to His Schools' Success? It's God, Founder Says
Robert Lichfield founded one small facility and built it into a
business empire. In an interview, he makes frequent reference to his
July 13, 2003
By John-Thor Dahlburg, Times Staff Writer
ST. GEORGE, Utah -- Robert Browning Lichfield opened his first
"tough-love" academy at a time when he was so financially strapped
that he, his wife and four children lived crowded together in a
In the ensuing 16 years, Lichfield had three more children, added 10
schools to his investment portfolio and founded a business empire
whose holdings include everything from restaurants to radio
At 49, Lichfield cuts an unmistakable swath through this
fast-growing southwestern Utah city. In achieving material success,
he has also become something of a civic and political figure — and a
major contributor to the state's Republican Party.
When asked about his success, and about the criticism surrounding
the school network that he created, he makes reference to his
fervent Mormon faith.
God is the key to his accomplishments, he says, and Satan is
stirring up his foes.
"We're here getting kids off drugs and other evils," Lichfield said
during a rare interview at the headquarters of the World Wide Assn.
of Specialty Programs and Schools. "We're here connecting kids with
their families. We're here getting kids in touch with their higher
"Do I believe, being a God-believing person, that the adversary to
all good is going to sit back and let that happen without a major
unleashing of dark forces? No, I don't."
Lichfield is a bearded man, with a burly physique and shy, congenial
manner recalling John Candy, the late actor and comic. He wore an
open-necked shirt and toyed with a business card during an interview
with the Los Angeles Times — a meeting he agreed to only after
months of negotiation.
He requested his photograph not be published in The Times because
"some kids are a little deranged.... You never know what they might
Lichfield says his role in the for-profit schools is that of an
investor and advisor, but his adversaries say he has a key role in
managing them. Whatever the case, he usually leaves Ken Kay, the
association's white-haired president, to answer questions about the
Lichfield's role in politics is easier to pin down. According to
Federal Elections Commission records, Lichfield and his wife gave
the Republican Party $175,000 in a recent 12-month period, and he
was named Republican of the Year this year by the Washington County
"As a person, he is great," said county GOP Chairman Naghi Zeenati.
"He is community-minded and always available to help."
Lichfield got his first job with problem teens in 1977 when he was a
"dorm parent" at a private boys' school on a wooded lot north of
Provo. At the fenced-in compound known as Provo Canyon School for
Boys, students were subjected to tough treatment, including long
periods of solitary confinement and forced lie-detector tests.
It was "baptism by fire," said Lichfield, who has no formal
qualifications in education or child psychology and didn't graduate
from college. On the job, he said, "you learn real fast, just as a
[physician's assistant] learns doctoring skills by working with
However, not all of his charges from those days recall the fledgling
educator with fondness. David Doran, 34, of Tarzana spent time in
his youth at Provo Canyon and said he remembers Lichfield as a
humorless, dictatorial figure who seemed to delight in taunting
About the same time, Lichfield founded the Cross Creek school, his
first. In 1987, Lichfield signed a contract to run Brightway
Adolescent Hospital in St. George, which health officials said
quickly became a pipeline for enrolling students in tough-love
State inspectors investigated the private psychiatric institution
after receiving complaints of children being admitted without
consent from both parents and a failure to report a suspected case
of child abuse, Utah Department of Health spokeswoman Debra Wynkoop
said. The hospital shut down in 1998 after being informed by state
health officials that they were going to order its closure, Wynkoop
By the time WWASPS was created in 1998, Lichfield said he had let
other people assume ownership and management of the schools. Ken
Kay, president of WWASPS, declined a request from The Times to
provide a list of the owners. But some affiliates are family
Lichfield's younger brother Narvin owns Carolina Springs Academy
near Abbeville, S.C., and the Academy at Dundee Ranch in Costa Rica.
Kay's son, Jay, runs the WWASPS school in Jamaica, called
What Lichfield does own, he said, are many of the buildings and
grounds that house the WWASPS schools. Title formally belongs to a
legal entity with a name intentionally so long newspapers won't
print it, he joked. That entity, the Robert Browning Lichfield
Limited Family Partnership, has Lichfield and his wife, Patricia, as
sole partners, according to documents filed with the Utah secretary
of state's office in 1995. Lichfield said he co-owns other
properties with business associates.
As for his role in WWASPS, on paper Lichfield is simply a trustee.
Some adversaries contend that the limited designation is the way he
protects himself from legal liability.
A thicket of interrelated, for-profit companies has grown up around
the nonprofit WWASPS. They include Teen Help, the association's
marketing arm; Teen Escort Service, which convoys children to and
from member schools; and R&B Billing, which sends the monthly bills
to parents and processes their payments.
Thomas Burton, an attorney in Pleasanton, Calif., who has sued
WWASPS, its member schools and associated businesses at least seven
times — though he has yet to win a case — contends that all of these
entities function as a huge, single commercial venture with
Lichfield at the heart.
"The corporations keep shifting and being reconstituted with
different people in different places," Burton said. "It seems they
want to keep this a moving target."
In March, the Northern California lawyer filed suit in federal court
in Salt Lake City on behalf of a former student at Tranquility Bay,
claiming the WWASPS school in Jamaica was a "steaming squalid jungle
camp, infested with flies, mosquitoes, scorpions and vermin."
After listening patiently during his interview with The Times to a
recounting of these kinds of parent and student complaints,
Lichfield spoke again of religious faith and his conviction that the
methods he pioneered have aided many.
"God can't help everybody. I don't know how we're going to," he
said. "But it [WWASPS] does provide an opportunity for thousands of
kids to improve their lives. Those who choose not to, choose not