By Monica Medina | SDUN Reporter
Most mornings you’d find Margaret Huffman directing traffic along an unassuming alleyway in Hillcrest. She’d be the one making sure every car entered the one-way alley from the correct side of the street, unloading its passengers in a prompt manner and then making a hasty exit. In other words, no dilly-dallying.
Huffman wasn’t afraid to chastise anyone who didn’t follow the rules—her rules—or anybody who dawdled too long. She’d even have a car towed, if need be. Anything to keep the alleyway clear and the operations streamlined for her nursery school.
The aforementioned nursery school is none other than the prestigious, highly lauded Fleur de Lis Nursery School. For nearly a century, it has been quietly developing a stellar reputation educating San Diego’s young, ages two to six. Until last month, its director was Huffman, a petite woman with a pixie haircut, merry eyes and an impish grin.
She came to the school in 1970, and as director she’d do everything from managing the vision and mission of the nursery school and ensuring the quality of the curriculum, to performing such chores as mopping floors and unclogging toilets. Once she even had to use a garbage can to remove a pesky snake from its premises. In other words, Huffman, whose last day on the job was November 27, gave her all to run the school, from top to bottom.
“This is probably one of the best schools around,” she said with pride. “Beverly Jensen [who is taking over as the school’s director] and I have been running it like a mom and pop shop. I’ve got six parents, whose children come here now, that I took care of as children when they were here. I had a couple that met in my two-year-old class, married and brought their two kids back to us. That is what’s good about this place. They come back.”
Another key to Huffman’s success has been the consistency among the staff. Largely due to her leadership style, much of the staff, like Huffman, have an extensive history with the school.
“Bev’s been here 40 years, almost as long as me,” Huffman explained. “Kathy Browne, our pre-K teacher has been here since 1987. A lot of the other teachers have been here 20, 25 years, and that’s not unusual. They stay here because they like me, and I’m not patting myself on the back. Overall, I’m an easy boss. I treat people like I want to be treated. Maybe sometimes I’m a little too easy, but the reputation and how long I’ve been here has to say something.”
It certainly does. Parents and children alike revere the Fleur de Lis Nursery School. Not only do the children grow up and often end up enrolling their own children in the school, but some also have been compelled to write about their love for the school on their college application essays. One described it as a place “where I first learned to imagine, [and] where I cultivated my childlike curiosity.”
These days, a reputation can be made or lost on Yelp or Google. Happily for Huffman and the school, comments from parents have been overwhelmingly positive:
” [Margaret Huffman] has been there for an eternity and is a virtual Margaret Thatcher in leadership, knowledge and strength but with a bit more personality! She is an inspiration to everyone around her.”
“Both of our girls have thrived in no small part due to the enriching, loving and idyllic experiences they had each day at FDL.”
Born in 1939, Huffman hails from England. Her own childhood was spent in the shadows of World War II, a life that consisted of playing in bomb shelters, air raids and food rationing. She ended up in San Diego by way of Canada and soon found employment as a teacher’s aide at Fleur de Lis.
“I was hired because the director at the time, Patricia Nelson, liked British people,” Huffman recalled. “She thought we were good at cleaning potbelly stoves. We could teach the kids and do the dirty work, too. I’d get down and dirty sweeping the floors and I’m still doing it.”
Huffman’s been described as quite a character by those who know her well, no doubt because of her easy-going nature coupled with her wicked sense of humor.
“I’ve got a strange personality,” she admitted. “I’ve got a different sense of humor than most Americans have. Some of us are too outspoken, and I’ve gotten myself in trouble for it. One dad, he’d come in shorts most of the time. One day he comes in pants and I say, ‘I’m not used to seeing him with his pants on.’ They take it the wrong way, but I mean well. Those are the things that get me in trouble. It’s innocent trouble, but if you don’t have that sense of humor sometimes it can get a little borderline. Someone called me a little Mary Poppins. I don’t know if that’s a compliment.”
With one day left on the job, Huffman appears misty eyed as she shares plans for the next phase of her life.
“First, I’m going to go home and cry,” she said. “I’m going to miss the people here, but it’s time. Things are changing. My husband has been retired for a long time so we’re going to travel. I’m 74 and it’s time.”
There’s one more thing she’d like to do in retirement.
“I’m going to come back and volunteer,” Huffman stated, adding in a conspiratorial whisper, “If they’ll let me.”
Knowing how much she’s accomplished for the school and how well loved she is by the Fleur de Lis families and staff, and knowing the legacy of excellence she leaves behind, one can’t help but think they’ll welcome her back with open arms.