Photo Credit Jan Garrison
'The riding hall became my home.'
April 9, 2019

Gavin McFarland and Head of Schools Jim Power

It’s fairly common for alumni to talk about how the incredibly different world of Culver became their home away from home.

In Gavin McFarland’s case, you can almost invert that. It was comforting familiarity that got him here, as he was already well-versed in being away from home.

Let’s back up a little. Gavin grew up with, as he calls it, “a colonial upbringing” with an English mother and Scottish father in Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia). That carried with it all the cultural and political intricacies of life in modern Africa.

Gavin’s parents divorced, and he stayed in Africa with his mother. At the age of 12, he recalls, he decided he was going to live with his father, who had moved to Ohio.

For Gavin, who had spent his life attending British-style boarding schools, the public school outside of Dayton — an experience that for most 12-year-olds in the U.S. is the norm – was too much of a culture shock.

“I lasted two or three months before I realized it wasn’t going to work,” he recalls. Complicating the situation was that Gavin’s father was a traveling salesman, so he was often home alone.

“I gave my dad an ultimatum,” Gavin says. “I told him I needed to go to a boarding school. I had gone to boarding schools all my life.”

His dad knew about Culver, and in December of 1981, dad told him “Let’s go visit this boarding school in Indiana and see if you like it.”

The snowy campus was mostly empty by that point in the year, Gavin recalls, but on his tour, he, like so many others before him, “fell in love.”

“I knew it was going to be home for me.”

A month later, he started midterm of his fourth class year, in the Black Horse Troop, despite never having ridden a horse.

“It was the old riding hall (then),” he says. “I walked in the riding hall and I knew that was something I wanted to do.”

“I was a total outsider,” he continues. “I didn’t know any sports. … The riding hall became my home.”

Gavin McFarland ’85 (center), found a home in the stables after coming to Culver, despite having never ridden a horse.

And if the riding hall was home, then it must have had a family.

“The people working there became my surrogate parents.”

Chief among them were CSM John “Sarge” Hudson, Lynn Rasch ’76 (now dean of Culver Girls Academy), and Jeff Honzik ’65 SS.

“They were super important … They really took me under their wing.”

After a not-so-successful stab at polo, Gavin took well to the jumping team.

“Horsemanship, for me, was mostly about community,” he says. “It was a community that welcomed me. It was a place where I found my self-confidence.”

The really impressive thing, he says, was where he was when he entered Culver, and where he was when he left. And he credits most of that development to the horsemanship program and the “family” he found there.

He also found more self-assurance and more self-confidence, he says.

“I believed I had something to offer, something to contribute,” he says. “It’s hugely empowering. You feel good about yourself. You feel like you’re relevant.”

Part of that feeling, he believes, comes from doing a lot of that work yourself.

“You behave like an adult. You have an adult putting their faith in you … it’s very empowering.”

After graduating in 1985, Gavin attended university in South Africa and embarked on a different career path than many of boyhood friends, who mostly became farmers. Today he is a managing director in the investment banking division of Morgan Stanley in New York. He’s had a great deal of success.

And while Culver accounts for fewer than four of his 51 years, he has never forgotten what his years at Culver, especially in the stables, meant for him.

I give because it had such a profound impact on my life.

“I’ll always give to Culver,” he says. “I give because it had such a profound impact on my life. It allows me to share a little bit of the success I’ve made.

“Culver’s impact on me is that I have a relevant role, something to contribute. The other thing is that it opened my eyes to the possibilities for what youth can do.”

Mentioning again that most people he grew up with became farmers because that’s just what you did, he was grateful to see that there were other possibilities (though he hastens to add that there is nothing wrong with farming, just that it was not a path he was interested in).

Through economics classes, his instructors’ experiences, and corporate executives he came in contact with at Culver, he got to see how other people lived and worked outside the sphere he had known as a young boy, leading him to tell himself, “These are things I would like to try.”

“(Culver) raised my expectations about my goals and what I wanted to do.”

“When I think about the choices I made – coming back to the U.S., my career path – I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t had those experiences.”

“I know it sounds trite, but I wouldn’t be sitting here today. It really broadened my life for me.”

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Posted in Academic Alumni Culver Academies Horsemanship International Leadership Parents
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