On Monday morning, in the Globe Theatre at Santa Barbara Junior High School, a half-dozen members of the first graduating class were back at their old stomping grounds, laughing over old yearbooks, reminiscing about things like duck shooting, wagon-wheel hunting, and playing softball while riding donkeys, and answering questions from the teenagers who now inhabit the same classrooms and hallways they themselves enjoyed three-quarters of a century ago. They were there to celebrate the school’s 75th anniversary.
Although donkey riding and duck shooting aren’t part of the activities at 721 E. Cota Street anymore, the alums unilaterally seemed impressed with how similar the SBJHS of 2008 is to the school of their youth. With its big windows, thick walls, leaky basement, colorful tiles, seagull-filled quad, and a library that still features the same oak shelving, monolithic front desk, artistically exposed beams, and slightly bizarre half-naked men sports mural, the school is aesthetically very much the same.
With a bloodline of alumni and faculty that runs deep into the oldest of Santa Barbara’s families, an amazingly intact Spanish Colonial design (i.e., the red tile style that Santa Barbara is famous for) that earned the school an official Historical Landmark title in 1985, and a location that provides some of the best views of the Riviera and the mountains beyond-not to mention an academic tradition of hard-earned success-you can begin to understand why Steve Shelton, himself an SBJHS alumni and longtime English teacher at the school, commented earlier this week, “There is just something about this place. : I count myself as one of the luckiest guys on earth [to come to work here every day].”
After the 1925 earthquake rendered the first incarnation of the junior high-then near the intersection of De la Vina and Anapamu streets-damaged goods, a school bond measure passed in early 1930 set aside some $600,000 to purchase the 16-acre Cota Street site, a low-lying swampy area that once served as a dump, and build the new junior high. In a bittersweet twist of fate, the harsh realities of the Great Depression saw the actual value of the bond soar, thus opening the door to build a grander than expected facility. Designed by the San Francisco-based William H. Weeks Architectural Firm, which also designed Santa Barbara High and La Cumbre Junior High, SBJHS opened its doors to an approximately 400-strong student body on August 29, 1932.
Brought to fruition in large part by the back-breaking labor and highly refined artistic touches of WPA Depression-era craftsmen, the junior high, in an act of efficiency that would make modern-day school administrators howl with joy, was built as both a state-of-the-art facility and a work of art, all the while coming in $5,000 under budget. As Shelton put it, “The kind of money and priority that was devoted to this place in the ’30s was unbelievable-it would be the equivalent of every kid getting their own laptop and then some nowadays.”
On hand for the reunion celebration were Class of ’33 alums Angelo Ferrario (his family owned and operated Joe’s Cafe for years), Bob Mullaney, Mario Borgatello (who after being the president of the inaugural SBJHS class went on to found MarBorg Industries), Charlotte Baker Woods, Adeline Taverna Tomborg (who at 90 years old drove herself to and from the event very much keeping alive the energy and grace that earned her the Class of 1933 graduation speaking privileges on the topic of “Truth as Youth’s Ally”), and 1937 alumni Vincent Cavallero.
“It hasn’t changed at all,” observed Woods. “Except for the auditorium, it is very much the same, almost exactly how I remember it.” The auditorium to which Woods was referring is now known as the Marjorie Luke Theatre, in honor of one of SBJHS’s most beloved educators, and was the beneficiary of a multi-million dollar overhaul in 2003-though it, too, retains the same seats of the old 1932 auditorium as well as restored versions of the large above-stage frieze and book-ended ornamental metal grills.
When asked what their favorite classes were during their tenure at SBJHS, the alums spoke fondly about electives like gardening, woodshop, metalworking, sports, and even foreign languages. As Ferrario said, “I really think Santa Barbara Junior High gave me the opportunity to do all the things I’ve done in my life.” However, with electives usually the first on the chopping block when the Santa Barbara School District makes its always gut wrenching annual budget decisions (something that this year looks to equal about $4 million in district-wide bloodletting), the impact of these types of losses to an overall academic experience was not lost on the first class of Santa Barbara Junior High.
No doubt taking the opportunity with an audience that included the school’s principal, John Becchio, as well as few TV cameras, Mullaney, who has worked over the years as a teacher at SBJHS, San Marcos High, UCSB, and S.B. City College, took a tone of caution during his stroll down memory lane and lamented the loss of some of these programs. “The thing that made this place so exciting was that it was a California Comprehensive Junior High,” said Mullaney. “Every student could come here and get a program of study that kept him or her personally interested.”
That said, as Shelton so eloquently summed up the experience of his seventh- and eighth-grade students, “Junior high is a strange time. It’s when the mind, body, and soul are all going in opposite directions, and hopefully you come out the opposite side a good person.” Luckily for the boys and girls who have attended Santa Barbara Junior High over the past 75 years, the struggle toward adulthood has been made a little easier by a school that simply “has something real special about it.”
A gala event planned for this Saturday, March 8, at Santa Barbara Junior High, 721 E. Cota Street, will officially commemorate its diamond anniversary with an all-ages all-day bash at the school. Guided tours will be available as well as food, performances from both elementary and high school groups, alumni, and teachers past and present.