Jessica and Robert Ryan, photo courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Known as much for his intense, brooding performances onscreen as his passionate defense of causes off it, actor Robert Ryan cared deeply about whatever he focused his attention on. While he appeared menacing on the big screen, in real life Ryan displayed concern and empathy for others, giving his time, attention, and money to causes protecting the lives and welfare of others. When he and his wife, Jessica, grew concerned about large class sizes at potential schools for their young son, the couple took action, organizing their own school, one still operating today.
The Ryans possessed a love of learning, spending much of their free time reading and discussing current issues with others. Ryan graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth. The couple wanted their children to discover this same curiosity and passion for knowledge, something to be nourished at small schools where kids could form close connections with caring teachers. After World War II, however, America experienced a baby boom when GIs returned from the front. In turn, this created overcrowded schools with huge classes, allowing little time for one-on-one attention or mentoring possibilities.
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The Oakwood School, via Google Street View.
In 1949, Jessica began exploring potential nursery schools in the San Fernando Valley for a good kindergarten to enroll their son Timothy. She noticed how busy they all seemed, with 40 or more children in classrooms, overwhelming teachers. School days were cut in half to try to alleviate these concerns.
The Ryans yearned for more than rote, follow-the-numbers education that these schools seemed to offer, desiring John Dewey’s notion of a progressive, liberal arts education championing curiosity and engagement with the surrounding world, ideas under threat in the repressive, fear-bound atmosphere of the United States at the time. After talking with other parents and a teacher, they discovered two other couples, the Harmons and the Cabeens, just as concerned about the situation. They came up with the name Oakwood School per Harmon’s suggestion, named and operated like the famous Quaker school called Oakwood in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., his hometown.
Robert Ryan, right, at a discussion of the Oakwood School.
They began holding meetings at the country schools promoting their school concept and circulated a letter listing Ryan as chairman describing what kind of education they hoped for their kids and asking others to become involved. As printed in the book, “the Lives of Robert Ryan,”
For the past eight months a group of parents in the San Fernando Valley has been working to lay the groundwork for an independent elementary school…which would be dedicated to the principles of the best in modern education.
We plan a non-sectarian, non-profit school with a serious program of parent participation.
We plan a school
where – The children are encouraged to work, play and learn together as responsible parts of a group and a community.
where – The teacher guides the child to achieve learning not by rote but through his curiosity and activity.
where – The classes are smaller, and closer individual attention is possible than in the overcrowded public schools.
where – The school belongs to the child and the parents as well as the professional teaching staff.
Ahead of their time, they decided the school would be open to all regardless of race, color, or creed and that scholarships would be available to cover the $675 a year costs in order that students from all economic classes could attend. They would stress the arts, working together in community, discovering gifts, and finding excitement in learning. Teachers would be well-trained and receive good salaries.
An ad for the Oakwood School in the Van Nuys News, 1959.
The Ryans funded the start-up and hosted the school in their backyard at 12015 Kling Street while they searched the San Fernando Valley for a suitable facility. Ryan finally discovered an abandoned synagogue near the Los Angeles River Wash perfect for their needs costing only $50 per month. As Ryan described in later newspaper accounts, the group fought red tape in obtaining permits from the Fire, Building and Safety, and Health departments before receiving permission to open the school at 11230 Moorpark in what is now Studio City. Fathers built furniture while mothers sewed curtains, painted, and landscaped.
While tiny, the building suited their small attendance, mostly kids from middle class homes with parents who were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and artists, attentive to their children’s needs. In an Oxnard Press Courier story on Sept. 9, 1953, Ryan stated, “Parents are urged to know what’s going on in the classroom. We feel the more you get parents involved in a school, the more they’ll think about it and the more they’ll do about it.” Fathers were urged to take their kids to work, with Ryan taking the full school to a movie set one day.
Ryan continually talked to the press promoting the school and how it made students ready to face the world, noting in a 1957 interview how it taught ingenuity and initiative as well as education. “Our school stresses arts and crafts right along with traditional subjects. And everything is integrated. It takes both to turn out youngsters who can compete in the world.”
Teacher Mary Davidson works with students on learning the alphabet, 1957.
By the third year, 75 pupils from kindergarten through sixth grade attended Oakwood though it struggled financially. They searched for a leader dedicated to the humanities and supportive of Quaker Friends’ meetings and principles to energize potential parents and students. The group discovered Marie Spottswood, a top New York City grade school administrator who agreed to come lead the school if she was given complete freedom to run it as she saw fit and to set high standards.
A few years after that, Ryan proudly mentioned about the blossoming school, featuring 80 students, seven modern classrooms in three buildings over three acres, and playing field.
To help raise money, Ryan devised all types of fundraising. For several years, celebrity friends took part in play readings like “The Wizard of Oz” with Barbara Stanwyck. In 1952, celebrities such as Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Jimmy Stewart, and Ryan took part in a production of “Actors and Sin” at the Beverly Canon Theatre to add to the school’s tuition fund. The school earned money from the premiere of “Hand in Hand” film premiere in 1960. In later years, the school held art fairs.
Even after the Ryans moved to New York, Oakwood remained strong, turning out some of the best pupils in the San Fernando Valley. It still operates today at the same location, teaching pupils from kindergarten through 12th grade and strong in both sports and the arts. Diversity in culture and opinion is stressed in an environment safe to be curious and take risks.