As he exits the principal’s office at Los Alamitos High School this week, Dr. Gregg Stone is more convinced than ever that he is taking with him much more than he gave.
And with four decades of inspiring leadership in education, Stone has never lost sight of why he became a teacher those many years ago.
Stone, who first retired as principal in 2019, agreed to return to LAHS in that role at the height of the pandemic following the sudden resignation of his replacement, Dr. Chris Vlasic.
This week he effectively vacates the office for a second time, making way for former Paramount High School Principal Christiana Kraus, who becomes LAHS Principal on July 1. According to LAUSD, Stone has graciously been working with the new principal since her selection.
Over the years, Stone, a former coach, and counselor, has become admired, some say beloved, for his wit, integrity, and reasoned leadership.
Yet, he remains a deeply profound, if somewhat inward leader, who leads by example. Stone has managed to stand out without shouting, or even calling attention to himself, even in a world that increasingly rewards the opposite.
“I’m not the person that’s necessarily out front leading the band, so to speak, but I can do it,” said Stone, “but it’s not something that I necessarily push for.”
A native of Long Beach, Stone began his education at Long Beach City College and received his undergraduate degree at Cal State Long Beach with a teaching credential for English. “I was passionate about it,” said Stone, always knowing he wanted to teach English and coach basketball.
He earned a double master’s degree, one in counseling, the other in educational administration and finally earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in educational administration and management.
He began his career teaching English and coaching basketball at Millikan. As his dream began to take shape. Stone found inspiration from other coaches he admired.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone, you know, has a purpose,” says Stone, and “I knew early on, I wanted to be a teacher and coach and that was kind of my goal and my focus from the get-go,” said Stone.
His purpose, however, goes even deeper as Dr. Stone said he quickly developed an inner urge to counsel struggling students. Stone said early on, he saw fellow coach, and mentor, Max Fraley coaching and counseling and knew he was meant to do it as well.
“I thought to myself, I really would like to do what Max is doing, being a counselor and coaching. I thought that would be a great blend,” he said.
Also, within a decade, Stone says he discovered that while teaching was rewarding, it was perhaps giving him as much value as he was delivering to students. Even today, Stone carries with him a memento, a photo, from his earliest days to remind him of that impact.
“It’s not very fancy,” he said of the photo. “And people look at it and say, ‘Where are you in this picture?’” “I’m not in it,” he tells them. “It is a picture of the 1983 yearbook class at Millikan, put together with 35 black and white mug shots in there” and then presented to him by the class. He was the class advisor.
For Stone, it’s not about the picture but the “impact” the class had made on him. Still today, these students, now in their early 50’s, remain in touch.
Like all teachers, Stone moved around a bit during his career, accepting a couple of stints as Assistant Principal, first at Rogers Middle School and then back at Millikan.
At 37, he and his wife Chris were married, with another of his longtime mentors, Coach Bill Odell, serving as best man. “He had a big influence on my life,” said Stone of Odell, noting they are still best friends today.
He and Chris settled in Seal Beach, where the couple’s two children, Michael and Jenna, were born.
At that point, Stone said he had accepted an assignment at Capistrano Valley High School, thinking they may want to move there. “Eventually, though, we decided that we really liked Seal Beach,” where they remain today.
Stone said he then quickly tired of the commute to Capistrano. Always a doting father, Stone said he quickly became frustrated when traffic jams would steal time away from his children.
“This was not what I signed up for, and put the dad hat on for,” he thought.
When he had a choice to return to Long Beach Unified or fill a position at Los Alamitos Unified in 1998, he chose Los Alamitos High School, where he became Director of Administration and Curriculum Development. There would be no more long commutes and his memories would be filled with Griffins for the remainder of his career.
Eventually, Dr. Stone became Assistant Principal and was later selected to replace Dr. Brandon Martinez as Principal upon Martinez’ retirement.
His devout introspection was further evidenced by his flourishing pen. Over the years, Dr. Stone became an academic poet laureate, of sorts, writing poetry that blossomed into big demand.
He credits his now legendary poetry to a former teacher. Always ready with a story, self-reflection, a Stone parable, if you will, the former Principal somehow always chooses thoughtful words and stories. He says it can be traced back to his own education.
For his poetry, Dr. Stone gives credit to his 11th grade English and yearbook teacher, Joan Danielsen. “When I had to develop public speaking skills, she advised me to script it (write it down first),” said Stone.
“So, when I started to script for public speaking, I found it easier to write a poetry piece rather than prose,” he said. Therefore, going forward at key engagements, such as a teacher retirement, Dr. Stone said he would rather write, and deliver a poem. The recipients loved it.
“Then people would ask me to write a poem for them, and I would, not knowing how they were going to land,” said Stone, adding that eventually he began to write poetry for his family on key occasions.
“It adds a personal touch,” he said, “but for whatever reason, the spark of writing has to be attributed to her (Danielsen).”
During his career, Dr. Stone also earned his counseling credential, having never lost his love, and need, to help struggling teens do better.
“I told my wife that I really kind of felt drawn to that, especially freshmen kids. Sometimes that transition from 8th to 9th can be a bit abrupt for kids so I kind of felt myself gravitating to help struggling kids,” he said.
In one way or another, Dr. Stone said he has worked with teens his entire career. “Hopefully, you’re impacting the kids, but they impact you,” he said.
When he retired in 2019, students at Los Al produced a touching three-minute video where students, teachers, administrators each took turns “tipping their hats” and making loving gestures to music that simply ended with “no words could ever describe what you’ve done for us.”
Stone said then “it was time to retire.”
Even after his first retirement, however, Dr. Stone was, without fanfare, quietly returning to LAHS to volunteer his time to counsel struggling students. He does the same in Long Beach.
Then, in 2020, Dr. Stone said he got a phone call from his old friend, District Superintendent Dr. Andrew Pulver.
“Dr. Pulver called at the end of July (2020),” said Stone, “and he told me about Chris’ decision (to leave) and asked about whatever time I could give LAHS.” Stone said he asked Pulver permission to think about it and discuss it with his wife, Chris.
Dr. Stone said he and Pulver are longtime friends, having entered the school district about the same time two decades ago.
Given the pandemic conditions, Stone said he told the Superintendent he’d come back for at least one semester, “then we could revisit the idea in September of last year, an admission that Pulver later confirmed.
Despite the pandemic and the massive disruption caused by construction at the high school, Stone said, upon his return, he was comfortable back in the Principal’s Chair, and eventually agreed to remain until July 1, when the new principal steps in.
During Dr. Stone’s unexpected year back at LAHS, his writing and personal stories became an inspiration for parents and students, as he filled the school’s email newsletter with reflections and his parable-like stories that simultaneously taught, led and inspired by example.
Upon his return during the pandemic, however, Stone said he found students and staff “anxious” and “fearful.” Totally understandable, he said, given the pandemic conditions, switching from hybrid to distance, then back again, and with a no-touch protocol on campus.
In many ways, Dr. Stone was seemingly perfect if not pre-destined to lead the school through this once-in-a-century emergency with his quiet wisdom and sure handed leadership despite the world of chaos around him.
It turned out to be a victory lap, of sorts, as Stone was able to join the School Board to cut the ribbon on the new Olympic Aquatic complex and sign the beam for the new STEM building as construction continued during the pandemic, all of which had been facilitated by voter approval of a bond issue.
Throughout his career, Dr. Stone demonstrated his commitment to students at every end of the spectrum, celebrating the overachievers but never forgetting those who lead in different, perhaps more unseen ways.
During his brief interim tenure, Dr. Stone said he informed school officials that he was changing the “Student Leadership Awards” to “Student Impact Awards.”
“If I was going to pick them (award recipients), I wanted to pick students that not only led, but made an impact on leadership and fellow students,” said Stone.
Dr. Stone said he picked a student who wrote him a detailed, three-page letter challenging certain practices, which she later sent to the school board, and a special education student whom everyone knew, but who could only communicate using certain gestures and sounds.
“They may not be in bold leadership roles,” Dr. Stone said he informed LAHS academic counselor Gail Davenport, “but they (students) certainly are making a difference.”
As he reflected on his long career, Dr. Stone said students like those he picked in 2020, were like many throughout his career, that had perhaps impacted him as much or more than he has impacted them.
If they are honest, said Stone, all teachers at retirement “are a little bit different than when they were hired.”
He said when Dr. Pulver called to thank him for coming back and helping the system, “I said Andrew, you helped me as much or more than I helped you.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Stone was named “King of Hearts” by the Los Alamitos Education Foundation in February, which raised $150,000 in his honor for scholarships and other purposes, and the district named Dr. Stone “Hero of the Heart” for the entire LAUSD system last month.
“Gregg, you’re just an incredible man of humility, an incredible man of faith, an incredible man of service and you’re really our Hero of the Heart and I could not be prouder to call you my friend,” said Dr. Pulver in June as they presented Stone with his “Hero” Award.
“You always inspire me to think differently and to be an advocate for our staff and students,” said Pulver, “and to not be swayed from what we know in our hearts is the right thing for students.”
Board President Marlys Davidson said she remembered the time Dr. Stone flatly refused to consider running for School Board because of his counseling work. “You said to me that you didn’t want to give up the volunteer time you had working with the kids at the high school. That’s the kind of person you are,” said Davidson.
Davidson said she felt like it was “destiny” when he was called back to the high school during the pandemic. “I can’t imagine another person on this planet doing the job you did, having the heart you have and caring in the way you do.”
“You are always the calm in the center of any storm,” said long time LAUSD Board member Meg Cutuli, “you just always do what is best for the students.”
Chris Forehan thanked Stone for simply being an “incredible human being.”
Board member Diana Hill, also a longer-serving member, told Stone how she was indeed “impacted” by him when her sons attended LAHS. “It really impacted me who you were and how you handled things,” said Hill.
“You always gave unlimited time and attention to any student who needed it,” she said.
The way that Dr. Stone describes success is perhaps much different than many. In fact, he tells yet another story as an example.
As a former coach, Stone is a great admirer of pro basketball great Bill Russell.
“Bill Russell was a center for the Boston Celtics,” said Stone, leading the team to 11 championships in 13 seasons. Yet, said Stone, he never scored more than 20 points per game.
“If you asked Bill Russell about playing a great game, he would say, ‘If I played a great game, only evaluate it on how much I made my other teammates play well.’”
It is seemingly not only a great story about basketball, but a great metaphor for his career as well. Always willing to pass the ball, slap a teammate on the back, encourage them to take more shots, etc. without so much as asking for anything in return but mutual success.
“We all have a purpose,” said Stone, “we all have something to share.” From his earliest days teaching English to his return as LAHS Principal, his core mission, and purpose, has not changed.
From coaching to counseling, and later administration, his role was to find the “gifts” in students and then provide the process and encouragement for them to give voice to share them.
Nevertheless, Stone is still somewhat resistant to the word “retirement,” preferring instead to simply call it yet another “reassignment.” Yes, he said, there will be vacations and cruises with his wife, Chris. But for Dr. Stone, there is still work to be done.
He has already requested permission from the incoming principal to continue counseling struggling students.
“If I can still help out with counseling, perhaps a case with kids that need help, because if I think if we can get them help and support, I’m going to try to make them better,” said Stone. “I’m not done yet.”