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Dr. Paul Wilt, founding father of Santa Barbara Christian School, a predecessor to today’s Providence School, passed into glory on June 23 at the age of 93. He is survived by his wife, Doris, and their four children: Tom, Marilyn, Janet, and Daniel, who were among the first generation of Santa Barbara Christian School students.

Dr. Paul Wilt in 1962. (Photo credit: Westmont College Archive)

When Westmont College hired Dr. Wilt as a history professor in 1958, he began the search for a Christian school for his then three children. Finding no viable options, he drew on past experiences founding three Christian day schools in Pennsylvania to launch the effort to establish a Christian elementary school in Santa Barbara.

To gauge interest, Wilt wrote letters to 50-60 local pastors whose names he found in the Yellow Pages. He then formed a committee of like-minded parents and pastors and together they founded Santa Barbara Christian School in 1959.

The school opened for grades 1-6 at Alamar Four-Square Church (served by one of the pastors) in September 1960 with 60 students.

“The whole thing was his idea,” according to Mrs. Tirzah Riley, longtime Santa Barbara Christian School administrator and unofficial school historian. “He was horrified there was no real Christian school here and he needed one for his children.”

“He was modest and shy and not a born leader. But he just did what needed to be done for the sake of his children’s education. He set the philosophy and vision that lives on today.” 

Riley, who met Dr. Wilt about 25 years after the school was founded, recalls him as “an amazing, humble servant. He was very precious with his children and wife. He lived the love of Christ.” 

At the 2017 Providence commencement ceremony in 2017, Dr. Scott Lisea, head of school, recognized Paul and Doris Wilt, who were in attendance, and welcomed them to participate in the newly formed Board Emeriti recognition program. “Dr. Wilt gathered the first board of directors to begin Christian education in Santa Barbara,” Lisea said in expressing the school’s gratitude for Wilt’s vision and faithful service, “and he continued on as the board chairman for many years. That is the kind of person Paul is. His faith led him to glorify God for the good of his neighbors.”

Dr. Wilt and his fellow board members weathered many storms by God’s grace and provision as the school added classes and faculty and moved from one campus to another while developing a support base.

Wilt’s confidence in God’s providence and the vital necessity of the school’s mission never wavered.  “It was something the Lord wanted us to do and he has blessed it, “ Wilt said matter-of-factly in a 2018 video interview.

“Many children and their parents have appreciated the education which they have received at Santa Barbara Christian School. …Your children are very important to you and therefore their proper education is very significant and you put a lot of emphasis on that.” 

Dr. Paul Wilt cuts the ribbon on the new modular building installation on the old Modoc campus in September 2003. (Photo credit: Providence School Archive)

Dr. Wilt’s vision and passion for Christian education in Santa Barbara extended many years beyond his own family’s need for the school. In the same interview, he reflects “Now that the school is much larger… it is reaching out to more people with the promise of an education which is Christ-centered and which takes into account the accomplishments, if you will, of the Christian faith to people around the world.”

The founder of Santa Barbara Christian School remained a lifelong friend and supporter of what is now Providence School (after mergers with Providence Hall and El Montecito School).

Dr. Paul Wilt’s handprint is strongly imprinted on the school we enjoy today.

Dr. Paul Wilt speaks about the founding of Santa Barbara Christian School in a 2018 interview. (Video credit: Missionary Films)
Dr. Paul Wilt reflects on the growth and reach of Santa Barbara Christian School and Providence School over six decades. (Video credit: Missionary Films)