The Olympian Mr. Cate : Parents Still Scrape Up the Equivalent of an Ivy League College Tuition : to Put Their Children Through His School

<i> Barnaby Conrad's most recent book is "Time Is All We Have: Four Weeks at the Betty Ford Center." </i>

MY MOST VIVID memory of the Cate School is one of sheer terror. I was 13, and I was down at the barn currying my horse at 6:30 on a freezing January morning, the way all the other 60 boys were doing. Except for the disturbing fact that some students--about a dozen--

were missing. I looked around and realized with a chill that the corrals with no boys belonged to seniors. The word quickly spread. From boy to boy it was called out in terrified tones: “A horse troughing!”

And soon we saw the missing class. Clad in sweat clothes, arms folded across their chests, grim of visage, they came marching down the hill. I was wet with perspiration and a little faint when they passed me by and grabbed the ashen boy in the next corral. Apparently he’d been “incorrigibly, persistently and creatively insubordinate,” and now he would pay for it by being dunked and pounded repeatedly in the icy waters of the horse trough. For months afterward there was no insubordination on the Mesa.

These days there is no more horse troughing at the Cate School--gone are the horses, the troughs and, thank goodness, that kind of hazing. The big red barn remains as a reminder of the old school that Curtis Wosley Cate founded in the early 1900s and loved and inspired for so many decades. The new school, as it stands now on its high mesa overlooking Carpinteria’s vast avocado groves, is a permanent tribute to him, as are its almost 2,000 graduates.


On June 13 of this year, newspapers around the country ran this item: “Cate School in Carpinteria, Calif., has been cited as one of the nation’s top 10 independent schools in the Insiders Guide to Prep Schools, published by the Harvard Independent, the university’s student newspaper. Cate . . . is the only school outside New England to be listed in the book’s top 10.”

How did an “Eastern” school come to be in California? What makes Angelenos--

and, indeed, parents from many other states--scrape up the equivalent of an Ivy League college tuition to send their children there?

It was back in 1910 that two proper Bostonians, both Harvard graduates, Curtis Wolsey Cate, 25, and his younger brother Karl, decided to start a school. This they did in Santa Barbara’s Mission Canyon with 12 students. The Miramar School, as they called it, was to be modeled after New England prep schools--but with differences. Cate would later define the characteristics for his boys’ school in Teddy Rooseveltian terms: “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 towards all arts; high standards of work and conduct; daily moments for reverent thought, and the almost constant companionship of honorable and unselfish men and women.”


From the beginning, the lean, ascetic Curtis Cate looked and acted the part of the dedicated, strict-but-fair New England boarding-school headmaster. Subsequently, Karl Cate dropped out of the project, and Curtis moved the school and 25 students 15 miles south to a ranch in Carpinteria, and ultimately, in 1914, to the side of a nearby mesa that had once been an ostrich farm. And thus was born the Santa Barbara School, to be known in 1950, on Curtis Cate’s retirement, as the Cate School. In 1929, the school moved to its present location on top of the mesa. The buildings that still constitute the core of the school were conceived in a Monterey Spanish colonial style, the landscaping Mediterranean in spirit with poplars and olive trees, and on all four sides, staggering views of mountains, ocean and orchards. Eventually there would be nearly 250 students and 30 masters.

Cate envisioned his school as “a shop full of apprentices learning how to live.” From the beginning he felt that the horse and its care was an essential ingredient of his boys’ lives, second only to the faculty, which was as fine a group of men as he could entice from all over the country. Each student was required to have a horse and to arise every morning at 6 to groom and feed it and rake out its corral. The horse was our sole means of transportation to the school’s beach house in Carpinteria five miles away, and many of the town’s shops had hitching rails for us to tie our mounts to. We used to race our horses through the lemon orchards and swim them through the ocean waves and ride them into the mountains for weekend camping trips, which were often led by Cate on his bay mare.

“I considered that trips over the mountains and into the canyons and ranges beyond were an important part of the boys’ education,” Cate wrote. “They would grow self-reliant, ready to rough it, prompt in emergencies, and fond of the open country.”

Gymkhana was a competitive part of our young lives. Described as “a track meet on horses,” gymkhana involves a variety of events--picking up an orange or a sack on a turn at a dead run, tilting at rings, hard-fought dashes, and relays. Our rival was the prestigious Thatcher School in Ojai; in 24 meetings in 29 years, Cate won the gymkhana 15 times. Due to the encroachment of the automobile, the increase of paved roads in the countryside around the school and the rising costs of maintaining horses, the program was made optional in 1939 and was finally phased out altogether in the mid-1940s.

Cate was saddened by the loss but quickly set about devising new ways to achieve the purpose the horse program had served: “I am afraid that we have failed to see that neither a horse, nor a gymnasium, nor all the games of the world, are all that are necessary, in addition to our studies, to prepare us for life in the world.”

He therefore initiated the Work Program, whereby every boy had to contribute six hours weekly of productive labor--

everything from road building and bricklaying to plumbing, gardening and the raising of farm animals.

“Here we lead no soft life,” Cate stated. “We live and work in cold rooms, we use cold water, we rise early, we work with our hands as well as our brains.”


The somewhat Spartan life of the school during Cate’s long reign was a shock to many of the students, most of whom came then, as now, from affluent homes; graduates of a certain age still talk of Cate’s fanaticism for early-morning cold showers--there simply was no hot water. (Until he was almost 90, he would swim in the ocean or an unheated pool no matter what the weather.)

What was he like, this esteemed educator? As an undergraduate, I was in awe of him--his strict presence was felt everywhere on the Mesa at all times. But he knew every boy thoroughly, was always ready to listen to a problem and was respected by everyone. He was sandy-haired and blue-eyed, bayonet straight, always immaculately dressed whether in jodhpurs and boots or Brooks Brothers gabardine. He spoke precisely, with an almost English accent. His was a perfect voice for reading the classics aloud, and this he did to the entire school every evening after dinner: Joseph Conrad, Kipling, Dickens. After this ritual, he and Kate Cate, his wife with the all-encompassing heart, would say good night to each and every student.

“The King,” as he was known behind his back, could be kind and even amusing--he chuckled a good deal, I remember--but he was usually aloof and Olympian. Even when I served on the faculty in the late ‘70s, I was never tempted to slap him on the back and tell him the latest joke. He was a demanding man, and one always hoped to be at one’s very best when around him. Stanley Woodworth, a faculty member since 1948, says: “Yes, he was imperious and regal--but that’s what kings are supposed to be. You should not infer from this that he was not revered, respected and loved by the boys and teachers for the 40 years he was its headmaster. He had principles he would not compromise, and he had a genuine interest in each boy, which did not come to an end when the boy left the Mesa, but followed him wherever he went.”

Cate retired to study, write and travel, but his house was only 100 yards from the school, and his influence, reverence for learning and inspiration was felt by each of the four subsequent headmasters. His boundless energy and vitality was incredible; he was nearing 90 when I last saw him, striding down the steep hill from the Mesa, swinging his cane jauntily, his white porkpie hat cocked over one eye. When I asked how he was, he replied vigorously in his rarefied voice: “Bawd, Bahny, bawd!”

But he was never bored for long. In a few weeks he was off to Jerusalem and then to Ireland to visit William Roth, a beloved graduate, who has told me that Cate had to be restrained from joining the other guests when they rode to the hounds. I saw Roth at Cate’s funeral in 1976, held in the chapel on the Mesa named after the redoubtable Kate Cate. There were hundreds of devoted former students, many distinguished, many Angelenos and Pasadenans from my era, Dohenys, Morphys, Royces, and some names associated with the arts and film--Tibbett, Klemperer, Barthelmess, McLaglen, De Mille--all of whom had in some way had their lives shaped by Cate and his school.

Cate’s school today, physically and otherwise, is not the one that I attended. There have been vast changes, some say for the worse, some for the better. Apart from the basics, there is also an extensive computer program, a good art department and lively theater in an up-to-date auditorium. Everyone seems to agree that making the school co-ed in 1981 was a step for the better, a radical change pushed through the conservative board of trustees by the current headmaster, Scott McLeod. This year, there are 116 girls and 130 boys, in very separate dormitories, and few of the dire consequences some predicted have come to pass.

The student body is a mix far more diverse racially, internationally and economically than in my day; increased scholarship funds enable many students from low-income families to afford the Cate experience. More than 10% are minorities and about 20% are receiving financial aid.

Beautiful view and fancy buildings notwithstanding, the teachers are what make the school. Traditionally products of New England prep schools, the faculty members have always been superb, as witness the record of graduates’ acceptance to top colleges and universities. “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach,” as Chaucer--and Cate--used to say.


On the subject of teaching and its rewards, old-timer Stanley Woodworth likes to quote Louis Auchincloss’s Rector of Justin, a dead ringer for the Rector of Cate, saying to a young man: “The older I get the more I realize that the only thing a teacher has to go on is that rare spark in a boy’s eye. And when you see that, Brian, you’re an ass if you worry where it comes from, whether it’s an Ode of Horace or an Icelandic saga or something that goes bang in a laboratory.”