Sam Wake

Selmer ‘Sam’ Wake

Adult Education Pioneer

Adult education ain’t for sissies-or underwater basket weavers. You should have asked Sam Wake. During his 25 years at the helm of Santa Barbara’s adult ed program-from 1946 to 1972, Wake had to go toe-to-toe with hostile state legislators who wanted to gut funding for his program, right-wing flag-wavers with the John Birch Society who charged his programs were promoting communism, and a pervasive attitude throughout the community that adult education did not deserve to be taken seriously. “It’s the most important education there is,” said Wake, interviewed at age 92. “No grades, no degrees, no credits-just the joy of learning.”

When Wake moved to Santa Barbara in 1939 to be a junior high school teacher, adult education was very different. Mostly it involved business classes, typing, shorthand, and other utilitarian skills. But Wake, a born wheeler-dealer endowed with obvious PR skills, expanded both the number of classes and subject matter considerably. “I spread it out,” he said, offering both classes and forums on politics, history, literature, and current events. During the height of the Cold War, Wake sponsored forums on communism and there were lines to the sidewalk.

When Wake took over the program, it had 1,500 students; when he retired in 1972, there were 13,000. And today, there are no less than 50,000. “A lot of talented people have taken it a long way,” he said. “Back when I was still in charge, we did a study of all adult ed classes in California, and you know, we never found a single class in underwater basket weaving.”

Even in retirement, Wake remained exceptionally active and productive, playing a major role in the bond measures that secured City College’s West Campus and the two adult education centers, one of which bears his name.