Monday, June 23, 2008

Celebration honors life of late Sam Wake


The passion of Selmer “Sam” Wake, known to many as the father of adult education at Santa Barbara City College, filled the auditorium at the Wake Center yesterday as hundreds gathered to celebrate his life.
Many shared poignant and heartfelt stories about the man who served as the face of continuing education in Santa Barbara for more than 60 years. More than a few elicited chuckles from the audience.
And although they often varied, the stories carried several unequivocal through-lines: Wake was a fighter with three burning passions — his wife, Bee, his son, Donald, and adult education.

“Sam was a bulldog, no question,” said Hal Thornton, an emeritus board member of the Foundation for SBCC who worked closely with Wake.
Many trace his passion back to his childhood. Born in Pierpont, S. D., on Aug. 2, 1914, Wake was the second of seven children and became an orphan at age 6 when his parents died.
His courage only seemed to grow from there, said Peter MacDougall, president emeritus of SBCC, speaking via video at yesterday’s celebration.
“He felt very strongly about everything he undertook,” MacDougall said. “…He knew what it took to win.”
Wake’s values reflect for many the values of the Old West¬ — wisdom, strength and fierce integrity that inspired fierce loyalty.
Coming to Santa Barbara on the tail end of the Great Depression, in 1939, Wake taught at Santa Barbara Junior High for seven years.
But it wasn’t until he took a job as the assistant director of what was then known as the Community Institute — becoming director of adult education one year later, in 1947 — that he found his true calling.
“Mr. Adult Ed himself,” Maryellen Kelley, director of the Omega Program, said with a chuckle.
During his 25 years at the helm of the continuing education program, Wake found tremendous joy in expanding courses to include music, liberal arts and parent-child workshops.
His belief that access to learning should never end fueled his desire to create one of the finest adult education programs in the state.
And although he officially retired in 1972, Wake never lost his touch on the program or the community college itself. In fact, a great portion of his contributions to the school came after his retirement.
Just one year after handing over the reins, he successfully coordinated a $3.8 million bond campaign needed to acquire the 34-acre parcel that now houses the West Campus, earning the support of the voters even as similar bond issues failed across the state.
As the adult ed program flourished, a need grew for facilities to house the courses. Wake resolved to find a way to support his passion financially.
Never afraid of a confrontation, he took up the fight with all comers, including state officials, in a search for funding. Wake’s token animal was the turtle, Kelley said, due to his belief that he had to stick his neck out to get anywhere.
Thornton, who had arrived in Santa Barbara with no education and met Wake after taking adult ed courses and finding the program to be a shining light in his life, came along for the ride.
“I had become Sam’s Exhibit A of what adult ed could do,” Thornton said.
But with public funds earmarked away from continuing education, Wake had to find another viable option.
Hence the Foundation for Santa Barbara City College. After recruiting the first board of directors, Wake served as its executive director for the first seven years.
Naturally, he asked Thornton to join the foundation and continue to tell his success story, but had some difficulty coming up with a position for him.
“I said, maybe I could serve as a horrible example,” Thornton said. “Sam said, that’s a good one, we’ll use it.”
Along the way, Wake helped negotiate the purchase of Cathedral Oaks Elementary School in 1978. In recognition of his contributions to the school and community, officials renamed the facility the Selmer O. Wake Continuing Education Center in 1984.
He also played a role in acquiring Garfield School on West Padre Street, now known as the Alice F. Schott Center, as a continuing education facility.
Even in retirement, his passion for adult education reigned. School officials constantly received phone calls and emails from Wake, advice that often carried the threat of dealing with him if he didn’t get his way.
“To say that’s not the way Sam would want to do it was enough to strike terror into the heart,” said Dr. Kathryn Alexander, a trustee of SBCC since 1965.
But Sam always seemed to be having a good time, she added.
“He would always greet you with that great smile,” Alexander said. “…Knowing Sam was a privilege for all of us.”
Pat Snyder, now president of the Continuing Education Advisory Council, met Wake 14 years ago when she started as a fundraiser with the Foundation for SBCC.
After having dinner with him shortly after starting, Snyder found herself under Wake’s wing — his two books, one a general history of the college and the other a history of the adult education program, became mandatory reading.
And when Snyder visited Wake in his final days, nothing struck her more than his bright, gleaming blue eyes and his strong voice.
“Sam completed his life the same way he started it,” she said. “Strong, in control, confident. … We know that he died in peace, on his own terms, and now he is reunited with his sweet Bee.”
Wake died on May 28 at the age of 93.
As the audience joined in a rendition of “Oh, Danny Boy,” swapping in “Sammy” instead, many could be seen wiping tears from their eyes.
Thornton, whose name graces the auditorium where the celebration took place, said those visiting the building should not be surprised to feel his presence for generations to come.
“Sam is not gone,” he said. “His spirit will roam this campus here. … He will never leave this program.”

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