In the fall of 1970 I enrolled my stepdaughter in Summerhill Day School, which was run by Oliver Haskell, who I profiled in Part 1 with research help from my husband David Hughes. (See Part 1 also for how I came across the school in the first place.) If you’re confused by the Summerhill name, so was I at first. It wasn’t a name Ollie chose himself. We’ll get to that after some more about what led to the school’s founding.
As I mentioned in Part 1, Ollie had begun working with youngsters as a camp counselor in Lake Placid, New York, in the 1920s and early ’30s. In 1932 he worked with children at the Bulgarian Folk School that his father ran in Pordim. By 1943 in L.A. he was involved in defense-housing recreation and music programs for kids and adults. Ollie’s Haskell’s Raskells day camp in the ’50s and ’60s was simply a natural extension of this previous work, but it had an advantage over all the rest: autonomy.
When Ollie returned to L.A. in 1952 from a Philly defense-worker housing job from which he was forced to resign due to being a “left winger” he was in the same boat as his friends and comrades who had lost their jobs during the Red Scare. So he put them to work at Haskell’s Raskells, which he offered during summer vacations and other holidays.
The first newspaper ad for the day camp that we found appeared in the Los Angeles Times, mid summer 1956. It mentions a 12-acre ranch on Bluffside Drive at Vineland Ave. in what’s now Studio City. The same ad announces Haskell’s Raskells Farm Camp in a forest, as shown below.1
In 1958 the Haskell’s Raskells day camp and resident farm camp had moved to a 20-acre site in La Tuna Canyon (Sun Valley). It featured a swimming pool, tennis court, ball field, horseback riding, nature trails, arts, crafts, drama, dancing, music, and a lapidary workshop.2 The next summer the camp was to receive scholarship attendees following a benefit concert at the Ash Grove, Ed Pearl’s roots music club that opened the year before,3 which would become world famous due to Ed’s lively mix of music, poetry, and theater.
In the late summer of 1961 Haskell’s Raskells hosted a single-parents picnic for kids in Sunland.4 Later that fall, Ollie—based in North Hollywood—also arranged a series of “Saturday camping trips,” as noted by L.A. Times columnist Matt Weinstock, who wrote that Ollie’s
mimeographed schedule includes a trip to Corriganville, described as follows: “See Ft. Apache, Sherwood Lake, bank holdup, murder, mayhem, lots of people killed—the ultimate in educational experience.5
(The Corriganville movie ranch was the Universal Parks & Resorts of its day, and for seventy-five cents kids could, well, obtain the ultimate in educational experience.6)
And so the Raskells’—and later Summerhill Day School’s—activities weren’t limited to the site of Ollie’s home and stable, by then on the lot at Vineland and the Los Angeles River in North Hollywood. When I knew him Ollie took the kids on day trips to places like Santa Barbara, Ojai, Disneyland, and the beach. They also had weeklong excursions to Ensenada, Mexico.
One excursion anecdote is worth retelling. Ollie took a station-wagonful of kids to Santa Barbara where they took the train to Ojai for some hiking. To round out the day they caught the bus to beach. When it got late Ollie told the kids, “We have to get going because we need to catch the last bus to the train.” Counting heads he found two missing. Ollie and the kids scoured the beach for a couple of hours before they found them, but they had missed that last bus. Ollie was very upset. “Now what are we gonna do?” he asked. “Let’s hitchhike!” they said. And so they stuck out their thumbs, with Ollie standing there exasperated, and immediately got a ride in some gardeners’ pickup to the train station.
In the spring of ’63 Haskell’s Ranch hosted the first-ever Renaissance Pleasure Faire, which was a fundraiser for KPFK, a Pacifica station that would turn four years old that summer.
As I wrote last time, Haskell’s Raskells
appears to have flown under the radar of regulators, because Ollie didn’t file an application “to establish a day-care center and recreation day camp for children” until about June of 1962. The application stated the center “would care for approximately 70 children between 5 and 16 years of age between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. during summer months and approximately 40 children between noon and 6 p.m. during the school year.”7
It’s probably a good thing that Ollie filed that application, since he’d be in the news a year later. On Wednesday, August 28, 1963—the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—Haskell’s Raskells kids organized a “sympathy march” on their day camp’s grounds and a short stretch of Vineland Ave. “This was a completely spontaneous movement,” Ollie told Valley Times Today. “The youngsters decided Tuesday that they wanted to hold their own march to show how they feel about the civil rights situation.” Ollie told the newspaper that the camp looked at current affairs rather than avoiding them and so the kids were “generally” aware.8 This reminds me that Ollie told me he and his nine brothers and sisters would get up each morning, race to get the newspaper, and fight over it—like my mother and me (I began trying to read the paper at age 3).
Last time, I mentioned that the Haskell’s Raskells kids came from all walks of life. This was borne out by that same newspaper report: “One woman arrived at the day camp as the march got under way and asked that her children be permitted to leave. She told Haskell that the children would return to the camp today, but she did not want them to join in the march.”
That mom, had she read Valley Times Today ten months before, would have seen Ollie’s name on the front page having been named a member of the Communist Party. Remember my mention last time of the 1962 HUAC testimony by a Robert Ronstadt? He testified in executive (closed) session that April but his seventeen-page transcript was released October 10.
[…] Robert C. Ronstadt stated that [Frank] Wilkinson and he were members of the Altgeld unit of the Communist Party. […] Among the other members of the Altgeld unit, Ronstadt named:
Oliver Haskell, former project director of the City Housing authority […].9
The article is under the byline of the Valley Times Today Washington Bureau, and the paper’s local staff evidently didn’t know that Oliver Haskell operated a Valley day camp for kids—its clientele and counselors being among those whose names had been named. If the paper’s reporters did know, they kept mum. But then the article’s focus was on Wilkinson, with whom Ollie had worked, but who was a much bigger name.
Summerhill Becomes Summerhill
A year and a half before, on December 4, 1960, readers of the Los Angeles Times10 were introduced to A. S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, which had been published the week of John F. Kennedy’s election. “Harold Hart, a publisher in New York, had written to Neill suggesting that a book which drew on four of his earlier works—The Problem Child , The Problem Parent , That Dreadful School  and The Free Child —might find a market in America.”11 Below, in a twenty-eight-minute Canadian documentary from 1966, Neill himself explains his objectives. (Thanks to our friend Matthew Kneale for sending this.)
At some point in the mid 1960s12 the Haskell’s Raskells day camp was reorganized as Summerhill Cooperative School, as it was called in a 1967 notice for a Father’s Day fundraiser at the Los Feliz Theatre in Hollywood.13 I believe it was Ollie who set the tone for Summerhill’s educational experience. He told me he felt kids were being lied to and he wanted to tell them the truth. He said that those of his teachers who’d read A. S. Neill’s work had urged him to take on the Summerhill name. But he’d never read Neill’s book himself until he got a call to make a speech about Summerhill (the school and the book), so he ran out and bought it, read it that night, and gave the talk the next day. (Like JFK, Ollie was a speed reader.)
On the first day of spring 1972, Ollie and Summerhill were profiled by the L.A. Times in the second of a series of articles on “free schools.” By that time A. S. Neill’s “classrooms optional” notion had seeped into the ongoing American culture wars (although the latter term itself wouldn’t have currency until 1991).14 And so Times staff writer Lynn Lilliston deftly moves through this issue by beginning the Summerhill Day School section with the subtitle Tempting the Student.
Traditional learning is available, but the idea is to tempt the child to enter in and not let him get the idea that school is dull or hard.
“There are periods when there are lots of classes and times when there are not,” said Oliver Haskell, the 63-year-old director. “Sometimes when there’s a distraction such as building a fort or a dome or a kiln, then academic classes take second place for awhile.”
Ollie followed up by saying that it was “possible” that a student might not go to any classes but that “almost everyone” went to “some class every day.” And further, if a child attended no classes, “we’d try to find out why” via conversation. “I might ask him if he’d like to talk about archeology or play chess. Then I’d probably find out that he’s having problems at home or with the other kids.”
Lilliston then expands on the “classes optional” notion. “What about educational choice? Some critics of free schools say that children don’t know enough about choices to make intelligent decisions.” Ollie shot back with, “The fact is that children don’t choose dull occupations.”
Let that sink in, without the rest of what Ollie told the reporter on this topic. My son Alex, who admittedly had gotten into Summerhill underage (Ollie told me, “If they’re big enough they’re old enough”) spent a lot of time shedding his clothes and spending time at the creek rather than attending classes.
Alex would go on to own a horse and become a lifelong fisherman and riparian enthusiast, at one point becoming caretaker for the Izaak Walton League property in Red Wing, Minn. on the Mississippi. And so he doesn’t shy away from the adversity of Minnesota winters, having lived there about half his life.
Before getting into the subject of “problem children” at the school, Lilliston broached the subject of sex education:
Given the presence of a stallion among the school’s mares, and the birth of several colts each year, Summerhill students learn about reproduction naturally. “They see reproduction from start to finish,” Haskell said, “and there’s no mystery about it. Of course, we do indicate to them the differences in the human relationship.”15
I remember two anecdotes Ollie told regarding horses at the school. A student was seen by several others trying to put a stick up the pony’s butt. Ollie suspended him for two weeks. Later Ollie and the teachers voted to make the suspension permanent. But the school was set up so that every individual had an equal vote. So the kids sat down for two hours and debated the issue. They concluded that the boy should be suspended for those two weeks but he should be allowed to return—that he needed a second chance. They outnumbered Ollie and the teachers and so Ollie accepted their decision.
Another time Ollie discovered a small horse wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t call a vet right away, but when he finally did it was too late; the horse had already gone down on the ground. The vet said the horse had an infection in its blood.
As mentioned above, reporter Lilliston remarked on one of the “striking features” of Ollie’s school: “patience with problem children.” Ollie pointed Lilliston to watch a boy who was engaged with a group of younger children. Because of the boy’s inadequacy with those his own age, Ollie said, the boy figured he could wrangle them “into a gang” that he could lead. Rather than intervene, which “would make it more convenient for ourselves,” Ollie said, he felt the boy wouldn’t benefit from the “cure” that could come from “time and understanding.” It was a lesson my own son Alex would learn with some guidance from his teacher.
When Alex was 4, for a few days running he told me he wasn’t feeling well. He even got a fever, but this was very unusual. So I sat with him at his bed one day. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “Is something wrong at school?” “Yes,” Alex replied. “David wants to beat me up.” “Who’s David?” I asked. David was a Summerhill student a year older than Alex. I called Alex’s teacher Anita to tell her why Alex had been out. When he returned the next day, Anita made the two kids sit and face off with each other and discuss their issues. After that Alex wanted to go to school. I told Alex, “Just stay away from David; don’t interact with him.” Maybe two months later Anita put them on the school bus together, again facing each other. David had a helium balloon and kept pulling it down and pushing it in Alex’s face. Alex said, “Stop it, David.” He didn’t stop. “If you don’t stop I’m going to break your balloon.” David just kept sitting there, smiling and laughing. Finally Alex had had enough and broke the balloon. (Anita must have given Alex permission to retaliate, because up to that point he was by nature very shy.) David burst into tears. And Alex felt bad, saying, “I’m sorry I broke your balloon.” They became best friends that day and became inseparable. Fortunately Alex lost his shyness; unfortunately he adopted David’s habit of being just awful to everybody else. But in 1981 when Alex and his father had moved to Trinity County I spent some time there and was called to Alex’s school for a parent conference. “We’ve never had a child like Alex—ever.” Any time a fellow student would bully someone Alex would stand up for the other kid. He’d shout at them that it wasn’t okay, and he didn’t care who was doing the bullying.
Freaked Out By the Fuzz
To save on tuition—I had Alex and two stepchildren at Summerhill—I became a bus driver, using my VW Microbus. Usually after dropping kids off I’d return to Reseda to work with my husband who had an HVAC business. Sometimes I’d stay at the school. I hung out with the older students because they were so kind and protective. Eventually Summerhill obtained a full-size yellow school bus, and Alex’s friend David’s father drove it. Regardless, one day when I drove my kids to the (yellow) bus stop, a bunch of the other kids refused to board it and instead hopped in my Microbus. One time I must have had 22 kids and told them I couldn’t drive them because I’d be stopped by the police.
The police did show up—at the school. (This was before my kids went there.) Ollie was out of town on business and a teacher named Joe Sevitski was in charge. Joe went into the house to make a cup of coffee and the students, who had become bored, went out on the sidewalk on Vineland and started shouting, “Reds for sale! Uppers for sale!” There was a lot of traffic and the neighbors called the cops. Having made his coffee, Joe walked out to a scene with all the students spread-eagle on the ground surrounded by police with their guns drawn. It terrified him, but he tried to remain calm. “What’s going on, officers?” he asked. They ordered him to get on the ground, too. He was afraid to talk or even move his head. Joe was a Vietnam vet and had a scar to show for it but he was never so scared as he was that day. Somehow the cops became convinced there were no drugs on the property, holstered their guns, and left.
Free schools in the ’70s were becoming very popular, and so many teachers wanted the experience of teaching there, I had nothing to do when volunteering (except drive my van). Summerhill had a 7-to-1 student-to-children ratio.16
After the school moved to Agoura I took over Anita’s class while she vacationed in Argentina. It was five or six weeks of hell. This class was the little kids, including Alex and David who were so disruptive I finally asked them to leave. Once outside they rattled the windows to antagonize me. Fortunately the older kids asked if I needed their help and sometimes I accepted. I never knew that teaching could be so hard.
My Son the Lab Rat
At the beginning of the 1974–75 academic year we were informed by Alex’s teacher Barbara Ianoli that Alex couldn’t read or write. He was seven years old. Because the educational philosophy at Summerhill allowed the students to learn of their own volition we weren’t overly concerned. But Barbara continued to work with Alex until the spring of ’75 when she suggested he be examined at UCLA. So Barbara and I went with Alex to the Neuropsychiatric Institute to make an appointment. “We’ll test him today,” we were told. Later, I told my cousin about the testing because her son was acting out and behaving oddly. When she called she was told they had a years-long waiting list! It then became clear that UCLA took Alex because he was a free school kid and wanted to critique that educational philosophy.
I was in the room during the examinations and I heard some of his answers and thought they were funny, two of which I remember vividly.
Q: If you’re out in the woods what are you doing?
A: I’m being a bear [raising his arms like a bear].
The “correct” answer, of course, was “I’m camping.”
Q: If you’re not a boy, what are you?
A: I’m a skeleton.
They, of course, wanted “A girl,” but Alex had never had the gender binary drilled into him. Once the testing was analyzed they called and told me he scored so low as to appear retarded. I said, “My son is not retarded. He’s actually very bright.” Later I obtained a copy of the report and it is infuriating and incriminating. A sample from the Dynamic Summary:
Through the combined interaction of his early turbulent home life, his numerous sources of frustration as discussed above, and his lack of direction in growing up he has become an anxious and somewhat withdrawn child.
At the time Alex was an undiagnosed dyslexic, the very tentative possibility of which is one of the few useful observations in the UCLA report. The reason he was “withdrawn” is that he did not want the clinicians to visit our home and remained in our bedroom. He had a sixth sense.
1. Borderline Mental Retardation
2. “Other” Behavioral Problem of Childhood
That a “lack of direction” in a 7-year-old should be alarming indicates the cookie-cutter mindset of psychiatrists at the time. It reminds my husband David, who got to know Alex that year, of this song by Buffy Sainte-Marie.
The clinicians recommended that we immediately remove Alex from Summerhill and place him in a public school E.H. class. I thought, “Where am I going to place him? I’m not going to put him in public school.” Alex’s father found Pathways School, which was a client of his HVAC service.
Norm and I went to talk with the directors. We told them about the UCLA experience. Pathways seemed like a fit but the tuition, at $2,000 a month, was too expensive. Fortunately we qualified for Sedgewick Funding, by which the State guaranteed assistance for private school tuition if a public school couldn’t meet the student’s needs. Alex thrived there and had a reading tutor—with long hair! When Alex entered Pathways in the fall of ’75 he was at a kindergarten level; by the end of the school year he was at his third grade level.
Eventually Summerhill Day School moved to Venice, holding its classes at the Pavilion and the play yard next to where the muscle men would lift their weights.
At some point the enrollment dwindled and Ollie retired, going back to public housing, becoming the live-in manager of a complex of seniors. By then, at least in Venice, having been a Red was a badge of honor.
In late June 1994 Ollie invited me, my husband Norm, and our son Alex over for a get-together. He was in the living room and we talked casually, drinking tea. He was a little frailer but we didn’t discuss any of his ailments. I didn’t realize at the time that he probably was saying goodbye.
A week later, on a Sunday morning, I was reading the L.A. Times when HASKELL caught my eye. I thought, “Oh my God. Ollie.” Alex had gotten a couple of calls that week from Ollie’s son but didn’t know why. I called Alex and told him it was because Ollie had passed the previous Wednesday. His obituary read in part:
Died June 4, 1997, while watching a congressional debate on C-Span. Spent a lifetime dedicated to peace, equality and justice. […]
Chairman of the Board, Lieu-Cap [Low Income and Elderly United-Community Assistance Program] in Venice. At age 77, Ollie marched from Panama to Mexico for peace and traveled 5 times each to Nicaragua and Cuba, mostly under the auspices of the [O]ffice of the Americas, where he was a devoted volunteer.17
He was a famous scavenger, daily ransacking supermarket dumpsters to provide food for the homeless. Oliver put himself on the front line of every cause in which he believed, consistently, doggedly, and above all cheerfully.18
See these other sites for Summerhill memories.
Summerhill Day School
general meeting, Agoura, 1970s
Oliver Haskell standing center
Andrea Carney collection
- Display ad, Los Angeles Times, 22 Jul 1956, V12.
- Display ad, Valley Times, 08 Aug 1958, 3.
- “Concert Will Boost Camp Scholarships,” Valley Times, 13 Jun 1959, 13.
- “Single Parents to Hear Lindon,” Valley Times Today, 14 Sep 1961, 15.
- “Wrong Numbers Can Be Right,” Los Angeles Times, 26 Nov 1961, C-5.
- Display ad, Valley News, 24 Nov 1961, 25-A; “Corriganville Lists Several New Attractions,” Valley Times Today, 01 Aug 1962, 6.
- “Hearing on Day Camp Scheduled,” Los Angeles Times, 20 Jun 1962, E8. See also the public notice “Notice of Hearing Relative to Request for Conditional Use Approval,” Valley Times Today, 18 Jun 1962, 16.
- “N.H. Day Camp: Children Stage Rights ‘March,'” Valley Times Today, 29 Aug 1963, 2.
- “Former City Official Linked to Red Cell,” Valley Times Today, 12 Oct 1962, 1.
- “Report Card: Gain Made in Teacher Supply,” Los Angeles Times, 04 Dec 1960, F8; “Briton Experiments in Child-Rearing,” Los Angeles Times (UPI), I19.
- Jonathan Croall, Neill of Summerhill: The Permanent Rebel (New York: Pantheon Books), 350, 424.
- Ollie “started his first school six years ago” according to “Free Schools: 3 R’s Become Pupil’s Choice,” Los Angeles Times, 20 Mar 1972, IV-6. His school was “now in its ninth year” as stated in “Benefit for School,” Los Angeles Times, 11 Nov 1973, X-I4. Summerhill Day School was registered as a nonprofit corporation on 30 Jul 1968 per California Secretary of State Business Search, Entity Number C0550211.
- “Theatre Sets Dad’s Day Show,” Valley Times, 17 Jun 1967, 2.
- See Irene Taviss Thomson, Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010) for a contexualization of the term; Chapter 1 is archived here.
- Regarding this, my husband David remembers a sort of punch line from A. S. Neill’s book, in which the educator recalled a seventeen-year-old boy and sixteen-year-old girl, both of whom had transferred from private single-gender schools. (Neill’s Summerhill was a co-ed boarding school.) They became a conspicuous item. One night Neill stopped them. “I don’t know what you two are doing,” he told them, “and I don’t care, for it isn’t a moral question at all. But economically I do care. If you, Kate, have a kid, my school will be ruined.” Neill explained that because they were newcomers and older they had no attachment to a school that means only “freedom.” If they had entered at, say, age seven, Neill said, their “attachment” to the school would’ve caused them to “think of the consequences to Summerhill.” (Neill, 57–58.)
- “Free Schools: 3 R’s Become Pupil’s Choice.”
- The last newspaper mention of Ollie that we found was a notice for a Gray Panthers meeting 26 Sep 1994 in Santa Monica featuring guest speaker Oliver Haskell discussing “Cuba Revisited This Summer.” See “The Calendar: Meetings/Classes,” Los Angeles Times, 25 Sep 1994, WS18.
- “Obituaries,” Los Angeles Times, 08 Jun 1997, B14.