Ron Kim: Bishop’s new Head of School in La Jolla suggests Ellen Scripps at a Lincoln/Douglas debate in 1858

Ron Kim, Head of The Bishop’s School
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

In preparing for his installation as the 12th person to helm The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, educator and history buff Ron Kim said he researched the life of the school’s benefactress, Ellen Browning Scripps, and found an unlikely connection in her life with that of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, which he shared with students at the Aug. 21 matriculation ceremony. (See related box below for details.)

In short, based on his research, Kim determined a college-aged Scripps was influenced by Lincoln’s policies and likely saw him debate Stephen Douglas in the race for a U.S. Senate seat, in Illinois in 1858.

“I did not know about the intersection, but it’s one of those things you discover when you research something in preparation for writing something (in this case, my matriculation speech),” Kim told La Jolla Light. “To learn more about Scripps, I read biographer Molly McClain’s book. When I read Scripps was at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois in 1858, I wondered if she was at the Lincoln/Douglas debate and I got this tingling sensation. I thought it made sense that she would have actually seen Lincoln. So I e-mailed Molly, who said there were no records, but it would have been odd for (Scripps) to have missed it.”

The lifelong historian and new La Jolla resident comes to The Bishop’s School as its 12th head of school after 23 years at the Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. But his journey to educational leadership was far from “sophisticated” (by his own admission).

“Ever since I was a kid, I loved history, but I was not a model student,” Kim said. “I studied the things I liked, but I didn’t do as well in other things. I always wanted to read and watch things about history, especially World War II. I majored in history at UC Berkeley (and then graduate school at University of Chicago), and I thought teaching would be something I could enjoy. I loved my history professors, and thought if I could do what they do, that would be pretty awesome. My thoughts weren’t a whole lot more sophisticated than that.”

He was hired at Exeter on what was intended to be a two-year assignment, but remained for 23 years. In that time, he served as Dean of Faculty, and then Assistant Head of School. After some short-term roles as Head of School at a school in Virginia, and another as Assistant Head of School at a Los Angeles private school, he was selected for the job at Bishop’s.

And through the various roles, his academic philosophy evolved over 20-plus years, to being a teacher of learners.

“No two people learn the same way, so I spent most of my career trying to better understand how people learn,” he said. “And then how to help teachers understand how students learn. We care about content, especially in history, but students (best) learn from people who care about them. So when they are surrounded by people who care about them and the things they do, so much of the social-emotional components of learning are then in place.”

Bishop’s baggage

In the midst of the search for a new Head of School, Bishop’s was facing the discovery of sexual misconduct allegations between staff and students that took place in the 1970s to 1990s. Two of the employees involved are deceased, and the other three are no longer school employees.

Coincidentally, a similar situation was discovered at Exeter, while Kim was Assistant Head of School (the misconduct reportedly took place in the 1970s, but came to light in 2016).

As to how situation would influence his decision-making at Bishop’s, Kim said: “What we learned at Exeter is that there were times when students were not taken care of as well as they needed to be, their well-being was not of the highest priority. On one end, we need to make sure that good rules, training and accountability are in place; on the other end, there needs to be a culture of care for the students and to make sure if and when something comes up that we are concerned about, we know how to identify concerns, the next steps to take and that everyone is in a position to act on every concern they see. But I think there’s a different level of vigilance about these issues today, and a different standard of care than existed before.”

Day to day

Now that Kim is at his new post, he is focusing on getting a better understanding of the school’s history to develop goals for moving the school forward. His favorite location on campus, he’s discovered, is the Senior Rec Room.

“Every year the room gets painted over, so it is very much a reflection of the class’ personality,” Kim said. “Some of it is really goofy, some of it is really beautiful. And when the students are in there, they are in their natural state. They have their feet on the furniture, there is a broken massage chair in there, they play foosball ... I know they take their studies very seriously, so I enjoy seeing them relax.”

Personal path

Born in Korea, Kim said he moved to Los Angeles when he was 4 years old.

“I’m a product of the Immigration Act of 1965 (which established a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States). If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “My family lived in a low-income area. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think my sisters enjoyed being a family of five in a one-bedroom apartment. I thought it was normal to sleep in the dining room!”

In his free time, which Kim admits he is “still working on,” noting he “needs more hobbies,” he likes to read, watch Dodger games, work out and listen to Bruce Springsteen tunes.

“I’m home by myself this weekend and don’t quite know what to do,” he joked. “My wife, Theresa Kneebone, is taking our son Sam to his senior year of boarding school, and my daughter Maya is already off to college, so I think I’ll be at The Bishop’s School water polo game.”

The Scripps/Lincoln Connection

The following comes from Ron Kim’s speech to students from The Bishop School’s matriculation ceremony:

“In 1844, when would-be U.S. president Abraham Lincoln was beginning his legal practice in Springfield, Illinois, 8-year-old Ellen Browning Scripps’ father moved the family from England to Rushville, Illinois, roughly 50 miles from where Lincoln was living.

“At that time, it was beyond anyone’s imagination that young Ellen would one day grow up to establish The Bishop’s School. She was busy helping raise her younger siblings; and was the only one of 13 to go to college, matriculating at Knox College in 1856.

“At Knox, she advocated for the abolition of slavery and supported Lincoln’s Republican Party. Young Ellen resisted the formality of organized religion, but was an admirer of a local minister named Edward Beecher, and she joined his First Congregational Church. He organized the first anti-slavery society in Illinois, and she read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by the minister’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

“In 1858, Lincoln entered a series of memorable debates for U.S. senate. One of them was at Knox College while Ellen was a student. So it’s incredible to think about this intersection of history, given her interest in abolition, it was highly likely that she was there and saw Lincoln in person. One can imagine her watching this argument and hearing Lincoln say about slavery ‘No one has the right to do wrong.’

“In the Civil War that followed, 10 men from her family served, two never made it home. As the war ended, Scripps and her family were devastated at Lincoln’s assassination. In future years, she displayed an American flag outside her home on Lincoln’s birthday.”