Prep 101

Posted online: December 2010

by Josh Conviser

This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of Santa Barbara’s most prestigious academic institutions—one with an idyllic campus, complete with a brand-new aquatic center, unparalleled science labs, and a jaw-dropping vista of the ocean. An institution with seven applicants for each spot and the most diverse student body of any school of its size in the country. One with teachers who have garnered academic honors too numerous to detail and alumni who have ventured far and wide while maintaining a fanatic devotion to their alma matter. Alum, author, artist, and bullfighter Barnaby Conrad puts it well: “It’s the most beautiful school in America—certainly the West—and the best.”

No, it’s not UC Santa Barbara; it’s a high school in the foothills of Carpinteria that remains a mystery to most locals. “Cate can be a world unto itself, at least for the community’s inhabitants,” says current headmaster Ben Williams. “After all, so much of our lives revolve around the interactions that take place on this campus. Those unfamiliar with this school community may indeed find Cate an anomaly in our world—but a welcome one.”

While small in size, Cate—initially called the Santa Barbara School (the institution was named for its founder after World War II)—has long been a powerhouse in the world of boarding schools, rivaling its Eastern competitors even as it offers a truly “left coast” experience. Can the word “exclusive” apply to a school that has surfing as a sport?

The campus perches atop a mesa overlooking the ocean, its Spanish-style buildings interspersed with swaying eucalyptus and rich green fields—scenery that can’t help but inspire. Larry Niven, a former “Catie” (a nickname given to students) and Hugo and Nebula award-winning novelist, remembers standing “just at the edge of the mesa with the bright sun behind us. Fog lapped at the edge like a sea. We looked into a tunnel of shadow, [around which] each of us saw a rainbow.” Not surprisingly, Cate’s scenery often crops up in Niven’s work.

While the school upon the mesa could now be mistaken for a university, it did not begin at such lofty heights. It began with the vision, perhaps foolhardy, of one man. Curtis Wolsey Cate came to California in 1910, fresh out of Harvard. Though East Coast born and bred, Cate found a home in the rough and tumble town that was Santa Barbara at the turn of the century. While starting at the Thatcher School in Ojai, he quickly decided to go it alone. He wrote that “in the spring of 1910, my younger brother Karl, then in San Francisco selling insurance and cigarettes, said to me, ‘Let’s start a school.’ I listened, and we did.” And so began Mr. Cate’s adventure into school making. “Can you imagine,” Dave Mochel, a current Cate teacher, says of its founder, “being 25 years old and saying, ‘Screw this, I can do better’?”

Cate was just the type to believe he could; his steely determination remains a thing of school legend. One of his early students wrote, “When the extraordinary man enters the room, space is displaced, shoved aside…. So it was with Mr. Cate.… Sometimes he would look sternly around at us with those piercing eyes—and no eyes could penetrate so deep—and we would shiver, waiting for the storm. Sometimes, he would smile, eyebrows raised, mobile mouth stretched wide, and we would glow with pleasure.”

Life was hard in those early days. Mr. Cate believed that struggle—both physical and academic—was critical to an education, and he made sure his boys experienced both. His school offered neither hot water nor electricity and didn’t even have a car until 1915.

Cate also made sure his boys learned from the land he so loved. “The horse was as much a part of our lives as the book,” he wrote. His students’ day started at dawn, grooming their horses. “Afternoons, mounted for a canter before baseball or for practice on the gymkhana field; Saturdays and Sunday, off for long rides or camping…learning from Nature and the care of an animal larger than one’s self, lessons not taught in the classrooms.” Cate practiced what he preached, living alongside his boys in hardy splendor…

To read the full article, check out our December/January 2011 issue on stands now, or available to purchase online here.

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