VAIL — Walk into Vail Mountain School and you’ll spot headmaster Peter Abuisi’s office before anything else, just the way he likes it.
“The head of school should see everything,” said Abuisi, who has.
Abuisi will send his final graduating class into the world this evening. He’s retiring after decades of molding Vail Mountain School into one of the nation’s finest schools.
“The work is done that I was meant to do,” he said.
Yes, education is buildings and books, but it’s so much more, Abuisi said.
“The memories kids have of school you don’t necessarily get only from lectures and classwork. It’s not just the books or sports. It’s all that along with memories, traditions. That’s what people carry with them the rest of their lives,” Abuisi said.
Seven five-year terms
Like most of us who moved to Vail, he worked two jobs, Vail Mountain School in the daytime and the Christiania Lodge at night. He figured he’d stay three years. His second year they made him headmaster, and his three years stretched into three decades.
“I made a five-year commitment. Now it’s been seven five-year commitments later,” Abuisi said laughing.
Vail Mountain School started in 1962 in Pete and Betty Seibert’s house. Kids went to school in the morning and skiing in the afternoon.
Abuisi grins and says his toughest battle was cutting back skiing from every day to two days a week.
“It took five years to ease people into it,” he laughed.
Stroll around Vail Mountain School and you’ll hear almost no student punctuate spoken sentences with “like.” They say “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” They rarely say “no problem.” You can thank Abuisi for that, and so many other things.
“There’s something about kids born here. They grow up skiing and that creates a self-reliance that you don’t see in many other places,” Abuisi said.
Look around the place and you’ll see pictures of Dave Gorsuch pushing a lawn mower and Helga Pulis on her back atop scaffolding, painting the ceiling.
Helga’s daughter, Valley Pulis, went to VMS. The fourth generation of the Gorsuch clan is involved with the school.
“It’s a small town. We’ve had their kids and their kids’ kids,” Abuisi said.
The school was a little nomadic for a few years, finally settling in East Vail when Vail Associates gave them the land they’re on now.
Bob Lazier built the first building in 90 days for $340,000. Architect Gordon Pierce designed it after listening to what people want in a school, then drawing it.
The building is cutting edge and so is the education. The curriculum runs deep: math, science, English, Spanish and history.
Kids start speaking Spanish in kindergarten and keep studying it through their senior year.
Along the way, every class weaves in ethics and living an ethical life. Classes are taught around conference tables. Students do not line up in desks. Living an ethical life requires people to be shoulder to shoulder, Abuisi said as he quotes John Phillips, who graduated from Harvard in 1735: “Knowledge without goodness is dangerous.”
“If you have memories of great teachers you can become a great teacher, or great at anything else,” Abuisi said. “I love it when kids write to me from the Peace Corps and say, ‘I know you’ll appreciate where I am.’”
He remembers when most of those kids started kindergarten.
“You see a kid heading off to college and remember when they came in excited because they’d lost a tooth.”
Lovin’ every minute of it
Abuisi was born in Boston, migrated to Oklahoma and taught at the University of Oklahoma. He specialized in the behavioral sciences — learning disabilities, kids with terminal illnesses, head trauma.
When Hurricane Katrina leveled part of New Orleans, he worked on the crew that restored Fats Domino’s house.
Before he moved to Vail, he says he thought, “An elementary school in the Rockies? No one will ever live there.”
He said he’s glad he does.
Through the decades, he’s had overtures from other schools in urban areas.
“I love every minute I’ve spent here,” Abuisi said. “I got to the point that I knew I wanted to finish this.”
Tonight he will.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935, and firstname.lastname@example.org