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David Fleishhacker: From Paleontology to the Humanities to Afghanistan



His finalist year: 1955

His finalist project: Making conjectures about a fossilized animal skull

What led to the project: David Fleishhacker's high school, The Webb Schools in Claremont, Calif., has a long history with paleontology. As it notes on its Web site, it is the only high school in the country with an actual accredited paleontology museum—the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology—on campus. During his summers, Fleishhacker would travel with his school's programs to dinosaur digs in places like the Badlands of South Dakota. On one trip, some classmates found a fossilized skull of an Oreodon (a genus more properly known now as a Merycoidodon, a prehistoric animal that resembles a large pig). Back at the lab at school, Fleishhacker took various measurements of the teeth, jaws and eyes and wrote a paper suggesting where the specimen fit in the evolutionary scheme of things. He entered his work in the 1955 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and was named a finalist.

The effect on his career: Fleishhacker went to Princeton University, but while he spent a little time studying the fossils in Princeton's Guyot Hall, he soon decided his real love was the humanities, and he majored in English instead. Unsure what he wanted to do after graduating in 1959, he taught for a few years then responded to President John F. Kennedy's call to join the newly formed Peace Corps; he entered the program's second class and shipped out to Afghanistan in 1962. He absolutely loved living there. "It was the most important educational experience of my life," he says. "In some ways, it was better then than it is now." The country was going through a modernization phase. The Taliban did not exist. "There were ancient mullahs who didn't like progress, but no one paid much attention to them." He taught English, saw the country, and absorbed the differences in culture in a place that focuses more on the past than the future—the opposite of what Americans are wont to do.

He returned to the U.S. in 1964, taught a few more years, then got an offer in 1970 to become the head of the Katherine Delmar Burke School, an independent elementary school for girls in San Francisco—a position he held for 25 years. Fleishhacker's major accomplishments included diversifying the school—"attracting people from entirely different segments of society than had previously been interested in private schools," he says, and turning an operating deficit into an endowment topping several million dollars.

Susan Faust has served as the lower school's librarian since 1985 when Fleishhacker hired her. She recalls him being "very iconoclastic." "He took steps to break down the kind of polite girls' school image that the school had," she says. He also "preserved a lot of space for kids to be kids and teachers to be teachers."

What he's doing now: Fleishhacker retired from Katherine Delmar Burke in 1995, did a few interim headmaster gigs, and then retired for good in 1999 to focus on traveling all over the world with his wife—recent stops include India, France and South Africa. But he has never forgotten Afghanistan. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as he listened to news reports about how the U.S. planned to pursue Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, it became clear that "no one knew anything about Afghanistan," he says. So he decided to turn his Peace Corps experience into a book called Lessons from Afghanistan, which he self-published in 2002. The book is part memoir and part cautionary tale about trying to change a culture. The main message? "Other countries don't think the way you do. Other people don't think the way you do," he says. Maybe if more people had understood that idea, he adds, "we wouldn't have gone into Iraq."

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