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The Evolution of an Idea
By Richard W. Elliott
May 3, 1965

The History and Philosophy of The Desert Sun School
Idyllwild, California


Dedicated to those Summer Camp counselors, mostly Principians, who voluntarily met with "Edie" and me and our children, Ana Mary and Richard, for two summers every Sunday evening after "taps" and tried to catch a glimpse of the essence of that thing we call "education," and see the place of Desert Sun in the vast educational picture. To Ana Mary, who faithfully kept notes and summaries, I am particularly grateful.


Today, Desert Sun School stands on the threshold of a new era. As a college preparatory boarding school for girls and boys, it has an enviable reputation for academic excellence and leadership training. Although beginning in 1930 with the earliest elementary grades only, Desert Sun students have achieved positions of honor and respect in the business and professional world. Positions in government held by former students include a member of the General Agreements on Trades and Tariffs in Geneva, American Embassy in Southeast Asia, Attorney for one of the nation's leading steel companies, and Vice President for one of the nation's largest public utilities. Desert Sun girls form a stable part of their respective communities as wives of business and professional men of high repute and active in civic and political affairs. In short, Desert Sun students are known for their stability and character and for their contributions to their respective communities.

The Board of Trustees has developed a Master Plan providing adequate class rooms, laboratories, dormitories, dining and kitchen facilities and other improvements needed to care for a student body of 250. They have called in an outstanding group of people as an Advisory Council and with this Council have begun the activation of the program necessary to raise adequate funds to complete it.

To properly evaluate the work of Desert Sun today, it is necessary to understand its origin, its philosophy and its growth. With this in view the Trustees are presenting this pamphlet written some time ago, telling its history and its philosophy.
The Tennessee rancher and his California teacher bride little realized in 1923 that the "Great Spirit" was giving them an "Omen" when a relative sent them an eight-year old boy to raise, two weeks after their marriage. They were given a second boy six weeks later by a prominent educator and asked to straighten him out; and still they could not see the writing on the wall. It was only when Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Elliott's own children were ready for their formal education and the mother remembered her experience in teaching in the local school, a heterogeneous group of forty (and for a while eighty) pupils, many of whom could hardly speak English, that a determination was made to teach the children at home. There in the beautiful Coachella Valley, surrounded by the desert hills on the north and east, the Salton Sea on the south, and the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountains on the west and northwest. The Desert Sun School began. Three other parents joined to make up the first class of five children: Victoria Gonzales, Nancy Russell, Bob Weber, Ana Mary Elliott, and Richard Elliott

The demand for this service was such that the next year, 1930, found Mrs. Elliott and her sister, Mrs. Donald E. Jayne, teaching twelve children in a little tent house at home, instead of going about twenty miles a day to the Russell home where playground equipment was available. This was the formal beginning of the school. The name was chosen later.

A school bus made from a house trailer built on a Model "A" Ford truck and later a Dodge screen delivery which the children lovingly referred to as the "Dog-catcher," were used to transport children to and from school and on long trips into the surrounding hills and up into the mountains. This transportation for day students was abandoned and the financial loss involved was eliminated.

The original tent houses were badly in need of replacement, but it was only when the courageous determination of Mrs. Elliott and Mrs. Jayne enabled them to overcome the fears of the great business depression that the galvanized-iron date-packing house was made into a dormitory; and, with the help of an unemployed contractor and a friendly and "unemployed" lumber yard, the first stucco-frame building was constructed. This was to contain a home for "Edie" and "Dickie," an office, a dining room and kitchen, a living room, a music room, and the "auditorium" in which were held all musicals and plays of every sort.

The school continued to expand until the tent houses were all replaced with frame and stucco houses. There was the Hammond Home, the 80-foot long dormitory, the date-packing house made into a dormitory, the house and living room, and a 50' x 30' stucco schoolhouse.

The demand for expansion was so continuous that a ranch was bought from Mrs. Alphonso Bell and her niece, Mrs. Douglas Waldron, near her desert home at Edom. Six frame houses, about 60' x 39', and formerly used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in trying to grow the guayule plant in the production of natural rubber, were purchased from the Bell Ranch. These were intended for the new "Chuckawalla" ranch and were to be remodeled to make the school complete.

During this period, suggestions had been received to move the school to various places. A complete school near Los Angeles could be bought at a very low price. One parent had land in Hemet. A group of people in Palm Springs wanted the school to become a day school there and offered twenty acres of very fine land, free. Some wanted the school in Palm Springs regardless of whether it was day or boarding school.

Meanwhile the Summer Camp had started in 1932 at Hi-Castle above Saunders Meadow and had grown so that it required more space. The first move was to a lower altitude at Herkey Creek, where a fifteen-acre pasture adjoined the cottages and dining room. After three years there, the Saunders Meadow Lodge, with its forty acres of grounds, was rented. This was bought on contract from Mrs. Leila Braunschweiger in May 1944.

The constant drain upon the school's resources in maintaining three separate places made some readjustment necessary. So, in September 1946, it was decided to remain in Idyllwild and sell the two places in the desert. The struggle which ensued resulted in three dormitory cottages being built by January l, 1947, and a fourth in the following year. This move to the mountains placed The Desert Sun School in one of Southern California's most beautiful locations in the heart of the San Jacinto Mountains. Surrounded by the majestic San Jacinto, Marion and Tahquitz Peaks, with the green of Saunders Meadow as the heart of the campus, Desert Sun enjoys the invigorating climate of 5,600 feet altitude, softened by the sun which has just warmed Palm Springs.

In July 1951, the school was incorporated as a non-profit educational foundation and Mr. K.K. Bechtel and Mr. Ralph G. Lindstrom joined "Edie" and "Dickie" and "Ong" in forming a Board of Trustees. Since that time Mrs. Richard H. Winckler, Mr. Joseph L. Hunter, Mr. B. Rae Sharp, Mr. Grant C. Butler, Judge John G. Gabbert, Mr. Kimmis Hendrick, Mr. Wm. J. Mann, Mr. Richard Steele, Mr. Wm. V. Lawson, Mr. J. Randolph Walker, Jr., and Mr. Floyd Weymouth have served on the Board. $1,250,000.00 has been donated to the school. New fire resistant buildings have been built -- an academic building, a shop building, physics, chemistry, and natural science laboratories, the Lincoln Pool, Patrons' Field House, Hunter Hall for Girls, Richard Hamilton Steele Memorial Gymnasium, (and the Johnson Athletic Field), the New Boys' Dormitory, and the Directors' Home. Six homes and the lots surrounding the campus on the west and south were purchased, bringing the school campus area up to approximately ninety acres. The Douglas Kidston Bourne Memorial Lecture Hall, and a new girls' dormitory will be completed by the fall of 1965.

A splendid corral with thirteen private sections was built and a tack room was bought and moved into place. A six-man cabinet shop sold the school its equipment and the former owner was employed as a workshop instructor. In 1954 he and the school's Maintenance Department, with student body help, built an aluminum shop 50' x 30' to house this splendid equipment. In 1957 a similar maintenance shop was added, adjoining it.

One of the most interesting developments was the formation of the "Desert Sun School Riding Troop." This has been a splendid inspiration in improving the standards of citizenship as well as horsemanship. Standards of eligibility have stiffened and all Troopers have to know how to ride and care for a horse. Many awards and plaques have been won by the Troop.  The academic activities have expanded to include the twelfth grade, and Desert Sun School is now an accredited college preparatory school.

Mr. Elliott, who had been like a father or an uncle to the children, began teaching in 1936. He had been amazed at the rapid growth of the school. He asked Mrs. Elliott and her sister, Helen, to what they attributed the rapid growth. Was the school so much better than other schools? Did the children come for their health? In short, what was the theme of the school? Was it for the "400," the poor, the rich, the problem children, the ill? This was brought into sharp focus when a Summer Camp parent said, "You don't have to sell me your Summer Camp, but why should I send my boy to your Winter School?"

After some years of studying this very interesting problem, Mr. Elliott began to see that they had simply expanded the family life to take in other parents' children, and, instead of sending their own children away to school, they had taught them at home, instead of turning them loose in the afternoon and evening, they had played, ridden and worked with them. The lives of teacher and child were like those of parents and children in a home environment. They began to see that the function of education is the development in the individual of a realization of his spiritual individuality which makes him one with all mankind and which gives him a constant communion with his Creator.
This sense of individuality brings conscious integrity and thereby a moral courage which gives positive freedom to thought and action. It brings with it a true sense of democracy and equality which is an essential for gracious living in which beauty, grandeur, order, and completeness are blending tones.

The family, being the basic unit of civilization, presents the natural channel for the evolution of these ideals. Education, or the unfoldment of man's sense of unity, begins in the family, and, proceeding through harmonious steps, leads to the understanding of universal brotherhood. School, being an integral part of life, is not a burden, and unfolds as a natural and joyous part of family life.
It is the purpose of this school to achieve and perpetuate these ideals.

The greatness of America grew out of individual citizenship responsibility, not only recognized but also accepted. Under the pioneering conditions of our ancestors, a family was often large, and this very largeness made up a greater safety and economy. The family was a unit in which every individual had to share in responsibilities and hardships as well as in pleasures and recreation. One member might contribute the ability of hunting; another the ability of farming; another might contribute knowledge and pass on his or her knowledge in practical teaching of the family. The sewing and cooking were necessary for everyday living. A member not exceptionally gifted in any other way might be a wonderful nurse in time of trouble and such a person was valued far beyond the family itself. So each member was looked to and accepted responsibility for some special contribution.

Our civilization has tended to break up the family ties; to remove the closeness of association; to provide amusements of a cheapening kind outside the family group; to eliminate the sense of responsibilities of children to the family group. The tendency is to substitute the state for the responsibility of the parents.

Desert Sun School attempts to restore to normalcy the large family atmosphere, and to raise children with their teachers and houseparents in a constant association. The same people who guard their morals in the dormitory, their etiquette at the table, and their sportsmanship on the playground, also guide their intellects in the schoolroom and their ethics in family living. Desert Sun feels that the adjustments made between students and between students and their counselors are the same as those made between grown people and their family and business associates. We feel these associations, properly made, will eliminate many of the sources of friction in domestic and public life. In short we would develop self-reliant individuals, whose self-reliance recognizes the individual's place in and responsibility to what Lincoln called "the great family of man."

The child, to whom freedom and joyous perception are natural traits, grows in understanding without friction. The child is a complete idea, expressing wholeness, intelligence, and cheerful trust in God.

It is the teacher's joyous privilege, as one who also searches for better understanding, to express to the fullest his own individuality, demonstrating thereby tender protection and inspiration to the budding ideas surrounding him. The example of such a teacher is contagious, dispelling doubts, and encouraging the student to realize his own individuality.  In the growing family experience the teacher expresses true parenthood, in which parent and child share the experience of education. Children find companionship with teacher and fellow students -- natural, beautiful, uplifting, exemplified in friendliness of a satisfying and permanent nature.

Child and teacher realize that individual initiative and obedience become one, leading to an orderly, harmonious sense of family.

These are the purposes and ideals of the Desert Sun School. It seems today that they were never more needed. Our nation is faced with a terrific rate of divorce, an increasing percentage of mental maladjustment, and a staggering amount of disregard for basic integrity. So much of the difficulty lies in the fuzzy thinking of the individual. The experiences of Desert Sun constitute a Life School in which the true values of life are brought forth and the individual is taught to think clearly. Then, environment being spiritual, he is reasoning from a true basis, and is in truth grounded upon the rock. Leaders produced in such a school will be able to withstand the propaganda assaults of the coming years and to lead the world positively into an era of solid peace, based upon self-respect and respect of and for others -- other individuals and other nations.

Desert Sun feels that development of the individual within himself is essential. We agree with Dean Courtney Brown of Columbia University that we must produce the uncommon man by teaching the common man to do uncommon deeds thereby developing a leadership based upon the confidence and courage of the individual's own self-respect and sense of social responsibility.

To meet the challenge of the explosion of knowledge, to provide a greater perceptivity of the richness of the world around us, and to excite the student's curiosity and desire for learning, Desert Sun is providing a curriculum enrichment which includes the participation of outstanding speakers and seminars. The entire program encourages discussion and dialogue in both assembly and classroom.

This type of school may well inspire other groups and Foundations throughout the United States to duplicate such an educational purpose and process. People are searching for a clearer concept of educational practice and purpose. Such education can inspire what Lincoln asked for at Gettysburg: "increased devotion to that cause" of a nation "conceived in liberty"; a nation which shall perpetually "have a new birth of freedom" so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

If these ideals and purposes are yours, if this type of education is what you want for your son or daughter, we offer you this opportunity to become a part of a movement that will accomplish your will. Nothing will give you a greater satisfaction than to be able to say to yourself, "I am a part of this work. Every boy and girl that goes out of this school is better equipped to lead our great nation because I have given a helping hand. The Desert Sun School is MY school!"


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Last Updated: 06/08/03
Copyright 1998 David Gotfredson