As one of the world’s most talented underwater photographers, Ernie Brooks has traveled the world in search of images to capture, but he has always come back home to Santa Barbara. Last Friday, Oct. 26, Brooks came back to another home, the Alameda Padre Serra campus that formerly housed his Brooks Institute of Photography. Today, thanks to Brooks’ generosity and the hard work of many others, the campus is home to Santa Barbara Middle School.
The school announced that its multimedia arts center would be renamed in his honor as the Brooks Innovation Lab.
“I’ve received awards from countries around the world,” Brooks told the student body and staff assembled for their traditional Friday town meeting. “I’ve been honored in France, Australia, Germany, New Zealand and more. But this is the most proud day for me, to be with you. I feel like I’m really home.”
The campus became SBMS’ home in the fall of 2011 after a unique meeting between Brooks and school headmaster Brian McWilliams that began and ended with a handshake.
“I was expecting a more formal meeting,” McWilliams recalled, “but Brooks suggested we should just get a cup of coffee at the IHOP.”
Enthralled with the school’s mission of discovery and finding a shared love of the ocean and its creatures, Brooks chose SBMS over many other suitors to take over the lease on the historic building. SBMS actually marks the third generation of education at the site, starting with the building’s original incarnation as the Jefferson Elementary School and followed for three decades by Brooks’ eponymous institute.
“I was looking for a school that would continue the spirit of soulful and innovative education that was once championed here on this campus,” Brooks said. “Santa Barbara Middle School fit the bill perfectly.”
Since signing the lease agreement in 2011, Brooks has not been a stranger to the students and staff at SBMS. He has met with them to discuss the notion of a calling, and shared his ideals about the challenge and reward of a life lived with passion, which for Brooks centers on photography, education and the ocean. In fact, the ceremony on Oct. 26 culminated with a beautiful and moving slide show of Brooks’ work that he narrated to an awestruck room.
Brooks and Santa Barbara Middle School also share a deep and personal admiration, love and friendship with another world-renowned underwater photographer, Mike DeGruy, who died last year on location while filming in Australia with James Cameron. It was Mike and Mimi DeGruy who had the connection with Brooks and SBMS, and encouraged the deal.
At that now-famous IHOP meeting, the synergy was quickly evident.
“Over that first cup of coffee at IHOP, we spent the whole time talking about children, innovative education, and the power of the ocean and the Channel Islands as the perfect classroom,” McWilliams said.
Also present at the meeting was Brooks’ wife, Pat. As an integral part of the work of the Brooks Institute and a great lover of nature, she asked that SBMS remember the birds that she so loved to see on the Institute campus. So shortly after the multimedia arts center was named for her husband, she was literally moved to tears when McWilliams unveiled a new birdbath in her honor located right outside her old office at the school, engraved with the Immanuel Kant quote: “We can judge the heart of a person by their treatment of animals.“
One of Brooks’ amazing black-and-white underwater images hangs on the wall of the new Brooks Innovation Lab. With it is a quote that SBMS feels sums up the unique connection between their school and its generous friend: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
For the next couple of decades, thousands of students will open their eyes to new discoveries and new landscapes in the solid white building on the Riviera, a longtime home to education and dreams.
— Jim Buckley represents Santa Barbara Middle School.