Leonard Friedman recognizes that his career choices might have seemed strange to some.
But after 41 years of sacrificing his blood, sweat and even his beard for his woodshop students in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys, he said he’s ready to retire in December.
As he gets ready to hang up his hand planers — part of a collection of tools and instruments he’s acquired over the decades, much of which he is gifting to future generations of students at Saugus High School — he smiled as he recalled his teaching origin story after class Tuesday.
“I was a little different than most. I was 13 years old, walked out of Millikan Junior High woodshop (which is now named after Louis Armstrong) and I said, ‘I can be a lawyer. I can be a doctor,’” he recalled.
“I literally told myself this when I was 13,” he said, “‘Or I can become a woodshop teacher, and I think that would be really fun.’ And I stuck to my guns.’”
After he had been teaching at Grant High School, he came to Saugus High in 2005. He had already moved to the area with his wife and two children when he found out about the opening for a shop teacher at his son’s high school.
While he didn’t get a chance to teach his son, he has imparted his knowledge of woodworking, carpentry, framing and more to generations of students over the years. In May 2022, he earned High School Teacher of the Year for his lessons in woodworking and construction technology from the L.A. County Industrial and Technology Education Association.
“Mr. Friedman is an institution here at SHS,” wrote Geni Peterson Henry, principal of Saugus High. “He is known for his love for teaching and building. Under his expertise, his students get to experience the excitement of creating practical wood items along with learning valuable lessons. Mr. Friedman is a lifelong educator who leaves behind a legacy filled with the time-honored tradition of ‘working hard.’”
She also praised the craftsmanship of the projects his students manage to create each year, many of which are donated to support fundraising efforts to support other students, such as the PTSO Boutique Fantastique.
She said the projects have become a known quantity that attendees anticipate.
Wade Williams, the industrial arts chair who teaches multimedia skills to students next to Friedman’s shop, describes Friedman’s calm, cool demeanor as a sort of ballast for his colleagues, helping to keep everyone on an even keel when times get stressful.
“We think very much like when it comes to certain things, we’re old school, both of us,” Williams said. “Students very much like him because he doesn’t suffer fools and he’s not going to placate them to make life easier for them.”
Williams also noted his dedication and what he’s willing to do for students with a couple notable examples.
The first came during the pandemic.
Friedman wanted to make sure students were still able to get the learning experience from his woodshop class, but obviously, a student just can’t really learn hands-on construction with virtual lessons.
So, Friedman devised a wooden dollhouse project students could work on and made kits for students, and then made himself available for hours, waiting for the students to pick up the projects while everyone was socially distanced from campus.
“Did he tell you about the thousands and thousands of feet of lineal wood that he cut?” Williams said, “and then he came to the fence and dropped it off with every kid.”
The second story involves Williams more directly.
When Friedman heard about a 2015 contest hosted by tool company Stiles Machinery that asked teachers what they would sacrifice for a 12-inch joiner — a badly needed piece of equipment that could run several thousand dollars — he had an idea: He’d sacrifice his beard.
Williams shot a 5-minute video of four of Friedman’s longtime woodshop students shearing off their teacher’s beard. And they won first place.
“I effectively let someone take off my beard and two months later my daughter was getting married,” he said. “She was not happy.”
Lena Papa, a 2018 graduate of Saugus High, said Friedman frequently went above and beyond for his students, and she got more than she ever expected out of his class.
“I remember bits and pieces of him really emphasizing safety, so that no one would lose a finger, he was really stressed about that one,” Papa said Thursday in a phone interview.
Now as she prepares to separate from the U.S. Air Force at the end of her enlistment in a few months, she said she hopes to go into art. She said that’s a decision heavily influenced by the experiences she had in her ceramics and woodshop classes.
“So, I think he really helped students to do what they wanted to do,” she said, “and I think he taught more than I thought I could learn from a high school class. The level of teaching was so personable and so impactful, it’s one of the classes I really remember.”
Friedman said the course is continuing next semester with a highly qualified instructor who’s experienced in construction.
He described the wear and tear on his body from years of working in the woodshop as part of the reason he’s saying goodbye, adding he’d like to spend more time with his children and grandkids who live out of the area.
But he still plans to help students, doing some work with the Boy Scouts of America, some educational consulting on other woodshop programs and, of course, some woodworking projects, including the construction of a chuck wagon for a Boy Scouts camp.
“We will miss Mr. Friedman,” Henry said, “and we wish him all the best on his well-deserved retirement.”