Opinion: Musings on the Coast


The Tokyo-Sage Hill Shuffle

I was in a deep sleep when the bedside phone rang and my first thought was, Where am I?” but by the time I thought that, I knew I was in a fancy hotel room in Tokyo and the bedside clock read 3:15 a.m., and I knew it was someone from the United States because no civilized person in Japan would call at that time.

Sure enough, it was Jamie Caillouette, the founding father of Sage Hill School, and he was calling about the financing on the to-be-built school (I was obtaining it), and he was calling because there was a problem.

As he started to talk, I interrupted, Jamie, Im in Tokyo and it is three oclock in the morning and promptly at nine, we are meeting with the American Ambassador and a contingent from Bank of Tokyo (BOT). Can this wait?”

No, they are balking at the lease.” He meant the schools lender did not like the Sage Hill ground lease. We founders had leased 28 acres off Newport Coast Road near the entrance to the State Route 73 toll road for the school. The lender did not like parts of the lease and I could hear the strain in Jamies voice.

The year was 1999 and we founders had been at it for years. Our goal: create the only non-sectarian private high school in Orange County and the only one with these three core values: excellence, diversity and financial aid.

In the same year I was doing my biggest deal ever: buying $1.8 billion worth of bad loans from banks in Japan. BOT had invited me to buy the loans, so there I was the next morning meeting with the U.S. Ambassador and executives from BOT—and wondering how the hell my life had taken such a turn.

It was that kind of year. I was going back and forth to Tokyo, kept my bags permanently at the Okura Hotel, and simultaneously deeply involved in Sage Hills creation.

The Japanese deal did go down and Sage Hill did get built, and neither was easy, but oh boy, what I learned. Tokyo opened my eyes to how Asia works and Sage Hill opened my eyes to how education works. Both are complicated and it is easy to get it wrong.

In Japan, it is all about trust, which is extremely difficult to obtain. Once you have it, though, things flow easily. On our $1.8 billion deal, the purchase document was five pages long—unheardly short in the Western world.

At Sage Hill, it is all about student-teach ratios, a safe” environment to be different,” a close relationship with faculty, parents, students, and perhaps most important, teaching parents that an Ivy League education is not the be-all for kids. For Laguna kids, it is about learning this incredibly beautiful town is an isolated paradise that cannot be duplicated—and the big world out there is a scary place.

All that is behind me now, but the trajectory of the lives involved sure has changed. I took my nephew Matt to Japan to help, and today he lives there with his Japanese wife and five kids. At Sage, we had to survive the opening, staff and board changes, the 2008 Financial Crisis and most recently, COVID-19.

The other day at the beach I was hanging with one of my kids and her Sage Hill Laguna friends, and I was musingly silent when she asked, What are you thinking?”

Its the same old story,” I answered, suddenly happy, You gotta take it sweet.”

What sweet?”

Life, darling, life.”

Michael is a volunteer columnist for the Independent.

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