Diane Fisher retires as head of Salisbury Academy

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 7, 2014

In June 2008, Diane Fisher listened to Greg Alcorn deliver a speech at Salisbury Academy. There are three kinds of people, he said: You’re either a maker, a taker or a faker.
To which Diane thought, “Dang! I’m a faker! I’m not prepared for this!”
What she was not prepared for — or so she thought — was being interim head of school at Salisbury Academy. Her degree was in business, not education.
But the board of trustees had asked her to take the position, and she’d agreed. A mentor explained that in the college model, school presidents were mostly businesspeople who hired educators.
That made her feel better.
Add to that the fact that she had Jean Owen on her side. Jean is a top-notch educator who served as the school’s consulting director for curriculum and instruction once Diane came on board.
“Jean and I were really a strong team,” Diane notes. “We had no dog in the fight. We didn’t have children there. It wasn’t our career. We could be very objective in our assessments.”
Earlier this summer, Diane retired from Salisbury Academy following six years as head of school.
All three of Luke and Diane Fisher’s children, now in their 20s, attended Salisbury Academy. Diane had served on the board for years and had been a dedicated volunteer. She knew about the school, but she didn’t know about its daily operations. That’s where Jean’s expertise came in.
“She is a quiet gem,” Jean says of Diane. “She was not intending to become head of school. She stepped up to keep things going. She had an ability to think through problems. I helped her look after curriculum and instruction, and she was a quick study in that, too. The teachers we had wanted to teach and do their very best, but that didn’t mean hard decisions didn’t have to be made. Diane got through them well.
“I’ve never seen anybody handle the tough decisions in such a kind way. I enjoyed my six years with her, I really did.”
Diane had Jean’s help — and she needed all the help she could get.
Her predecessor was not a good fit for the school, leaving many parents with mixed feelings. Add to the fact that the Great Recession started about the time Diane took over.
“Of all years,” Diane says, “the economy tanked. I thought, on my watch, the school’s gonna go down. Our financial support waned and our enrollment dropped. People couldn’t pay tuition. There was instability, but the one thing I did bring was trust and stability.”
Things slowly started to improve.
Diane doesn’t consider Salisbury Academy a threat to public schools, but another choice for families.
“There are benefits to being a small, independent school,” she says. “We’re nimble. We can make changes as necessary.”
She adds, “Public schools have to be everything to everybody, and that’s a hard job. We are exclusive, if you want to call it that. We know the market we serve best. It’s just a choice. It’s just an option. In the last year, I have seen a renewed interest in people recognizing what sets us apart. That’s rewarding.”
Diane grew up in Burlington and attended Burlington Day School. She knew she wanted a private-school education for her own children.
“I liked the depth and breadth of the curriculum,” she says. “The students did not just read something out of a book and memorize it.”
Diane liked the fact that her children participated in experiential learning. They dressed up as characters they studied. They went on field trips. They built connections and learned to think critically.
“It made us as parents want to be a part of it,” she says. “We’d have medieval festivals and we’d go and dress up and play games. It was a real bonding experience for parents. When it came time to say we need to build a building, we knew we had the buy-in to do this together.”
Diane relished evening dinner conversations, when her children talked about what they had learned at school that day — and wanted to find out more.
“I loved that,” she says. “They were so interested in what was going on, and talking about it.”
Luke and Diane’s children are Ben, 27, who works for the Coast Guard in Charleston, S.C.; Liza, 25, who’s leaving soon to teach English in Spain for a year; and Tom, 24, who works in Greek life at the University of Georgia.
When her children were there, the school offered grades 1-8. Now there are junior kindergarten and kindergarten classes. Diane says that the number-one question the school gets is whether it will eventually expand to a high school.
“We did look into it,” she says, “and we were told that you should have two full classes of eighth-graders and a healthy endowment. We don’t have either. We have one class of every grade, but the building is built with a high school in mind. That’s in our phase two plan. The recession just kicked us a little bit hard.”
Still, Diane says, enrollment of 191 is the highest it’s been in a decade.
“We like that trend,” she says. “The exciting thing for Salisbury is that new families are coming into town. It’s exciting to have that growth.”
Thirty years ago, Diane wasn’t so excited to be moving to Salisbury. She’d met Luke, a graduate of N.C. State University, on a blind date when she was a student at Meredith College. They married and lived in Raleigh for a year before Luke decided to return to Salisbury to work with his dad at Carrol Fisher Construction.
Diane shed a lot of tears.
“I did not want to come here,” she says. “Salisbury 30 years ago was not the picture of health it is today. I told Luke I had no friends and nothing to do. ‘I’ll be miserable there,’ I said. I was looking for sympathy. ‘He said, with that attitude, you’re right.’”
So Diane adjusted her attitude and packed her bags.
A good attitude served her well during a two-year fight with breast cancer in 2005. She underwent a mastectomy, chemo and reconstructive surgery. The day of her first chemo, Luke’s mother went to the hospital and was diagnosed with leukemia.
“That was a tough time,” Diane admits.
But by 2008, Diane had recovered and decided to accept the interim position at Salisbury Academy. That was the year Tom graduated from high school, so the Fishers were empty-nesters — save for Champ, Diane’s beloved standard poodle, now 8˝.
“I felt very guilty in the beginning,” says Diane, having no education degree. “I felt unqualified.”
But with Jean’s help, and the help of many others, she became qualified. The best part of her job, she says, was meeting people and getting to know them and learning from their expertise.
“It’s rewarding to leave a legacy, and hopefully something that will be around a long time,” she says.
Diane says she had very little problems with discipline or disgruntled parents.
“Everybody needs to be listened to,” she says. “I’m a big believer in the open-door policy. Sometimes, I felt as if I were parenting the parents.”
More than once, she sat on the floor of her office, comforting a student just as she would her own children.
“It’s about personal relationships,” she says. “That’s as much the head of school’s job as anything else is managing relationships.”
Diane was in the interim position for a year when the board came to her after completing its search for a new head of school.
“You’re everything we’re looking for,” the board told her.
“It was intimidating,” Diane admits. “It was non-traditional. But everything we’ve done at that school has been non-traditional.”
She told the board she’d work for three years and she stayed for six.
“Things were going so well,” Diane says. “We had a good plan. We had accreditation coming in the spring of 2014, and I wanted to help with that. We were transitioning from Jean’s position to a full-time position, and I wanted to help with that.”
There was also a new strategic plan to create.
After that was done, Diane says, “I felt like they were good to go. They were in good shape. I felt good about what I was able to put in place, and set the table for the future. I felt good about leaving.”
But Diane still remains a board member, which pleases Paul Bardinas, trustees chair.
“She’s extremely dedicated,” he says. “She cares a lot about the school. She’s back on our board. We didn’t want her to get away. She and Luke have been part of the school since its founding. In the past five years, this school struggled like every other business. She had the ability to put together a good team and got us through that time. I’m happy to be working with her on the board.”
Fewer duties at school mean more time to travel with family. Diane spent six weeks this summer at Kure Beach. She and Luke plan to visit Eliza in Spain next year, and she plans to spend more time with her father, who still lives in Burlington. He just took her, her two older brothers and their families on an Alaskan cruise.
“It was fabulous,” Diane says. “But it was hard to come back to a four-hour time difference and a 50-degree temperature difference.”
She wants to paint, something she hasn’t done in a decade. She has completed pastel portraits of each of her children, which hang in her foyer and living room. She also wants to paint with watercolor and oil. She’s hoping to encroach on some space at Luke’s office for a studio.
“I think he’s willing to share,” she says.
Aside from her family, she’s most proud of what she was able to accomplish at Salisbury Academy, and what the school has accomplished in its 21 years.
She remembers a trip to Camp Thunderbird son Ben took in third grade. The class was doing a team-building exercise, walking across a log over a creek. One of Ben’s classmates simply could not do it. So he walked back across the log, whispered in her ear, and carried her across on his back.
“I was so proud,” Diane says. “It’s such a positive environment. It’s that environment you pay for. Those are the little things you can’t write into the curriculum. It happens other places, but it happens at Salisbury Academy a lot.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.