With its sweeping views of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands, Jefferson Campus would have been a welcome home to any number of organizations. Yet Ernie chose SBMS. Read on to learn more about the connection that inspired one of the largest donations the Santa Barbara independent school community has ever had.
Ernie & SBMS: A Shared Mission
In 2011, Ernie and Santa Barbara Middle School (SBMS) Head of School Brian McWilliams met for a cup of coffee at IHOP. Ernie was looking for a group who could continue using Jefferson Campus – vacant after 30 years of housing Brooks Institute – as a place to inspire education and adventure. Brian was hoping to find a permanent home for the independent school he led.
As the two began to swap stories, parallels in their lifework arose:
Oceans of Wonder
Ernie described his life-long passion for the ocean, taking his first dives off the Channel Islands in the 1940's and pioneering the art of underwater photography, which he used to document wildlife and shifts occurring in the ocean. Brian shared how SBMS created a Channel Islands education program, dedicated to including week-long camping trips with a strong conservation component. This drive to explore, learn about, and protect the ocean was in fact what had brought the two men together through a mutual connection, late documentary filmmaker Mike deGruy. A champion of the school's ocean education, deGruy's children attended SBMS, and he was a long-time friend of Ernie through diving and underwater cinematography work. The Channel Islands curriculum had been created in his honor.
Ernie relayed his passion for giving back in all aspects of life and continually striving to make a difference. Brian shared the course assignments, service learning, outdoor experiences, and more that encourage SBMS students to approach the world with an eye for what they can contribute, an attitude reflected in one of the school's motto, "Because of them, us. Because of us, them."
Lens of Education
Ernie gave an account of the 30 years he spent leading Brooks Institute, guiding students to use photography and film as mediums for life-long learning, exploration, and wonder. Brian outlined how, in roughly the same time span, SBMS had pursued a mission to "cultivate in students a passion for life and life-long learning." In more recent years, the school had developed a Teen Press program, engaging students in journalistic reporting and filming around the country.
The longer the men talked, the more it became apparent that Ernie and SBMS had unknowingly traveled parallel paths – pursuing the same mission, in the same city – for over three decades. Ernie had found the perfect tenants for Jefferson Campus.
Ernie immediately became a regular visitor on campus, soaking in the new energy coursing through the halls. He inspired students with impromptu stories of his worldwide adventures, consulted on new educational programs, and delighted in children's own accounts of pursuing global philanthropic endeavors, championing conservation, and photographing the waters around Channel Islands.
In December of 2014, McWilliams received a Christmas card with an unexpected proposal from Ernie. Going beyond the 30-year lease that was already in place, Ernie had decided to hand over a certificate of title to Jefferson Campus. After nearly 40 years, Santa Barbara Middle School had found a permanent home. And Ernie had found one more outlet to ensure that his legacy of passionately pursuing life, exploring with a sense of wonder, and protecting the natural world would continue on.
The Santa Barbara Middle School Story
Founded in 1976, Santa Barbara Middle School is a private school with a public purpose, dedicated to creating a nurturing, respectful environment that teaches students how to make a difference in the world through lifelong learning, adventure, and service. Their innovative educational program begins on campus with rigorous academics and an emphasis on compassion, and ventures out into the world with service learning, internships, and outdoor experiences that foster responsibility, wonder, and personal growth. With nearly 35% of students receiving financial aid, the school aims to be as accessible and diverse as possible.