Q: ‘How old is Cate School?’

‘How old is Cate School?’—Mark Ferrer

By Michael Redmon

Cate School, located at the end of Cate Mesa Road overlooking the Carpinteria Valley, is one of the most distinguished educational institutions on the South Coast. Approaching its 100th birthday, the school in many ways remains the embodiment of the educational principles set down by Curtis Wolsey Cate. Cate was born in Massachusetts in 1884 and graduated from Harvard University in 1907. He traveled to California to take up a teaching career, first in Riverside, then for one year at the Thacher School in Ojai. According to Cate’s account, in 1910 his younger brother Karl suggested they open their own school. With a third partner, Cate’s former Harvard classmate R. B. Gring, they opened a boys’ prep school, the Miramar School, in a leased private home in Mission Canyon. That first fall the school had an enrollment of 12.

In 1911, the school had a new name, Santa Barbara School, and a new location, the ranch of Stewart Wolcott in the Carpinteria Valley, for which was paid a $150 monthly rent. Enrollment climbed to 25 that year. There were disputes with the new landlord, who had a habit of re-routing the school’s water supply in order to irrigate his lemon groves. In 1914 Wolcott raised the rent, then offered to sell Cate his mesa property, formerly the site of an ostrich farm. Funds were raised and a new school arose on the mesa slopes. The school stayed at that location until 1929, when it moved to its present location atop the mesa.

In 1925, Cate reflected upon the school experience, “… a simple, active life with certain daily chores to be performed; early, cold-water bathing, out-of-door living and playing; serious studying and reading; choral singing, good music, and a sympathetic attitude toward all the arts; high standards of work and conduct; daily moments for reverent thought, and the almost constant companionship of honorable and unselfish men and women.” The students very much respected and felt a deep fondness for their headmaster; their nickname for him was “The King.” Every night after dinner, which the boys attended in jacket and tie, Cate would gather the student body around him and read from the literary classics. Then he and his wife Katherine, whom he had married in 1924, would shake each boy by the hand and wish him goodnight. Each morning Cate would lead the students in singing spiritual hymns.

Until 1942, another major component of the school experience was horseback riding. Each student was responsible for the care of a horse and most weekends were taken up with rides along the beach or, more often, into the backcountry. With the onset of World War II, declining enrollment and reduced income spelled the end of this expensive program.

Academic standards were high and the curriculum rigorous. Curtis Crawford taught Latin and Greek for 37 years and had his students put on classical plays in their original languages. Algernon Davy, a former British army officer, taught math and dished out discipline for 20 years. Faculty minced no words in written reports to parents regarding their sons’ behavior and classroom performance to the point where Cate had to step in and dictate that teachers tone down some of their harsher comments.

Curtis Cate retired in 1950 and in his honor the school was renamed Cate School. That year, Time magazine saluted him, calling the school “one of the best-run private schools west of the Mississippi.” In 1987, the Harvard Independent rated Cate School, by then a coeducational institution, one of the top 10 prep schools in the nation. Through all the changes over the years, Curtis Wolsey Cate’s vision remains central to the school’s mission.

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