Peter G. Briggs 1937–2014

Image: Peter Briggs

By Douglas J. Lyons
Headmaster, The Greenwich Country Day School 1992–2004

Peter Garland Briggs graduated from Harvard University in 1959, having worked three part-time jobs while on full scholarship.

Remarkably Peter found time to make a serious commitment to Crimson athletics, lettering in football, track, and lacrosse. In 1957, he earned All-Ivy status in football. In 1958, he earned both All-Ivy and All-East recognition.

Peter’s first post-graduate pursuit revealed his zeal for adventure. An expert swimmer, he enlisted in the Navy, serving in explosive ordnance disposal. An emerging interest in education lead to his appointment as an academic dean and teacher at the Naval Academy Prep School. During these years he completed a master’s degree in education at Johns Hopkins University.

Image: Headmaster Peter Briggs at Commencement on the lawn behind the Upper School.
Headmaster Peter Briggs at Commencement on the lawn behind the Upper School.

Leaving the Navy in 1964, Peter joined the faculty of Newton High School (Massachusetts). Three years later, convinced that the future of America would be inextricably tied to the quality of its schools, he began a second master’s degree at Stanford University, where he served as a teaching assistant.

Graduating from Stanford in 1969, Peter was recruited by The National Institute of Education to serve as a deputy assistant secretary. His responsibilities included research and dissemination of validated teaching techniques and programs into schools. During the next seven years Peter would become an expert diagnostician of teaching potential and teaching talent. This skill would become invaluable in the remaining 38 years of his career as he built and sustained faculties at two prominent independent schools and nine successful public charter schools.

The call to serve at Greenwich Country Day School originated in 1975 in a meeting between Peter and Gerry Jones, a former Andover classmate who was serving as a GCDS trustee. Gerry outlined the significant challenges faced by our school at a pivotal time in its history.

Image: Peter Briggs at the dedication of Molinari Hall in the Lower School.
Johnna Yeskey (front left) and Hope Wittrock (behind her) with Peter Briggs at the dedication of Molinari Hall in the Lower School.

In the period between 1969 (when the legendary Headmaster John “Sir” Webster retired) and 1976, four different men occupied the Headmaster’s Office. An experiment in progressive education had failed, plans for a Senior School were disbanded, and the Board of Trustees was divided over a future vision for the school.

Peter was energized by the challenge. In response, the trustees overlooked a field of experienced, conventional candidates and unanimously chose the man whom they believed to be uniquely suited for leadership at Country Day.

Peter and Sally Briggs and their young family arrived in the summer of 1976. Peter was physically a towering presence. At 6′ 5″, 220 pounds, he was easy to spot on campus. His intellectual power, command of language, and passion for education and the school were inspiring and occasionally intimidating. Peter knew that it would be important for the community, the students especially, to see his playful side. In coaching, in assemblies (notably the Halloween parades), and in his love for pranks (ably assisted by Lower School Head Fred Scott and Upper School Head Phil Davis) Peter became accessible to all.

Image: Evelynn and Doug Lyons with President of the Board of Trustees Livvy Floren and Peter Briggs.
Evelynn and Doug Lyons with President of the Board of Trustees Livvy Floren and Peter Briggs.

My first meeting with Peter is a testament to his sense of humor. It was September of 1991, and I was a finalist candidate for the headmaster position. I was on campus for a full day of interviews, which included a private session with the departing Headmaster Peter Briggs.

Pat Redfield, assistant to the Headmaster, welcomed me into the office, where I waited for Peter who, I was told, was watching the annual Mothers vs Daughters field hockey game. I had not been told that Peter had been commissioned by the mothers to join their team.

Peter arrived in a full dress field hockey uniform—jersey top, pleated skirt, knee socks covering the lower part of his hairy legs. A blonde wig with long braids and deep red lipstick completed the transformation of the headmaster into a rather large field hockey mother. Without once referencing his costume, Peter offered me an assessment of the challenges the school would likely face in the next decade, defined the many reasons for his love and pride in Country Day, and assured me that, if selected, I would have “the best job in education.”

Image: Peter Briggs with students Teddy Flinn ’84 (left) and Bobby Hoy ’84.
Peter Briggs with students Teddy Flinn ’84 (left) and Bobby Hoy ’84.

Image: Groundbreaking for the new girls gym
Groundbreaking for the new girls gym: Peter Briggs, Judy Higgins, Susan Barrett, David Brownwood, and between the two architects, Head of the Middle School Robin Douglass.

A few days later, a handwritten note from Peter arrived at my home in New Jersey. He congratulated me on my composure in our meeting, said he hoped I saw the humor in the scene and promised me that the role of headmaster at Country Day would be serious business but not without opportunities to have fun. He wished me the best of luck in the outcome of the search.

Over the sixteen years of his tenure at Country Day, Peter expanded, modernized, and improved every aspect of the program and services. An abbreviated list of his measurable achievements includes:

  • The Carriage House, daycare facility for faculty and staff children
  • Renovation and expansion of faculty housing
  • Establishment of professional-level faculty salaries
  • Transformation of the co-teacher program into a rigorous teacher development experience
  • Introduction of the FLES program (foreign language in Lower School)
  • Renovation and expansion of the Lower and Middle School buildings
  • Introduction of the nursery program for three-year-olds
  • Introduction of appropriate technology in the elementary grades
Image: Peter Briggs at the 1992 Benefit Auction “A Little Night Magic.”
Peter Briggs at the 1992 Benefit Auction “A Little Night Magic.”

In 1992, Peter and Maura Briggs departed for Addison, Texas, to accept what they believed would be Peter’s final leadership role in education: head of the Greenhill School.

Peter served at Greenhill for the next eight years. In his tenure, the school’s enrollment grew by 20% while simultaneously its selectivity increased, accepting only 18% of applicants. He raised $28 million for the renovation of the campus.

Image: Peter assists Head of the Middle School Ramsay Stabler with the presentation of end-of-the-year awards.
Peter assists Head of the Middle School Ramsay Stabler with the presentation of end-of-the-year awards.

Whatever Peter and Maura originally imagined for their retirement, at 63 years old Peter realized that he was still too passionate about schools and about kids to leave the profession entirely.

In 2001, Peter accepted the presidency of the Texas division of Richard Milburn Academy Inc (RMA). RMA is a group of free, public charter schools designed to help students, many of whom are from urban, income-depressed families and who have struggled in traditional school settings to complete their high school education.

As president of RMA Texas, Peter was responsible for the operation of nine schools serving more than 2,000 at-risk students. All of the schools received positive ratings from the Texas Board of Education, and they averaged a remarkable 83% graduation rate. Under Peter’s leadership, RMA won a $6 million competitive grant for expansion of the RMA model to six additional schools.

In my preparation for this written tribute, I spoke with leaders at RMA Texas and also with Houston Conley, President of RMA Florida. Peter is remembered fondly by his colleagues in the charter school movement for his tireless advocacy for America’s most often forgotten students.

It was no surprise to me to discover that Peter’s legacy in that network of schools was his attention to the development of teachers. In the words of Dr. Conley, “Peter knew the elements of great teaching. He introduced and enforced standards for faculty—and they rose to the occasion.”

Image: Ralph DeNunzio, Peter Briggs, Judy Higgins, John Barrett, Lang Cook.
Ralph DeNunzio, Peter Briggs, Judy Higgins, John Barrett, Lang Cook.

If there is a central theme, a core story in Peter’s career, it is his belief that the heart of a school is found in its faculty. Peter once told me, “I hire people, not résumés.” Degrees and credentials rarely impressed him. In selecting a faculty, he had an uncanny ability to distinguish between teacher candidates who were impeccably prepared but not necessarily likely to bring their hearts to work and those whose passion was authentic. He was drawn to those who were drawn to teaching by the intangibles: the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children.

Earlier in this essay, I referred to Peter’s measurable achievements at Country Day. Of course, it is the un-measurables that will be his forever legacy; notably the many legendary faculty he brought to our school. These teachers are the ambassadors and sustainers of our culture, and they are among the finest educators I know. I speak for Adam and myself in expressing our gratitude to Peter. As his successors, we have inherited a tradition and a reverence for great classroom teaching. It is an honor to hold the title that he held before us.

Remembering Peter’s words:
The scale of history has never before so heavily tipped toward education in the United States. We must get it right this time and, in some manner and in some capacity, I want to be part of the answer.

For those of us in the communities of Greenwich Country Day School, the Greenhill School, and the network of RMA charter schools, Peter Garland Briggs got it right.

In August of 2012, Peter Briggs reflected on his career and volunteer service in a posting on his LinkedIn profile:

I have been in education for half a century. I have participated in educational research and policy making at the federal level. I have taught and administered in independent, public, and charter schools; a military service academy; and a university. I have participated in the startup of two research companies and four charter schools.

I have been there at the creation of the major changes in American education: the explosive federal role beginning with LBJ’s Great Society legislation; the first attempt to run public schools by corporations; the abortive voucher plan; the first nationwide field experiment in education; the growth of independent schools as the only viable option in our largest cities; and the hope-filled expansion of charter schools.

I am 75 years old but am in excellent health, have a high energy level, and want to keep going by contributing my experience and vision to the next generation’s definition and configuration of education: whether in an advisory or operational capacity, whether on a full or part-time basis, whether paid or voluntary matters not.

I have been blessed by doing precisely what I wanted to do every moment of every day in my working life; so, in part, my desire to keep going is entirely self-indulgent. However, the scale of history has never before so heavily tipped toward education in the United States. We must get it right this time and, in some manner and in some capacity, I want to be part of the answer.