Gathered in a circle Monday around the school’s fountain, 220 students at Marymount of Santa Barbara held up their drawings.
Most of them pictured a sturdy orange cat, drawn in crayon, markers or paint.
Many of the students drew themselves with Rex, the cat that had become a staple on the campus since becoming a refugee from the Jesusita Fire in 2009.
The cat found his home on campus, wandering in and out of classrooms, walking with students to class, napping in hallways, ingratiating himself as the school’s silent guardian.
Beloved by the students, Rex became something of a phenomenon, with local television station KEYT doing a story on the cat that was picked up by ABC and aired nationally. Rex became the subject of many projects during art class, immortalizing himself in mosaics and paintings.
The cat even became the star of a book published by Lucky Penny Press, written by Marymount parent Hilary Doubleday and illustrated by students. Proceeds from the sale of the book went to Marymount to care for Rex.
That’s how he remained until Marymount Head of School Andrew Wooden sent an email to parents in August explaining that “Rex’s good, long, triumphant life has come to an end.”
“Rex was taken from behind by a large bird of prey without suffering and without knowing what happened,” Wooden wrote. “Marymount is such a special community to have been adopted by this special and exceptional cat. Rex was a gift, a friend, a comforter and a teacher to all.”
On Monday, students gathered to celebrate the cat’s life, and his ashes were buried in the school’s meditation garden with a memorial plaque marking the spot.
The memorial also coincided with the school’s annual honoring of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, when the students are encouraged to honor the role that pets have in their lives, Wooden said.
The loss of Rex presented “an opportunity for adults to teach kids about loss and gratitude,” he said.
Nancy Shinn, Marymount’s lower school secretary, cared for the cat and even had a cat door into her office by which Rex could come in whenever he wanted to nap in his bed.
It is not a small thing to be chosen by an animal, she told the students gathered around during Monday’s event.
Indeed, Rex had chosen Marymount as his home, and in turn the students grew to love him in return.
After the 2009 fire burned the home of his former owner, Dorothy Sewell, Rex relocated with her to an apartment across the street from the school. Sewell could not be at Monday’s event, but Shinn read a note from her to the students.
Because he moved into the neighborhood during the summer when the students were gone, Rex would stray into town, near the Mission and generally roam all over, Sewell said. But the first day of school, Rex was on campus as students flooded back.
“School started and Rex found where he belonged, with his children,” she wrote. “He adopted Marymount, and in so doing, he found his life’s work where he could give and receive the most love and comfort.”
One of the school’s learning specialists, Matt Kustura, even wrote a blues song that he played Monday about how Rex had fled the mountain in the shadow of the flames and how he was a cat who loved to roam.
Educators at the school decided to design an educational lesson around Monday’s event, which tied into one of the school’s pillars of ethical community, Wooden said.
Wooden recalled a Sunday afternoon in November 2010, while touring the campus for the first time when he interviewed for the school’s head position, that Rex was there to greet him.
“Rex was there the whole tour and went in and out of every classroom with us,” he said.
Molly Seguel, the school’s director of admissions, laughingly called Rex her “best friend” because potential students touring the school would meet Rex and immediately be charmed by the cat.
She said she was thankful that the incident happened over the summer, giving parents time to talk with their kids about what happened.
That way, she said, Monday’s event could focus on the celebration of the cat’s life.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.