Clayton G. Chambliss, ‘visionary’ Sayre School headmaster for two decades, dies at 71

Clayton Chambliss was headmaster of Sayre School for 22 years.
Clayton Chambliss was headmaster of Sayre School for 22 years. Sayre School

Clayton G. Chambliss, who had the second-longest tenure as a headmaster in Sayre School’s history, was the visionary who transformed a 20th-century school into a 21st-century academic model, colleagues said.

Chambliss, 71, died Friday. He was headmaster at the private school for 22 years from 1990 to 2012, and through his strategic leadership the campus was rebuilt, an athletic complex was secured and developed, and Chambliss “placed Sayre at the vanguard of academic and technological innovation,” school officials said in a statement.

“The tremendous influence that Clayton Chambliss had on Sayre can be both seen and felt,” Head of School Stephen Manella said. “Award-winning buildings like the Lucy Bryans VanMeter ’79 Upper School and the Buttery (the cafeteria) launched Sayre into the 21st century. Even more important is the fact that at one point, Clayton had hired the vast majority of the faculty that so many of our families have grown to love. The warm and caring tone that is Sayre, and still impacting our students today, has been shaped by his vision and leadership.”

Chambliss’s quick smile and friendly nature endeared him to friends in academic, faith and art circles, the school’s statement said. “He lived by the core values he instituted on campus: wisdom, integrity, respect, and compassion. The values find expression in his favorite quote from (Swiss philosopher) Henri F Amiel, which he often shared with the Sayre community in trying times: ‘Life is short, and there is little time to gladden the hearts of those who go the journey with us. So, be quick to love and make haste to be kind.’”

“Clayton was intelligent, interested in everyone he met, extremely dedicated to educating youth, esteemed by the nationwide independent school community, and a real gentleman in the purest sense of the word,” said Carole Nahra, a former Sayre board member whose children once attended the school. “He hired many outstanding faculty and focused on their continuing professional development. ... he was the quintessential independent school headmaster.”

When Chambliss retired in 2012, he wrote a letter that said in part: “What gives me the greatest satisfaction as I reflect upon my years as school head is how we all relate to each other — the smiles we exchange when we cross paths around campus, ... and the respect and good humor we share even in the throes of difficult conversations and decisions. You have to take my word for it — this is uncommon. Also uncommonly good is the confidence, competence and pride Sayre students at all levels carry because they know their teachers love and care for them.”

Former board chairman Wyn Paulson and his wife, Jean Ellen Ezzell Paulson, also issued a statement.

“Clayton came into our lives when our daughter started preschool at Sayre,” they wrote. “We were impressed with the school and its headmaster; the air of competence, the level of acumen about children and how they should be educated, and what tools they needed to be successful in an ever-changing world.”

Kitty Sautter, a former board chairwoman, lower school teacher and parent, said: “During Clayton’s tenure, he raised Sayre to the highest academic standards while maintaining a caring, nurturing community. He wanted to lift us up.”

Chambliss is survived by two sons, Noland Chambliss, Sayre class of 2002 and Callis Chambliss, class of 2008, school spokeswoman Barb Milosch said. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available Monday morning,

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears