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

August 30, 1987|BARNABY CONRAD | Barnaby Conrad's most recent book is "Time Is All We Have: Four Weeks at the Betty Ford Center."

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."

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