Peter Ryce, founder and executive director of Beginnings, will be retiring this week after 39 years. His last day on the job is this Saturday, June 30. Everyone is invited to a celebration of both his long career and Beginnings' history of educational and community service on the Briceland campus starting at 4 p.m. Saturday.
At 5 p.m. community members will have a change to “toast and roast” Ryce. The barbecue dinner begins at 6 p.m. with both meat and vegetarian entrees. Beginnings will also provide a no-host bar and non-alcoholic beverages.
Guests are asked to bring potluck dishes. Persons or families whose last name starts with the letters A through F are asked to bring appetizers; G through L should bring salads; M through S should bring side dishes, and T through Z should bring desserts.
The Town Band will be making music all evening.
On Monday after the festivities, Beginnings will resume its regular schedule of school and community programs, headed by the team of Julia Anderson as operations manager and Alyssa DeLeon as education director.
Ryce grew up in Berkeley and attended Williamette University in Salem, OR and San Francisco State College, graduating in 1967 with a degree in political science and sociology.
Because he did not wish to become involved in the Vietnam War, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to southern India to help farmers make the transition from dryland to wetland farming following the construction of the world's largest earthen-filled dam on the Krishna River.
That project ended in 1969 but Ryce, who had “fallen in love with India, the land, the culture, the people, the food, the religion,” wanted to stay on.
At one point he had visa trouble and discovered that getting a student visa was the easiest way to be allowed to stay. He signed up for a Montessori training course simply to get the visa, but when he went to his first class, “It was like walking into the presence of a guru for me,” as he described it.
His teacher was a Dutchman who had worked for Maria Montessori and lived in her home from the time he was 15 through early adulthood, absorbing her teaching about children and education.
”My wife at the time, Karen, and I were just blown out of the water,” Ryce said. “My life became radicalized into becoming an educator and a Montessorian. It gave me path and direction.”
Peter and Karen Ryce came to Southern Humboldt in 1973 with the intention of starting a Montessori school for local children. The first home for Children's House was the Garberville Presbyterian Church.
Before long they decided to join with other community members interested in alternative education for children to form a non-profit corporation that would give them the advantage of tax-free donations and access to government funding and programs.
”This was the back-to-the land time,” Ryce recalled. “There were a lot of young people, young families, that had moved here, and they were interested in community. They were looking for a way to build community, establish community - a vision they had becoming reality. And schooling, because a lot of them had young children, was part of it.
"So the community came together and started having a series of meetings to talk about what this non-profit would look like. What its structure would be, its intention, and its vision. And what came out of that process was to promote and encourage community services ... a governance structure whereby the people owned, controlled, and oversaw the operations ... as democratic as you could have kind of structure.
"We established a board and we have a general meeting once a year,” Ryce explained. “The membership comes together and the membership will make any decisions that relate to buildings, the community, property, overseeing of operations, the election of board members. Any major decision of the corporation needs to be made by the membership.
"In 1975 we started looking around for property, someplace to build a permanent home for the Children's House and to be a community center. And in the mid-70s we came out to Briceland, and Bob McKee showed us this land and said, ‘Maybe this is a good place for you.' He was dividing the Briceland Ranch at that time...
"So we had a large gathering here on a weekend, one of those real hippie fests. A lot of people came here and they walked around the land and said the vibe was good, this was a good place to be. And Bob was very generous with the terms, Bob was totally supportive and has continued to be a long-time supporter. ... He's an old schoolteacher, so education has always been a strong interest of his. ...
"Land was open meadow, very few trees, no water. It was the last parcel on the ranch, I think, that had not been sold because it didn't have anything. There was a trailer on the land; that was all that was here at the time. ...
"It took several years to close escrow because we didn't have any money, but Bob was very understanding and said, ‘Yeah, you'll get it. You'll get it.' And then we figured out a way to get water up here from Redwood Creek. ... But there wasn't much here.
"Early membership meetings were long, with lots of discussion. People really wanted to get it right, so there were lots of talks about process, gender equality, and non-prejudicial bylaws, and on and on, long, long meetings. It was true democracy, you know - people arguing and yelling about this and that. ... And then out of that group came the design committee. And the design committee had to walk around the land and decide where they wanted to put a building. ...
"70-80 people participated in the process - kids, and moms, and dogs, and everything else. These were the hippies and the Diggers and people coming out of the city, college-educated back-to-the-landers who really wanted to do it differently than the model they had grown up in, but that still met basic needs like children needing to be educated.
"When we decided on the spot, Jeff Knope designed the building. ... What the community told him they wanted was a large open space with no pillars in the middle of the floor holding it up. He came up with this unique design of the compression and tension ring, which is what holds up this building. When he came back with the first plans, the foundation plan looked like a mandala, with all the lines connected, like a mandala that was put on the ground. ... Everyone was excited.
"And then people started donating trees. And Steve Dazey and Dan Thomas had a mill at that time and they milled the lumber for the building, did all the structural members. They donated all the trees and the cutting of the trees.
"Between 1977 and 1979 we constructed the Octagon. ... We moved in in ‘79. ... All donated materials and the building, too. The builders were Earl Rosenblum - he was a physicist, he was our brain trust, he and Jan Iris and Solomon Mogerman were the overseers of the whole construction,” said Ryce.
"At the time we were building the Octagon, Children's House had moved from Redway into the trailer that was on the land,” Ryce continued. “At the same time, we had these parents whose 3-year-olds had now become 6-year-olds saying, ‘What's next? We don't want to send our kids to the public school, we want them to continue in an alternative program. So we said, ‘OK' and we started what is now known as Skyfish. The kids named it. Marty Wansick came up with that name. He's still in the community and his son is in our summer recreation program....
"So in 1979 we moved both Children's House and Skyfish into the Octagon. Children's House was on the east side and Skyfish was on the west side. That didn't work very well. So by 1980-81 we started building Children's House in its present location. We moved the little guys into Children's House and the big guys stayed here in the Octagon.
"But then the community - and all those people who didn't have kids - started saying, ‘We want our community center. Where's our community center? We're tired of the school being here all the time.' They wanted to boogie at night, they wanted to do plays, and that's hard to do when you have school, you have classrooms. ... It was always intended to be a community center, too.
"So then we built Skyfish and moved the bigger kids out into Skyfish, and the community finally got their community center.
"And then the community started using the Octagon for meetings, for social events, for weddings, funerals, for lecture series, adult classes. Tae Kwan Do was in the Octagon, too, until they built their building (the Yin Yang Pavilion, completed in 1993). ... So it was heavily used by the community for the activities they wanted to have happen, and that continues.”
Ryce acknowledges that the community has changed in the nearly 40 years since Beginnings was founded.
"At the beginning we saw a very young, idealistic, vision-oriented clientele, willing to make compromises for their ideals and willing to follow that voluntary simplicity ideal - to live close to the land and learn the skills they needed - most of them were city people - learned how to live in the country. I would say that 99 percent of the families we served were vegetarians, they had no televisions, most of them had no telephones.
"That's how we started. And over the years as their children grew and their incomes changed - a lot of artists and writers and creative people became successful and had incomes; and then there's the working people who found town jobs; and then the marijuana growers. Over the years we've seen people become more settled.
"Amongst the people of my generation I think there's still very much a commitment to that ideal, that vision that they came here with. I think that the younger people who grew up with it are less motivated by their visions and perhaps they're more motivated by just getting by, by getting on, and ... it's changed in that way - no judgment there, it's just a change of values. Probably 70 percent have televisions, have audio-visual toys in their homes.
"But I think by and large the parents who bring their children to our programs have been people who are committed to education in their lives and are committed to cultural enrichment, exploration, and want that for their children.
"I've seen that from the time they left here, that the children that left here in the sixth grade were self-assured, knew how they learned and how to get what they needed to help their learning process. They knew how to question authority with respect, but propel themselves in the direction they wanted to go. Many have children that you see on the honor rolls all the way through the school system here.
"That's not because of us per se, it's also because of their families, and that whole milieu,” Ryce said.
"Everything that's here is here because of the involvement of the whole community. It's a collective vision made real. People have seen here that they can create not only an educational system that works for them but also a community that can manifest a vision.
"We've always had large volunteer participation in our activities, our building projects, our ROTR fundraisers... that helped to manifest what we were trying to do.
"We found a way to do what we need to do and still comply with regulations, bureaucracies, government entities. We've always had a clean record, clear audits, and paid bills."
Regarding his plans, Ryce said, “I've been here for 39 years, and I've run my course and I'm ready to move on and do other things with my life. ... I live here in the community and I don't plan to go anywhere. I'm involved in the Community Park project, and I will continue to volunteer for other organizations and probably help out in the classrooms as a volunteer as well.”
Additionally he would like to do some traveling, do more work on his homestead, and spend more time with his family - three children, five grandchildren, and his partner Joanne Bower's three grandchildren.
His wish for Beginnings' future is “that we will keep children as our primary focus and that we continue to assist their development and help them to find a balanced, ecological, green, non-prejudicial world view; that they encompass the best we have to offer, and take that into their lives, which is going to be our future.”
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTOS BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI
1. Helper Angelica Star prepares a tasty, healthy lunch for kids attending Children's House and summer recreation programs in Beginnings' new state-of-the-art kitchen. As with other facilities at Beginnings, funds for the kitchen were raised through community donations and construction help was provided by community volunteers.
2. Youngsters read a story with teacher Holly Carter while other kids enjoy a variety of games and activities at Children's House. Everything at this Montessori preschool is child-sized, colorful, and stimulating to the imagination, including the locally crafted Art Nouveau-style fire-guard around the wood stove.
3. Beginnings founder and director Peter Ryce, who will retire after 39 years this Saturday, stands near the pavilion at Children's House. Thirty-six children ages two-and-a-half to six years attend Children's House year-round. When the kids are ready for elementary school, they can move up to Skyfish School for first through sixth grades, in its own building nearby at Beginnings.