Slow and steady wins the race. Many of us have heard this classic proverb, associated with Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Its lesson that consistent, effective effort leads to more success than accelerated doggedness has stood the test of time, and this moral rings especially true for Flintridge Prep Headmaster Peter Bachmann. Celebrating his 25th year at the helm of one of America’s most prestigious independent schools, the teacher and author reflected on the past quarter-century while sitting in his office during a recent afternoon.
“It’s shocking when I think about it because it doesn’t seem to be that long, but as I look back, it’s been a long haul and we’ve spent a long time getting stuff done that we really wanted to,” said Bachmann, whose priorities have included increasing faculty salaries and student financial aid, as well as spearheading the addition of several vital programs such as human development and the arts.
“But it took us about 20 years to build the money — more tortoise than hare — to get to where we are right now. We’ve attracted this really talented group of teachers, really talented group of administrators who have a lot of experience around here. We always knew we wanted to balance the human experience with the intellectual experience, and I think that’s still what we try to do every day.”
Bachmann was born in Chicago. Three years later, his father, a World War II veteran who served under Gen. George Patton, moved the family west to Santa Barbara. Bachmann eventually enrolled in a boarding institution called the Thatcher School in nearby Ojai, where he worked on a ranch and tended to a horse during his teenage years. He went on to study history at UC Berkeley, but wasn’t sure what to do after college.
A friend of his who had been teaching at an independent school suggested he do the same. Bachmann landed a job at the Asheville Country Day School in North Carolina (now known as the Carolina Day School). In Asheville, he met his future wife, Molly.
“I thought I’d do it for a couple years and that would sort of be that, and I loved it,” said Bachmann, who did return to California for a short while to write ad copy at his father’s real estate business. “I always thought I’d move into some fluid business and actually did try a family business, but I realized I missed teaching and the whole school community far more than I thought I would.”
Bachmann headed back east to pursue a master’s degree in history at the University of Virginia while also teaching on the side. Molly, meanwhile, was studying 45 minutes away at Mary Baldwin College. The two reconnected and began dating, a relationship that thrived even when Molly transferred three hours south to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“He has very graciously adopted Carolina as his top team, which one might think would be a challenge when we play Berkeley or Virginia,” said Molly Bachmann, referring to their shared passion for college basketball. “But he knows that it is in his best interest to pull for the Tar Heels even in those circumstances.”
The couple was married in Asheville in the summer of 1980, a few months after Bachmann was offered a teaching position beginning that fall at a small private school across the country known as Flintridge Prep.
“Literally got in the car from the wedding reception to drive out here to start my teaching job at Prep,” said Bachmann. “Our marriage together overlaps completely with our life at Prep.”
It didn’t take long for Bachmann to weave himself into the fabric that held together Flintridge Prep. He began as a 9th-grade history teacher and one of his first students was a freshman named Garrett Ohara.
“Even though we were studying something that seemed to be out of the past, he was able to make connections with things that were going on at the time,” recalled Ohara, who currently serves as Flintridge Prep’s athletic director and boys’ varsity basketball coach. “He made it interesting for me in a subject that hadn’t been particularly interesting.
“I was impressed by just his wealth of knowledge. … I saw him as someone who connected to the students.”
Specifically, Bachmann’s connection with Ohara revolved around golf. On each test, Ohara used to scribble a par-3 hole among his answers for fun. Rather than dock Ohara for the unsolicited artwork, Bachmann teed off.
“He would play the hole based on my performance on the test,” said Ohara. “A birdie, obviously, was good. If he hit it into the water, then I knew I got off track somewhere.”
Bachmann established long-lasting camaraderie with his colleagues as well. Kirk Duncan arrived at Flintridge Prep to teach history the same year as Bachmann, although he was fresh out of college.
“I think in my misery — because I just didn’t know what the heck I was doing — I gravitated toward him because he seemed so calm and confident all the time,” said Duncan.
Together, along with other young teachers like John Ruch, they would trek up Foothill Boulevard after work to share laughs and beers at Georgee’s Pizza. Throughout all of the fond off-campus memories during this time, Bachmann simultaneously expanded his responsibilities on campus. He dabbled in college counseling, English instruction, admissions and then became dean of students in 1985. A few years after that, he assumed the role of assistant headmaster and finally found himself as the internal candidate in a national search to replace retiring Headmaster Edor Anderson.
“He’s probably one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” said Ruch, who still teaches history at the La Cañada Flintridge college prep school.
While cleaning out his classroom for remodeling last summer, Ruch dusted off an old letter that he had penned to the board endorsing Bachmann during that headmaster search.
“One of the things I said was how articulate Peter was, how he could always sort of find the right words,” said Ruch, who was involved in the search as a department chair at the time. “His interview impressed me more than anybody else because he knew Flintridge and where it fit, and what kinds of things he wanted to have happen.”
Bachmann was named the 10th headmaster of Flintridge Prep in 1991. By then, Duncan had moved on to Campbell Hall School in North Hollywood. But that didn’t stop the two educators from meeting for lunches in Glendale — the midway point between their schools — every month for 18 years. The relationship continued as Duncan moved to the East Coast. In December 2013, Bachmann phoned his friend, who was trudging through a job that didn’t particularly fit him in Washington, D.C. Bachmann had heard about an opening at his original place of employment.
“He said, ‘I don’t even know if you’re looking for a job, but I put your name in at Carolina Day School in Asheville, so be ready for a call from one of the headhunters,’” Duncan remembered. “The next day, I got the call and three days after that I was in Asheville. A month later, I was hired. But it started with Peter putting my name in here.
“He’s just such an extraordinary person. He is kind of spiritual in a Thomas Jefferson kind of way. He holds his intellect and rationality equal to his belief in something greater than himself. He’s able to exude a confidence that comes from holding those things in balance.”
Bachmann is quick to point out that the term “headmaster” refers to the head teacher of a school, not simply its principal or director. He has retained the title for precisely that reason. Unlike most school leaders, Bachmann remains in the classroom as a teacher, supplementing his administrative responsibilities on campus.
“I decided earlier on — because I loved teaching — that as long as I was always able to keep my hand in teaching, I felt it was a way to, frankly, legitimize myself among my faculty peers. When they see me walking home with papers to read, they can think, ‘OK, he gets what we’re up to,’” said Bachmann, who has taught a Great Books class for the last 30 years, taking seniors through the works of nearly 20 classic authors. “It gives me an opportunity to really spend day-in-day-out time with a group of students. It keeps my ear closer to the student ground. I can get to know them. I can use them as sounding boards and consultants.”
Bachmann has drawn on these teaching experiences to write two books of his own. Published in 2012, “Standing on Shoulders” uses more than 400 papers from students who have passed through his Great Books classes over the decades.
“It’s set up as kind of an imaginary reunion, where I’ll use words from someone [from the class of 2010] responding to someone from ’03 even though they’ve never met,” explained Bachmann. “That’s really the spirit of the whole thing. The conversation kind of transcends time and place.”
His most recent work, titled “Advancing Confidently,” features profiles of former students from 1989-2011 who have demonstrated courage amid uncertainty.
“I worry sometimes that students run too scared,” said Bachmann, who also lectures juniors and contributes to an American Identity seminar for seniors. “They worry about whether they’re going to get a job. They worry about whether they’re going to be successful, and sometimes they settle unnecessarily doing things they might not like as much for security’s sake. This is, more than anything, a collection of alumni stories of people who didn’t settle, who kind of followed their dreams and seemed to land on their feet.”
Flintridge Prep found its footing as a co-educational school under Bachmann. When he first stepped into the role of headmaster, the ratio of boys to girls was about 60 to 40 (the school did not admit girls until 1979, the year before Bachmann arrived). By 2000, the coveted 50-50 balance was achieved.
“He has a very clear view of the mission of the school and how to get there,” said Flintridge Prep Director of Finance Kim Kinder. “The clarity makes him a good leader because he can clearly communicate to all of us what we need to get to that point out there on the horizon — which is always moving.”
Said Margie Woolley, Bachmann’s assistant for the past 14 years: “He’s just such a great talent and we’re all lucky to have him here.”
Bachmann was elected president of the California Association of Independent Schools for 2003, the same year that his son, Rob, graduated from Flintridge Prep.
“The fact that people liked and respected him made it a lot easier on me,” said Rob Bachmann, who lives in New York. “ … My dad kept his distance and tried to respect that as best he could.
“I’m immensely proud of my dad. He’s poured his heart into that school. It’s almost as close to his heart as his family. It’s much more than a job. It’s his community.”
The Flintridge Prep community has continued to thrive under Bachmann’s stewardship. In 2005, the annual fund topped $1 million for the first time in school history, which helped pave the way for the Bold and Brilliant Campaign two years later. The $17.4 million raised through that touchstone effort resulted in the Chandramohan Library, gym renovations and advancements in the human development program. Behind the scenes, Bachmann was the one making those initial calls and handling those important meetings, ushering Flintridge Prep from a culture of annual giving to one of philanthropy.
“Part of the magic of Prep is he gives credit to other people, he attracts outstanding people at all levels to work with him, but he also has a very unusual range of skills that he brings,” said Jaynie Studenmund, a former Flintridge Prep board member for nine years, including a stint as its chair. “He is completely willing to take advice from other people. Prep has been extraordinarily blessed to have him as the leader for so many years.”
Bachmann is never far from Flintridge Prep, having lived in La Cañada Flintridge with Molly for the entirety of his tenure as headmaster. The couple enjoys going to the movies, trying new food and wine, as well as simply hanging out with friends, many of whom they met through the school.
“We just have a wonderful life around the Prep community and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of that,” said Molly Bachmann. “We truly are part of a large family. It’s very rare to have a career that is as long and sustained as his has been at the school. … I feel like I’m sort of the fortunate sidekick who’s benefited from all of that.”
As Flintridge Prep launches into the next 25 years, buoyed by a new Transforming the Future campaign, Bachmann looks ahead with that same tortoise mentality: Slow and steady wins the race.
“The trick for me at Prep is I’m never sure what the difference is between work and play,” he said. “I go to a Prep basketball game when I like being at a Prep basketball game. I’d be there whether I worked here or not. … The secret to my job has always been that I’m doing what I would want to do anyway. I honestly think that if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t go anywhere.”