Commander William F. Bullis turns eyes left in a military manner. His bristling white hair glistens in the noon-day sun as he watches the Bullis Bulldogs take to the gridiron in their blue-and-gold uniforms.
The man everyone calls "the Commander" is feeling bullish despite his 79 years, four heart attacks and three pacemakers. On this 90-degree day, the retired-naval-officer-turned-educator and his wife Lois are celebrating the golden anniversary of The Bullis School they founded 50 years ago.
The day-long ceremonies marking the affluent private school's first half-century started on an ominous note as the soccer team dropped a 6-2 match with a French-speaking team. "I wish they'd speak English," said someone on the sidelines. "Our players can't understand them."
But a 13-8 varsity football victory over Central High School of Seat Pleasant stopped an atmosphere of defeat from lingering too long on the 90-acre campus on Falls Road in Potomac.
After the game, Montgomery County's Democratic Del. Michael Barnes dropped by to salute the Bullis family and the U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard added pomp to the circumstances.
Among the former students who came to honor the Bullis family were former pro-football players Bob Windsor, who played with the San Francisco Forty-Niners and Tom Brown, who played with the Green Bay Packers under Vince Lombardi.
"It was quite a day," said 75-year-old Lois Bullis, who served as bookkeeper and dietician for the school for 44 years. She said she enjoyed the day's fanfare and a tribute to Al Grossman, now deceased, who was assistant to her husband for more than three decades. Her voice became more animated as she reminisced.
"I remember when the school was at 1303 New Hampshire Ave. (NW)," she said. "One day my husband got a call and every single toilet in the dormitory had a goldfish in it."
Another time, she said, her husband found a student, who later became a Navy admiral, in the bathtub scrubbing his back with a toilet brush. "But I'm not going to tell you his name," she added. "I loved it and I loved the boys, every single one of them."
Although they no longer play an active role in day-to-day school operations, the Bullises make sure that The Bullis School is still a family affair.
Bullis retired as principal in 1971, but he is president for life. His wife is secretary-treasurer for life. And Larry Bullis, 44, is the current headmaster. His sister, Faith, teaches math. Another son, William Clark, is a graduate and two grandchildren are enrolled in the school.
Bullis started the school during the Depression after he and his wife taught at Debbit School in Washington.
"We were having trouble getting paid and were living from our savings. So we decided to blow it all at once and start a school," he said in his steady, throaty voice.
"We advertised the school with a nice uptown address and started looking for a suitable place," he said. A friend recommended the former Bolivian Legation on New Hampshire Avenue.
They opened their doors to the first class of 15 male students who paid $650 a year to prepare for the military academies.
To lure their original student body, Bullis admits they had to resort to a ruse. Their school building needed home-made renovations. When potential students arrived for a tour, his wife led them to a well-appointed study and told them the commander was attending a business meeting.
"I was upstairs painting. I'd hear the bell, wash up, quickly dress and head out the back door. Then I'd hurry to the front door in my suit just as if I'd come back from a big meeting."
Today they need no chicanery to attract students. Applications exceed spaces. Some come from as close by as Bethesda and as far away as Bangladesh to join the 370-member student body that pays $3,500 each in annual tuition.
No longer a preparatory school for the military academies, the institution has shed its dormitories, outgrown two campuses and opened its doors to students from the fifth grade to a year of post-high-school prep.
Despite his brass-tacks reputation, there is a lighter side to Commander Bullis, a man his son, Larry, affectionately says is stubborn.
"I remember every dirty joke I've ever heard, and I still tell them," notes the elder Bullis.
Even so, he describes the school staff as a "bunch of hardheaded disciplinarians, according to what I see today in the public schools. This is not a place where you damned well do as you please."
That is why Jerry Friedlander, a Potomac real-estate salesman, enrolled his three sons -- Robert, 20; Gary, 19 and Johnny, 16 -- in The Bullis School.
"I was fed up with the (Montgomery) county education. There is a lack of discipline. The schools are too lax in their study programs," said Friedlander.
The desire for discipline attracted 14-year-old freshman Paul d'Hedouville of Silver Spring. "He was the person who showed the interest," said his mother, Janet.
Ten years ago, Paul's father died. His mother said Paul finds the male influence he needs at the all-boy school.
"I was looking for a school that was the opposite of public school, with smaller classes and more discipline," said Paul. "And I didn't want to be distracted by girls in the classroom."
Starting next fall, Paul's all-male atmosphere will vanish.
"Yes, we're going to admit girls. Let's just say it's a sign of the times," said Larry Bullis.
But Paul is confident he can prosper with the change. "I was upset at first," he said. "But I think I'll be able to cope with it."