Following nearly four decades as headmaster at Clairbourn School, Robert Nafie has seen a lot of changes in education and the way students dress, talk and even absorb information, but the children themselves have remained largely the same.
Along with their innate sense of wonder, imagination, joyfulness and innocence, he said, the children still all really want to succeed.
“Over the years, the kids from the ’70s and ’80s were vastly different than the kids today, the Pokémon era and all, but they all have those same elements. They all want to feel success,” said Nafie, whose life’s work has been to inspire and lead the children at Clairbourn School.
He even has a name for it, calling it “lighting fires,” that moment when a child can’t put down a book, or is touched by music or art or a lab experiment.
“When you light fires you never know which of them is going to take,” said Nafie, whose previous work in special education taught him early on to treat all of his students as individuals. “But when you expose them to arts, poetry, literature, drama, painting … something is bound to set the spark.”
Although his 39 years at the academically renowned school will soon be coming to an end — Nafie will retire at the end of this school year — his legacy will live on at Clairbourn, in great part through the architecturally stunning footprint developed under his tenure.
When Nafie arrived, the school was a hodgepodge of oddly painted buildings and incongruent outdoor facilities, none which harkened a sense of stability, unification or a first-rate private school. Although gifted with an 8-acre campus of former orange groves, the land was in dire need of master planning, he said.
One day, a boy kicked his soccer ball down a hole and it never came back, he recalled. Upon investigation, it was discovered “layers of civilizations of cesspools, leach fields and pipes.”
The first phase of work began in 1987, and was finally completed in 2006, resulting in all-new infrastructure, a series of white “country day” cottages with matching red tiled roofing, picket fences, state-of-the-art sports facilities, a new library and plenty of greenery, including urban farming areas and some of the original orange grove trees. The center quad boasts a lush green lawn and a looming Ginko tree that turns golden yellow in the fall.
Here, one forgets the thousands of cars zooming down Huntington Drive right outside.
“And we still held all of our classes and activities without disruption,” Nafie recounted with pride, pointing out one of his favorite areas of the master plan: the new library. For that, he said, he had to lock in the board of directors.
“I locked the boardroom in one day and said ‘We’re not leaving here until we have a plan for the new library. You’re not going home until we have a commitment for this,’” he said, laughing as he recalled his stubborn insistence. “I saw the library as hallowed ground. We needed a symbol for all that our learning was going to be.”
Located between San Marino and Arcadia in San Gabriel, Clairbourn School offers preschool through 8th-grade instruction, and is a Christian, nondenominational school. It was founded in 1926 by San Marino residents Mr. and Mrs. Arthur K. Bourne (one of the heirs of the Singer sewing company fortune) as a school for parents interested in raising their children in Christian Science. Eventually, the school moved to be all-encompassing of all religions, while stressing values, ethics and morals.
Nafie said this foundation has proven vital for his vision. In 2008, a formal Clairbourn Code of Ethics was developed under his leadership with input from administrators, parents and faculty. The code is printed on every student ID card and includes the words: Honesty, Respect, Responsibility, Spirituality and Citizenship.
“We know our kids are going to become leaders, but the question is: What kind of leader? Will they become the kind of leaders that cut corners and just want a profit motive, or will they have a higher calling?” he said. “Because they are going to be in the board room no matter what; but our focus is on what kind of individual is going to be in that room. We want to make sure they are leaders with a conscience, a moral compass, a higher sense of ethics.
“If you go to this school, it is a privilege. It’s an obligation to use that privileged education for a higher purpose and to give back.”
To that end, Nafie focuses on daily morning chapel service, a time really meant to “give gratitude to our country and to God, and where I try to impart a little homespun wisdom,” he noted. It also gives an opportunity to students to choose readings from the Bible and practice public speaking, he said.
Former Clairbourn parent Jaynie Studenmund warmly recalled the days when her two children attended the picturesque campus, noting that the daily chapel time was a grounding way to start the day, with children organizing their readings and younger students learning from the elders.
“Every single day the kids start at the chapel — it’s a very centering part of the day. Dr. Nafie talks about happenings and translates things to everyday life; he really shines in front of the school, it’s kind of his trademark,” said Studenmund, whose son, Scott, is memorialized at the athletic field. Scott attended Clairbourn from pre-K through 6th grade, and was one of “the fasties,” a group of ultra-athletic boys. As a young adult, Scott was a green beret and served in Afghanistan, where he was killed in 2014.
“Scottie loved that school. It was such a happy, nurturing place. I think Dr. Nafie truly loves the children and it shows. He certainly touched our family’s heart shortly after we lost Scott,” she said. “He wanted to name the football field after him — he said Scott really represented the values of Clairbourn. It so moved us.”
There is a plaque commemorating Scott at the field named for the young man, whom Nafie spoke softly of as he gave the campus tour, noting that his memory is a source of inspiration for the students. “He was someone who could have done anything, yet he chose to serve his country.”
Nafie’s patriotic passion is well-known by the school community.
After a bout of cancer this past year, diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, Nafie recently found himself back at the morning Pledge of Allegiance. He felt a little self-conscious after losing his hair to chemotherapy and had worn a baseball cap, when suddenly he realized he’d have to take it off for the pledge.
“I told them, as much as I loved my hair, I love my country more, and I just asked the kids to look up at that bald eagle instead of looking at my bald head,” he quipped.
Once he found out he would make a full recovery, he also struck a deal with the kids: free dress on Fridays until his hair grew back and he got his first haircut.
“The kids came on that journey with me … part of it is I wanted to show them that life can give you setbacks. Whatever you’re facing, you can face it and you can overcome it.”
Eleanor Randall, a former long-time Clairbourn parent, said Nafie’s approach to involving the students with his recovery is typical of his style as headmaster.
“He approached [the cancer] head on and with a lot of strength and character and is doing really well. That is just his style, he’s incredibly approachable with the children,” she said, adding that he would talk to the kids like individuals, not as children.
“Dr. Nafie ran a tight ship but he was always fair. He taught the kids integrity and honesty, and we could reach him anytime, anywhere, and the kids did, too,” said Randall, who along with her husband, Jim, donated Randall Hall, which houses the new elementary school classrooms. “The school will never be the same without that fabulous leadership and foundation.”
Born in Michigan and raised in northern Minnesota, Nafie had a Huckleberry Finn childhood with three brothers, jumping streams and building forts. It impacted his vision of encouraging the outdoors at Clairbourn, and letting kids be kids, he said.
It’s also a state of mind with which he has greeted each child at Clairbourn each morning when he opens every car door in the drop-off line.
“You have to have a little kid in you to be a successful school head,” he noted. “You have to wake up and know it’s such a privilege to work with the next generation. It’s a chance to make long-term impact, and it’s an opportunity that few people have. My first kids are over 50 now, and I’ve had their kids, too. So that has been a privilege for me, to see what my students do out in the world and the lives that they lead and the impact they make.”
Nafie will soon get to relive some of the great outdoors in retirement, with plans to move to Big Bear, spend time with grandchildren, travel and even perhaps take up flying again, a hobby he temporarily abandoned to focus on his recovery.
But his impact at Clairbourn will remain. He even began an endowment, the Robert W. Nafie Endowment Fund, with his own money to ensure the longevity of academic excellence at the school.
Yet even after 40 years, he falters in stepping away. “I’ll miss the kids tremendously,” he said.