Charles McKinley Saltzman II couldn't be more enthusiastic about his new job, even though the prospect of becoming the new headmaster at Madeira School could be doubly daunting.
On July 1, Saltzman will become the first male leader in the 75-year history of the McLean girls' school. He will succeed Jean Harris, who resigned last March after being charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of her longtime lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, the developer of the Scarsdale Diet. Harris is on trial in White Plains, N.Y., in connection with the shooting, and the incident has brought notoriety to the prestigious school, which had been known for its high academic standards, its illustrious alumnae and the beauty of its 400-acre campus.
Despite the recent adversity, school officials say, the students have rallied around the interim headmistress Kathleen Johnson. Enrollment at the four-year high school is at an all-time high as well, and annual contributions rose by 48 percent to a record $370,000. Consequently, Saltzman says, he feels nothing but excitement about becoming headmaster.
"It would be profitless to feel any unease about it," said the 43-year-old graduate of St. Albans and Harvard, who has been headmaster of Metairie Park Country Day School in suburban New Orleans, since 1974. "If I had, I wouldn't have taken the job. I wish (the shooting) hadn't happened, but I just don't see what the problem is going to be. What's going to be more important is estalishing that a man can do the job."
Madeira officials stressed that qualifications, not gender, were the primary considerations in picking Saltzman from a field of nearly 100 applicants.
"All along, we were looking for the most qualified, experienced candidates, and we didn't want to be prejudiced either way," said Alice Faulkner, president of the Madeira School Corporation, which administers the school.
"I was disappointed that the search committee couldn't find a qualified woman for the job," said Emily Cronin, a Madeira graduate and corporation member who nevertheless voted for Saltzman. "His credentials looked very good," she said. "He seems to be the picture of stability and respectability, and I'm sure that had something to do with it."
Those attributes were important to the students Saltzman met during two trips to the school for interviews. "They were interested in having the best-qualified person, regardless of gender, so long as the person has a family," said Saltzman who is married and the father of two children, including a daughter who will be a Madeira freshman this fall.
"We need better female leadership in this country," Saltzman said, "and Madeira's right in the forefront trying to improve that. So what if I'm a man? I'm enthusiastic about going in and helping with that process."
Before coming to Country Day, Saltzman had been a teacher and administrator at St. Albans, the Athenian School in Danville, Calif., and the Hannah More Academy in Reisterstown, Md. In addition to his duties as headmaster at Country Day, he teaches English.
At Madeira, Saltzman intends to continue that tradition of a teaching headmater, a tradition Madeira officials fully support.
"We haven't had one do that in 15 years," said Kathleeen Johnson, "and I think that's pretty exciting."
Saltzman inspires similar enthusiasm at Country Day, a coeducational school for 710 students from kindergarten to high school. Nan Cummins, development director at Country Day, describes Saltzman as "scholarly without being stuffy."
"He's not passive, but he's not authoritarian, either," said Katherine T. Steiner, principal of Country Day's Middle School."
The Country Day Board of Trustees likes Saltzman, too. During his tenure, Saltzman lowered the annual teacher turnover rate, strengthened academic standards and increased annual donations.
"He's been a very steady and humane influence on the student body and parents," said James A. Churchill, chairman of the Board of Trustees.
"I think that Country Day is more serious, more professional about its mission than it was 10 years ago," Saltzman said.
"If one compares our college admissions -- not only the quality of the schools but also the students' performance -- he can see that we do set high standards. But because we're fairly relaxed -- no dress code, comparatively few rules and friendships between faculty and students -- we've always had the reputation of being a play school. That just is not so, and it never has been so, but I think that of late, we have made more of a conscious effort to be demanding without being oppressive."
To escape the "ivory tower" reputation of many private schools, Country Day has a dance troupe, a choral group and a band that perform at such places as orphanages and senior citizens' homes. For a few years -- until worried parents put a stop to it -- students worked with children in an elementary school near a New Orleans housing project.
More recently, one of the school's most controversial social action programs was a day of fasting when students were asked to give up lunch so Country Day could donate the day's food budget to help Cambodian refugees.
"There were some people who felt we had no business doing that," Saltzman said. "That's a fair opinion, but I happen to disagree with it."
Madeira also has a social sevice program and Saltzman said he is eager to become involved with it. Sophomores find work in offices around Washington, juniors work on Capitol Hill and seniors have their choice of the two.
"This is a much more profound involvement," he said. "When they come out of this program, they're much more motivated to do college study and to know why they're doing it."
When the Saltzmans get settled, they will be home. Saltzman grew up in Cleveland Park, across the street from Cornelia Biddle, whom he married in 1965. His grandfather, Robert Patterson Lamont, was secretary of Commerce under President Hoover.
At Madeira, students and faculty members hope Saltzman's arrival will signal the beginning of more "normal" times. By then, they hope, the constant media attention will stop. Said Kathleen Johnson, jokingly, "The girls are appalled every time they see themselves called 'exclusive.'"