A strong wind could knock him over. The kids playing in the schoolyard almost do. But never mind; at 91, Father Ernest Sillers is still a force. As he walks the campus of St. Mary's and All Angels School in Aliso Viejo, one of four--soon to be five--Southland schools that the retired Episcopal priest has founded over the last four decades, children flock to him, locking him in exuberant hugs. They seem to know, if only instinctively, that he is their tireless advocate.
Since retiring from the priesthood 26 years ago, he has made educating children his mission. Retirement was boring, he recalls, so he kept asking God what else he could do. The answer he got was: Save My Children.
"He's the Father Junipero Serra of schools," says Mark Campaigne, headmaster of one of Sillers' schools, St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano. And when it comes to garnering parental support, Campaigne dubs him "the Pied Piper."
Wearing a cleric's collar and a white baseball cap with a surfing logo, a navy pinstriped suit and a plastic digital watch, Sillers has a foot in at least two worlds: the world of children and the world of business.
"I saw a need for schools to develop children into the person God wanted them to be--strong in academic and moral development with an emphasis on values. When a school mingles values with the precepts of education, it makes a difference in homes. It makes a difference in the community, and if you get enough going, it makes a difference in the world."
Though he's angered more than a few over the years, his work draws mostly praise. Advocates see a guy with incredible vision, even in his waning years, making a difference in the beleaguered state of education. Detractors say his drive to forge ahead is sometimes at others' expense. From a construction site behind him rises a $4.5-million gym due to open next month. To Sillers, however, the gym is history. When he looks at it, he envisions the high school that this campus, which now goes only to eighth grade, might now accommodate with a gym in place.
"He's always two steps ahead," says Diane De Corpo Fuller, headmaster of St Mary's. "Because of his age, some people wrongly think he's out of touch, but he's not. He knows the pulse of the parents, of the kids, of the whole environment. He's still the one I go to for advice on tough questions."
Twice, De Corpo Fuller, who has worked with Sillers for 15 years, has stood with him on dirt lots that he promised, despite a lack of funds, would soon become schools. They did. By now, his knack for starting schools with no money is legendary.
"He's quite willing to take a lot of risk based on faith," says Ruben Ingram, a former superintendent of schools and the man Sillers has tapped to run his next project: Sillers College, which, if he gets his way, will open in Aliso Viejo in the fall. "Some of us more pragmatic types don't move until we have a strategic plan and the money. He moves from a different mind-set, which makes the rest of us look like sticks in the mud."
"When Noah started building his ark, people gathered and made fun of him too," says Sillers, who often talks in parables. "God has called me to do this, and people laugh when I start a school on faith. But they didn't laugh when my board [at St. Mary's] and I recently got a $10.2-million bond for 30 years at 11/2% [interest]," he said, just a little smugly.
Apart from that bond, funding for his schools comes from private donations and loans from the diocese, which the schools repay in 15 years.
From the playground at St. Mary's, Sillers heads to his office, located in one of several temporary buildings on campus. A slight man with a demeanor reminiscent of that of famed UCLA Coach John Wooden, Sillers sits at his rather unseemly desk shuffling through papers looking, through large tortoiseshell glasses, for his "vision," his action plan.
It's written, sort of Ten Commandments style, on two large sheets of construction paper. The words and pages are super-sized so he can read them. Diagnosed 20 years ago with macular degeneration, a progressive disease that erodes eyesight, Sillers doesn't let a little blindness get in his way.
On the pages he's outlined the three parcels of land he intends to buy to fulfill his next set of goals: land for a Sillers High School adjacent to the St. Mary's campus; land for Sillers College; and the property for an education-based retirement home. With his existing schools, these projects would complete his "cradle to grave" educational community.
"Mine is not a tiny vision," says Sillers. Coming from anyone else, these plans would have the hollow ping of a pipe dream, but Sillers' track record makes people take him seriously.
"I've asked God for nine more years. I don't know if he'll grant them, but that's what I'll need to finish my work here."