Thomas Hudnut leaves a legacy of excellence at Harvard-Westlake

The school's retiring president and CEO set out in 1989 to make extracurricular activities an important part of the student experience. The result is a record of academic and athletic success.

When it comes to trendsetters, Thomas Hudnut will go down in history as the high school educator who proved students could excel in academics and athletics at the same time.

As the headmaster when Studio City Harvard High School merged with the Westlake School for Girls in 1989 to become Harvard-Westlake, he decided to launch an all-out effort "to be as much like Stanford as we possibly could."

Sports was used to gain exposure and inspire a whole different element of students to consider Harvard-Westlake, known for its academic excellence. He built first-class athletic facilities and empowered administrators to hire top coaches.

He made extracurricular activities an important part of the high school experience, whether that meant participating in the glee club, orchestra, newspaper, drama, robotics or sports.

"People assumed if they were good in sports, they couldn't be good in academics," said Audrius Barzdukas, who was hired from the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2003 to run the athletics program and is now the upper school principal. "He is a person who frees people up rather than puts them in boxes."

Hudnut's youngest son, Peter, became an Olympic water polo player, and Hudnut still remembers when Peter was gashed during a match his freshman year, and the father of a teammate who happened to be a plastic surgeon came out of the stands and stitched him up so he could immediately go back into the pool. The lesson: Nothing should stop you from doing what you love.

Hudnut, 65, is retiring as Harvard-Westlake's president and chief executive officer on June 30, having worked at the school since 1987. He made a tremendous effect in making sure his students had many opportunities to experiment and test themselves.

One of his most important contributions was letting his student journalists be journalists. He never once censored a story from the school newspaper even though they wrote stories that would have made any principal shut their door and scream in horror.

"It has been said that the responsibility of the press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and sometimes when our student journalists have jabbed and poked, it has made us a little uncomfortable," he said. "But that's the role of the press, and I have defended this paper, and it has been chosen the best high school paper in the country numerous times. I'm very proud of them."

He said the growth of girls' sports at Harvard-Westlake is one of his most gratifying achievements. He said the 1996-97 state championship boys' basketball team, led by Jason and Jarron Collins, was his most memorable sports moment.

Lots of schools have tried to follow the path of Harvard-Westlake. The founders of Westlake Village Oaks Christian used Harvard-Westlake as their model when they opened in 2000, putting sports excellence in their mission statement. Other schools have invested large sums of money to improve facilities and become competitive in athletics.

Hudnut offers a cautionary tale about the focus on sports: "You can say it's too important if it comes at the expense of the academic program, and if the athletes are not expected to take the same curriculum as the other students ... if they dumb down courses or have special dorms for athletes or special tutors for athletes. I think that's going too far."

But he will never apologize for making sure his students had lots of options besides opening their books in class.

"It's a crying shame that extracurriculars are among the first things cut" when budgets are tightened, he said. "Music programs, art programs, coaches. It's hard enough to be an adolescent in today's world and many kids find the visual arts or athletics to be where they can best express themselves."

Hudnut wanted his students to follow the Greek philosopher Plato and develop mind, body and spirit.

It's a strategy that still works in 2013.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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