Some Thoughts on a Great Thacher Teacher and on Schools Old and New, East and West

F. Washington “Tony” Jarvis
Tony Jarvis, headmaster emeritus of The Roxbury Latin School, is a longstanding friend of Thacher and the grandson of Curtis Wolsey Cate, founder of Cate School. He offers this reflection on his grandfather's work, the Thacher connection, and the boarding school tradition. 
Some Thoughts on a Great Thacher Teacher
And on Schools Old and New, East and West
 
When a New Englander travels west of Worcester, across the plains and mountains to the Pacific, he seldom afterwards returns for long to New England.  Something fresh and new has caught hold of him in the West – in California.  It took hold of me when I came in 1908 for a year or two and stayed for fifty.[i]
-- Curtis Wolsey Cate
 
 
            Curtis Wolsey Cate, founder and headmaster (1910-50) of Cate School, was one of the true originals in American education.  I am wearing two hats as I reflect on him:
 
            My first hat is that of grandson.  My grandfather graduated from Thacher exactly 100 years ago.  George Patterson Crandall took the long train journey from Westfield, New York to Thacher to join the Class of 1911.  You could not be in my grandfather’s presence long before he would start telling Thacher stories.  It was the great experience of his life.  Cate was a teacher at Thacher when he was a boy, and he invited my grandfather to come and teach at his new school when he graduated from Yale – an opportunity my grandfather regretted turning down.
 
            My second hat is that of headmaster emeritus of The Roxbury Latin School in Boston.  Founded in 1645, Roxbury Latin is the oldest school in continuous existence in North America.  Cate was a graduate of the Class of 1903.
 
             Born in 1884, Curtis grew up in Boston near Roxbury Latin and entered the school at age 11 in 1896.  He was a modestly successful student and athlete, and took female leads each year in the school play. The reviewer in the school newspaper (of which he was editor), wrote, “Cate showed the results of a long and earnest study of the manners and appearance of the fair sex.”[ii]
 
            Cate completed all his academic credits at Harvard by the end of his junior year and as a senior began work for his M.A. in history and political science.  Graduating with his class in 1907, he immediately entered the Harvard Law School, where soon “I felt I was on the wrong track.”[iii] He was searching for something more – though he knew not what.  
 
“Again the thought of going west came to mind, and I wrote a friend in California to ask him if I might join him at the School he proposed to establish….I waited for the assent which came in the spring of 1908; … in the fall of 1908 I crossed the American continent for the first time and reached California.”[iv]   
 
But the new school’s first year was also its last, and the following year Cate went to teach at Thacher.  “The year at Thacher was a happy one.  I admired Sherman Thacher, loved the teaching and camping, and made many lifelong friends.  But 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.”[v]  “First I talked with Mr. Thacher.  He advised experience in eastern schools; I wrote to three, but found no opening.”[vi]  
 
Crossing the Ojai on horseback, Cate discovered and leased a large ranch house in Santa Barbara’s Mission Canyon.  “Perhaps the happiest auspices under which a new school can be started are a large endowment, a strong board of trustees, a dedicated schoolmaster and a devoted wife, and a host of friends. Three young graduates of Harvard, with no endowment, unmarried, unknown in Santa Barbara, boldly ventured into schoolmastering.”[vii]  Joining Curtis and Karl was Brainerd Gring, Harvard track star.  Cate scurried around, trying to meet eminent (and well-to-do) men who would send their boys to his new school.  A dozen boys enrolled – nine boarders and three day boys – some of whom were so young they would be in the school seven years before graduating.
 
            Cate’s educational philosophy was remarkably simple: “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….”[viii]  
 
            “That first year, Karl Cate shared the sleeping porch and dressing room of six little boys, and I supervised the rest, domiciled near my room.”[ix]  Even though, during Christmas vacation, the three masters repaired the roof and added canvas curtains, the sleeping porch was often soaked throughout the rainy season.
 
Copying Thacher, Cate purchased a horse for every boy.  Boys had to take care of their horses, and rode every day.  The ocean (for swimming) and the school’s only athletic field could be reached only by horseback.  Weekends were often spent camping at distant sites.  Five new boarders joined the school after Christmas, but the school nevertheless lost its first baseball game that spring to Thacher 60-4! 
 
The first year was too much for Cate’s colleagues: his brother and Gring both quit.  Undaunted, Cate forged ahead with almost supernatural stamina. He moved the school to the Stewart Walcott Ranch in Carpinteria and renamed it the Santa Barbara School.  He might more accurately have called it “Sparta.” The ranch had no electricity or hot running water – and only two bathrooms.
 
School life was scheduled around the horses: “Up in the morning at the First Bell, out of pajamas, into blue jeans, on the run down to the stables before the Second Bell, to curry our horses and clean their stalls; cold and dark on winter mornings, warm and bare-backed in the spring; then, all aglow, back up the hill, eager for a cold shower and breakfast.”[x]
 
The annual gymkhana with Thacher quickly became each school year’s most important event.  Masters and boys also built a dirt tennis court.  “Another resource of the ranch was a reservoir, where the boys could swim and play water polo of an afternoon.  On Saturdays and Sundays [they rode their horses five miles to the ocean beach]…Bathing suits were unnecessary.  A naked boy galloping bareback along the beach was so much a part of the animal as to suggest a young centaur….”[xi]
 
Cate observed: “I know of no better means of keeping boys in good health than exposure to sun and rain, fresh air and cold water, sleep in open rooms or on the ground, early rising, vigorous exercise, and good food.”[xii]  Since he lived the same healthy life, the “sandy-haired and blue-eyed, bayonet straight”[xiii] headmaster retained his “lean, ascetic”[xiv] physique until he died at 91.
 
During the school’s first four years, “all the teachers were unmarried; we lived in the dormitories and supervised the boys day and night; taught them, as one mother said to me, ‘how to tie their ties,’ how to make their beds, how to bathe and change their linen, how to live and play together, how to study and to work and perhaps how to meet youth’s daily trials and temptations, disappointments and sorrows. We were always going on camping trips with them. Many a weekend three or four parties went over the mountains with as many teachers.”[xv]
 
            Most boys fell in love with the natural beauty of southern California. When we read about how the boys were be able to pursue their special interests – one boy was an early radiotelegraphy genius – we are struck by the amount of free time they had in contrast to the frantically pressured lives led by students in fine schools today.  Boys who are given free time will also invent amusements, such as tunneling through bales of hay, as Cate’s boys did.  The school had its Spartan aspects, but in many ways it was an adolescent utopia.
 
            “[E]very evening after dinner Mr. Cate sat by the fire in the school living room and read aloud to the boys and teachers….When he finished reading, Mr. Cate stood by the door, shook each boy’s hand, and [bade] him goodnight.  Woe to him whose handshake was flabby; woe to him whose eye was shifty…”[xvi]
 
 In the summer of 1919 – after World War I had ended – buildings were added and enrollment leapt form 25 to 40.  With increased numbers, the school’s fortunes improved in conventional sports – and in 1921, after 12 years of competition, the boys  managed its first victory over Thacher in baseball. 
 
Though the school increased in numbers, it remained loyal to its distinctive culture.  Cate writes: “On his horse a boy could ride a great distance from the school.  Before he started, he informed the teacher-in-charge where he proposed to ride on an afternoon or Saturday or Sunday, but once off the school grounds he was his own master; it was left to him to behave himself, to obey school rules, to be a good neighbor, and to return to School on time….I considered that trips over the mountains and into the canyons and ranges beyond were an important part of the boys’ education; they would grow self-reliant, ready to rough it, prompt in emergencies, and fond of the open country.”[xvii]  There were some harrowing accidents and some heroic rescues, but Cate never doubted that the risk was worth taking. No modern school head would dream of taking such risks.
 
Every second of Cate’s life was devoted to the school.  Not until 1920 – when he ceased sharing the sleeping porch with the youngest students, did he have any privacy.  In 1923, he began courting Mrs. Katharine (“Kate”) Thayer Russell, the mother of one of his students whose father had died in the war.   They were married in June 1924, and a new home was built for them, at the top of the mesa.  It included a large library where Sunday vesper services were held.  Kate and Curtis dined with the boys every night except Saturday, when they invited a small group of senior boys to their house.
 
The boys had always called Cate “the King,” so Kate quickly became “the Queen.”.  Long-time faculty member Stanley Woodworth describes the Queen’s influence on the King:
 
She alone could – and would – stand up to him, whether in private or in public.  When it was in public, the scenario never varied: 1) Mrs. Cate criticizes Mr. Cate’s policy and suggests alternatives; 2) Mr. Cate rejects both criticism and suggestion, angrily and loudly;  3) two weeks pass, and Mr. Cate changes the policy as suggested.[xviii]
 
Cate’s school was, obviously, considerably different in feel from the established eastern schools.  But it was traditional in two ways.  Reflecting his profound Christian faith, Cate began every school day as he had begun it as a schoolboy at Roxbury Latin – with the Lord’s Prayer, readings from the Bible, and a hymn. The academic curriculum was also traditional -- that of the classical school he had attended as a boy. “There was nothing ‘progressive’ about my school.  I made the boys study Latin and French, and some of them Greek and German and Spanish; a lot of history and a little science; the usual mathematics; and always music, singing, drawing and, for some of them, painting.”[xix] Classes were conducted with considerable formality.[xx] There was no nonsense about calling teachers by their first names.
 
            A boy who arrived at Cate in the 1970’s, from a public high school in Fresno, recalls his first day at the school. The headmaster announced that the Founder, “Mr. Cate himself, is with us”:
 
And there he was, looking to us about 130 years old, sitting in the wing chair before the fire, with his elbows on his knees and his cane under his chin, staring off into space.  And this is what Mr. Cate said very slowly and ponderously: ‘This morning, when I awoke, it was gloomy and gray. But about noon, as the first new boys were arriving, the clouds broke and the sun broke through, from Gaviota to the Rincon, as if to bid you welcome.’
 
Every kid in the room was transfixed.  It was just like a Cecil B. DeMille film. We had no idea what ‘Gaviota’ and ‘the Rincon’ were, but to us this man sounded like God.[xxi]


[i] Curtis Wolsey Cate, School Days in California, 3
[ii] The Tripod, vol. xv, no. 7 (April 1903), 7
[iii] Report of the Class of 1907 at Harvard College, 1922
[iv] Sixth Report of the Class of 1907 at Harvard College, 1932
[v] Cate, School Days, 4
[vi] Cate, School Days, 4
[vii] Cate, School Days, 4
[viii] Barnaby Conrad, quoting CWC, in “The Olympian Mr. Cate,” Los Angeles Times Magazine, August 30, 1987, 5
[ix] Cate, School Days, 6
[x] William S. Prince, Curtis Wolsey Cate, One Schoolboy’s Reflections, 19
[xi] Cate, School Days, 11
[xii] Collins and Harbison, eds., Mr. Cate’s School, 1-2
[xiii] Conrad, “The Olympian,” 34
[xiv] Conrad, “The Olympian,” 5
[xv] Cate, School Days, 12.  But see the chapter entitled “Camping” in the same book (188ff.) for CWC’s rhapsodic account of camping and fishing trips in the early years.
[xvi] Stanley Woodworth, “The School that Cate Built,” reprinted from Santa Barbara Magazine, undated, unpaginated. 
[xvii] Cate, School Days, 31
[xviii] Woodworth, “The School that  Cate Built”
[xix] Eleventh Report of the Class of 1907 at Harvard College, 1957
[xx] See Collins and Harbison, eds., Mr. Cate’s School, 11-12
[xxi] Stanley D. Woodworth, Glad to Remember, Cate School, 1960-1985, 15

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