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Bullis School celebrates 25 years of coeducation

Larry Bullis has seen many changes at the school his father opened 77 years ago. Once a preparatory school for the U.S. Naval Academy, Bullis moved from the District to Silver Spring to its current 80-acre campus in Potomac. The school once consisted of a single school building, housed its headmaster in an old farmhouse, and staged student productions in the cafeteria.

No change, said Larry Bullis, was more significant than a fall morning in 1981, when nine young women walked through the front doors of Founder’s Hall and became the first female students at the previously all-male school.

The original Bullis women returned to their alma mater on Monday, April 2, at an all-campus assembly honoring the 25th anniversary of the school’s coeduction.

The nine women sat in school desks and answered questions that a panel of current Bullis girls asked about their time at the school.

"These are the first women, the pioneers if you will, of coeducation at Bullis," said Thomas Farquhar, the head of the Bullis School.

WHEN LARRY BULLIS got out of the U.S. Army in 1964 and came to work for his father, Naval Commander William F. Bullis, he knew that the school was due for a change.

"When I left [the Army], Bullis was almost all male and almost all-white," Larry Bullis said. Bullis had been in the Army when it integrated in 1962, and had seen how young men and women of different races could successfully work together.

"I wondered where we as Bullis were going to fit into our country as a school," Bullis said. "It seemed to me that we needed to make a change."

As a teacher and a coach at Bullis, Larry Bullis was not in a position to enact change, however, still "working my way up the ranks," as he said. His father, did not share his vision at first.

"My dad was of the old school," said Bullis, but eventually, he said, he was able to win his father over. Once female restrooms and locker rooms were built, the school was ready to attract female students for the first time.

Karen Dockser Walter transferred to Bullis from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School because she was looking for a change of pace.

"I loved [coming to Bullis]; I came from B-CC, which was way too big for me," she said

Sara Mittmeyer Shea (’82) was the school’s first post-graduate student. Having attended a small Quaker school, she knew she needed to boost her academic resume in math and science if she was going to go on to get a pre-med degree in college.

The women said that the reception they received was a warm one.

"They took our presence quite naturally," said Nicole Bernard Chaffin (’83). "They were very inclusive and very polite. They weren’t offended or bothered that we were invading their school." Of course, that ready acceptance may have had some aesthetic roots.

"I think they liked our uniforms," said Chaffin.

BECAUSE THERE WERE not enough girls initially to field separate sports teams, the girls had to try out and make the boys teams, said Chaffin. A tennis player since she was a child, Chaffin made the cut on the Bullis tennis team.

"We received an equal education and equal opportunities across the board," said Chaffin.

That equality was a double-edged sword, said Cyndi Bullis Vasco, Larry Bullis’ daughter.

"It was easy, I found, to earn demerits," she said.

Shea remembered being asked to help announce one of the team’s football games.

"The only thing I knew about football was the Redskins fight song," said Shea. The other male student announcers in the booth whispered to her what to say after each play and then she would repeat it into the microphone.

"I was about 10 seconds behind for the whole game," Shea said. "It was very humorous."

All of the women said that they remembered their experiences fondly, and that they developed a close relationship with each other during their time as pioneers at Bullis.

"There were so few of us, we all bonded together," said Chaffin.