After spending more than two decades with the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, Vice President of Academic Services Kenneth Lease is retiring from the institution this month.
With a nearly 50-year career in education that has spanned the globe, Lease considers his time at the school among his greatest experiences.
“I joined in 1991, which was when the second class of students joined OSSM. I’ve been here ever since,” he said. “It’s one of the most unique opportunities of my career. It’s a world-class institution. It’s one of the finest things that the state of Oklahoma has ever invented.”
Originally from Pennsylvania, Lease said his early desire to learn, and to help others learn and grow, led him down the long path he’s covered. His lifelong work began shortly after joining the Peace Corps and spending time volunteering in Malaysia.
There, the experience not only furthered his love affair with teaching, but also provided him with another love that remains with him to this day.
“We’ve been very blessed, both my wife and I. We met in the Peace Corps in Malaysia,” he said. “Sharon grew up here in Oklahoma City and graduated from Northwest Classen and OCU (Oklahoma City University), and often says that she never would have married a Yankee except we were in the jungle together.”
After working in Malaysia, the couple came back to the U.S. briefly before setting out for the Pacific.
“We always believed in world service and opportunities for us to grow and to understand the world more and to contribute to the world’s success, so we went from there to Guam,” he said.
The Leases spent about four years on the island, where the eldest of their two daughters was born. After his time spent teaching in Guam, Lease traded the tropics for the desert climate of Iran.
Lease and his family moved to Iran in the mid-1970s, near the height of an economic boom tied to the country’s oil production.
“There was an American school call Passargad School in Ahwaz, Iran,” he said. “Lots of the students would be children of American, Canadian and other international oil-field workers and executives.”
By 1978, the situation in the country was becoming “dicey,” Lease said, describing a situation in which the oil fields were among the main targets of the revolutionaries. Shutting down the oil production would shut off the flow of money to the shah, effectively weakening his rule of the country.
“So we were there right up to the Iranian Revolution,” he said. “At one point, we were the last education organization of any kind operating within Iran. It was a tense time. We had to send our own children out to Canada with a librarian who left early, and my parents drove up from Pennsylvania to meet them, because I was under a death threat.”
By early 1979, everybody at the school had been evacuated. After leaving Iran, Lease had the opportunity to work in Brazil as a secondary school principal in Rio de Janeiro, where he was taken with the beauty of his new surroundings that included Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain.
“I had to turn my desk to the wall because you could see Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf, and Christ on the mountain; I never would’ve gotten anything done,” Lease said. “You know, the prospect of going to Rio, why would that not be exciting?”
The stay in Brazil lasted about a year, during which the American embassy in Iran had been seized. Lease recalled having just left the country about six months earlier and asking himself why he had even gone to Iran.
Back in the U.S.
Citing out-of-control inflation in Brazil and wanting to come back to the U.S. to raise his children, Lease joined his wife in Oklahoma and worked for the state as a math specialist.
Soon after, an opportunity in Alaska sent him traveling again.
“Sharon joined the state department here, and we had a commuting marriage,” he said. “I was on the plane back to Alaska one time when Time magazine did a story about commuting marriages, and I thought, ‘Man, I should be on that, I should be there.’”
Lease said his wife was supportive of the decision and that he came back to Oklahoma several times a year. By 1986, he had moved back to the state and worked for the Oklahoma City Public Schools until joining the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics.
Lease says that although he is retiring from the school, he would like to and expects to still serve in some function.
Back to roaming
Retiring for Lease doesn’t mean slowing down, as he will be leaving for Singapore in July, spending two weeks out of the U.S. to teach a research class.
“Dr. Sharon and I are non-recovering workaholics,” he said. “We’ve been very blessed to have paralleling professional careers and opportunities that have emerged for us through the years. One needs to help ... It’s your responsibility. You’ve had some blessings; you need to share those blessings. That’s what we try to do.”