Almost 20 years ago, Sam’ Horton's wife Martha saw an article in the Press Democrat about a new high school that would open the following year in Santa Rosa. Martha showed it to Sam, who at the time was commuting from their home in Forestville to University High School in the city and she said, “Sam, this is the school for you.” Sam knew it was a good idea to listen to Martha, as she was a woman of strong will and good common sense.
So, because of Martha, this blue-eyed wizard was sitting across from me in the little corporate office that had been lent to us in the Airport Business Park. It was one of many early signs that magic, serendipity, and good fortune would shine on our school. I couldn’t believe that this amazing educator, who had been a founding teacher at UHS, with expertise in Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science, and California Natural History, was willing to leave his prestigious, stable job for something uncertain. Over the course of the next year, Sam joined Ellie, Jamie, Hillary, and me for a series of meetings in Hillary’s San Francisco apartment and Ellie’s barn to begin to dream our school into being.
The party we had last weekend for Sam made his retirement a little more real than I have allowed it to be in my mind to date. But the time has come to recognize Sam’s almost half century of teaching, during which he has reached generations of students (literally -- several of the children of Sam’s first students at UHS showed up as students at Sonoma Academy, to both their parents’ and Sam’s surprise and delight).
Back at the barn in the year before we opened, Sam jumped right into creating our interdisciplinary curriculum. Well before STEM became “a thing,” Sam had a vision of how a high school program could inspire reverence and care for our planet by teaching students to see the relationships and interdependence of biological, physical, social, and cultural phenomena--the great "web of life,” all of which, by the way, is abundantly displayed in Sam’s classroom: snakes, turtles, fish, and fish eggs, and at the other end of the life cycle, taxidermy, lovingly preserved by Sam himself.
Sam founded our Vision Quest program, where the natural world becomes a mirror for the inner, helping our seniors see who they are in ways that allow them to go forth with greater direction and clarity.
When the school moved from our first home, in the Luther Burbank Center, to the new campus at Taylor Mountain, Sam turned towards the mountain and made it into his textbook and syllabus, cajoling scores of sleepy teens out of their seats and onto the mountain, amongst the flora and fauna.
Earlier this year, Humanities teacher Colin McNamara was unexpectedly asked to teach a science class at Kawana Elementary, one of our neighborhood partner schools. He sent an email, asking if Sam just might have a microscope and maybe a couple of animal or plant slides. Sam replied, “the bacteria are not so interesting visually, but I have both microscopic and dissection scopes of plants, animals, and fungi. I will be glad to set up a 'to go' kit. How many are needed?”
Right up to the end, Sam keeps showing up with this same kind of “Samlam-ness.” You won’t be surprised to hear that he was one of the first to sign up to bring food to his retirement party. When we wrote back and told him he wasn't supposed to bring food to his own party, he responded as follows: “I wish to honor all of those incredible educators and friends I have been inspired by and have worked with from one to 18 years. I just don't want to receive without giving back (my world view). Happy to be a contributor to a community, a shared potluck, and a celebration of what we share in our collective histories...signed, SamIam.”
It's hard to imagine walking across campus and not meeting Sam's twinkly eyes, believing that he sees me, and that no matter what kind of day he has had, he will have time for me. I know am not alone feeling this way. The school’s heartbeat is synchronized with Sam's great heart, and we will have to strengthen ourselves very deliberately to manage without him. He reminds us why we’re here: love. And this we must not forget.
I’d like to finish with words from one of our students who did a profile of Sam in the school paper: “Every day, this community can count on Sam to be present with a great big smile and a gleam in his eyes. He is one of the people who has shaped SA into what it is today, and for that, Sonoma Academy is incredibly grateful.”
We are honoring Sam in a simple way that I hope will serve as some measure of our gratitude. Every year, the school applies almost $1 million in financial aid to approximately 40 STEM scholars. From now on, this will be known as the Horton Stem Scholarship Fund and they will be the Horton STEM Scholars. Thank you, Sam.