpet and the Swan” on a spring morning in Groton, Mass.
“Children’s books are great!” he said. “I think I was loving it more than he was.”
Although he won’t be engaging students in children’s novels, Rick Commons, who spent five years at Harvard-Westlake as an English teacher, assistant dean, college counselor and soccer coach, said he hopes to be the chief question asker to mold his position.
Commons will replace Thomas C. Hudnut as President of Harvard-Westlake School for the 2013-2014 school year, Hudnut announced on April 9. Hudnut announced his retirement in March after 26 years at the school.
Commons is currently the Headmaster of the Groton School, a five-year boarding school for 370 students in Massachusetts.
“Both [Harvard-Westlake and Groton] have academic excellence as a primary characteristic,” Commons said. “Both have students who are incredibly talented in other ways as well. Both have faculty who are inspiring and magical in what they do in and beyond the classroom.”
Commons attended the University of Virginia and received his Masters of Arts in Teaching from Stanford University and a Master of Arts from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.
Commons has served as Headmaster of the Groton School for nine years, where he is responsible for the school’s internal and external aspects.
“I often think about five different constituents: students and their experience, faculty and their experience, staff and their experience, parents and their experience and alumni and their experience,” he said. “I am generally involved in ensuring that the experience of all those different groups is as positive and inspiring as it can be, with the focus clearly on the students. That’s what we’re most interested in.”
“Every day is different,” he said. “Every moment is different. This is my ninth year here, and no two days are really the same, or even close. It’s fun in that way.”
Commons said he chose to leave Groton to be closer to his wife’s family, which lives in the Los Angeles area. Commons’ wife, Lindsay McNeil, graduated from Harvard-Westlake in 1996. He also said that to “be involved in a school as great as Harvard-Westlake was the perfect opportunity.”
He was first approached by Hudnut in January about the position and has been talking with members of the Board of Trustees since.
“I think the transition [to Harvard-Westlake] will involve a lot of listening and asking questions of many different people,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to that period of time where I’m hoping to be a sponge and soak up everything that I can. I know going in that there is just no way that I can possibly have as much to offer the school as the school has to offer me in those early days.”
Upper School Dean Sharon Cuseo, who worked closely with Commons in the college counseling office in the 1990s, said he always made people feel confident.
“He was smart enough to know that you have to fake it until you make it,” she said. “It was so genius because he never let parents or students feel that he had any questions. That was a really good skill that will serve him well.”
Commons said he knows the name of every Groton student and hopes to develop a similar closeness with members of the Harvard-Westlake community.
“I don’t have the bandwidth to be able to know 1,500 by name,” he said. “I will depend on students being willing to talk with me. Students who see a new person they don’t know might feel some distance, and I hope I can erase that distance very quickly by asking a lot of questions and showing a lot of interest and displaying real belief in the community.”
In working with colleagues to gain the broadest perspective, Commons said he hopes he will construct a role for himself that has the greatest possible impact without getting in anyone’s way.
Former Head of School Mimi Flood, who led Harvard-Westlake when Commons was last here, remembered him for his eagerness and energy.
“Throughout those years, he continued to teach, to coach and to throw himself into the whole of campus activities,” she said. “He loves kids and loves school life. He is a school man through and through.”
“He is the perfect combination of good humor and gravitas,” English teacher Jocelyn Medawar said, who worked with Commons in the English department. “Every conversation was meaningful, every conversation I always left with some nugget of insight that I didn’t have before.”
Flood said she thought Commons was a fitting replacement for Hudnut.
“Tom Hudnut is almost an impossible act to follow. What he has accomplished at Harvard-Westlake over the years of his stewardship is astounding,” Flood said. “It is so in keeping with his character that the man he has helped select as his successor is a man of equal stature. His wisdom, clarity, integry and proven effectivenes make him not only a worthy sucessor but also an ideal one.”
“This is this generation’s Tom Hudnut,” Cuseo said.