February 18, 2020

A Tribute to Phyllis Gottlieb

James Alan Astman, Ph. D. / Headmaster Emeritus

Dear Oakwood Families,

I cannot shake the sense of disbelief I feel in writing this sorrow-filled letter. Phyllis Gottlieb, who passed away last Friday after a long and courageous battle with cancer, has been such a profoundly important presence at the school that it is impossible to imagine Oakwood without her. And in truth, the prospect of my own life without her friendship is a sad one.

Still, there are so many reasons to feel gratitude. Our trustees were the constant beneficiaries of Phyllis’s strong but gentle leadership, her exceptional intelligence, and her impassioned devotion to Oakwood. She deeply understood the soul of the school and worked endlessly to preserve it. She modeled generosity with integrity and humility. So it was not surprising when founding parent Chuck Haas chose Phyllis to succeed him as a lifetime General Member of the Board. Just as Chuck had been before her, Phyllis became Oakwood’s North Star.

There is no nook or cranny of our two campuses that doesn’t reflect her brilliant and loving stamp. Stanford educated, with an advanced degree in urban planning from UC Berkeley, Phyllis was exceptionally well-qualified to chair Oakwood’s Building Committee (for all of my 40 years as Headmaster). In that capacity, Phyllis helped shape every master plan, helped conceive every building project, and repeatedly saved the rest of us from shortsightedness – whether we feared the price tag was too great or the architectural innovations were too risky. Thanks entirely to Phyllis, the Play Space at our elementary campus is a cutting edge green space, home to Southern California’s first school geothermal system. And were it not for Phyllis, the secondary campus would never have had a bridge – she insisted on adding it to the plans nearly 30 years ago – or facilities (like the Math-Science Building and the Music, Dance, and Athletic Center) that have helped transform our programs.

But no matter how many physical changes she was responsible for on both campuses, new buildings were, themselves, never what mattered most to Phyllis. Her eyes were always on the larger prize: the educational and moral quality of the experience young people had with their teachers, and the way in which the physical and natural environment could enhance that experience. She consistently pushed for flexible architecture, within and well beyond the classroom walls. She taught all of us the importance of building around our values, and not merely around current educational trends that would inevitably change over time.

In everything she did for the school, she was a model of grace, civility, and kindness. But she also had a wicked sense of humor and the ability not only to tolerate but somehow appreciate other opinions, regardless of how uninformed or unfriendly they might be. Many years ago, when Phyllis and I were meeting with neighbors angry about the school’s modest expansion plans, we actually had a couple of eggs tossed at us. The tension miraculously subsided when, with a wry and unexpected smile, Phyllis pointedly observed: “Those eggs could have made somebody a good breakfast!”

It wasn’t just her quick humor that awed me. It was also her ability to see through a child’s eye what school feels like. She and her husband, Dr. Fred Gottlieb (a family psychiatrist who has also been my teacher and dear friend), cherished Oakwood’s commitment to appreciating every student as an individual whose unique gifts deserve to be cultivated. All three Gottlieb children – Laura (’89), Jason (’85), and Alisa (’83) – are distinctively gifted in their own right. Laura is a professor of medicine, Jason is an educational leader, and Alisa is an exceptional artist . . . and the mother of Oakwood alumni, Emily (’16) and Brendan (’12), two of Phyllis’s and Fred’s six grandchildren.

No remembrance can do Phyllis justice, but I would be remiss if I failed to note some of the countless other ways Phyllis enriched the life of our community. She was the first to roll up her sleeves when it came to volunteering, which she always did with cheer and wholeheartedness, whether running a booth in the Fair, cleaning up after an event, or chairing the Board of Trustees. Phyllis and Fred were generous contributors, not just of money but of time and expertise. And they were ardent supporters of the arts both at Oakwood and in greater Los Angeles.

I treasure the rare privilege of having had two inspiring mentors in my adult life, whose guidance, friendship, and moral clarity were great blessings. The first was Chuck Haas, whose vision helped turn a fledgling startup into a major educational institution. The second was Phyllis. How blessed we have all been by her decades of compassionate leadership, her devotion to the school’s highest and best purposes, her ability to help us imagine an always-better version of ourselves, her joyous spirit, and her tireless work on behalf of young people.

On behalf of our entire community – so many generations of students, faculty, alumni, parents, trustees, and friends – Marlene and I want to extend our deepest sympathies, our endless gratitude, and our enduring love to the entire Gottlieb Family. We will carry Phyllis in our hearts for a lifetime.

James Astman, Ph.D.
Headmaster Emeritus