After a chance meeting in 1971, Ron Sobel took a job at Catlin Gabel as a middle and high school Spanish teacher. Now forty-two years, more than five positions, and hundreds of students later, he prepares to leave.
Almost every longtime Catlin Gabel community member knows Sobel and considers him a close friend. His love for the school and people in general is felt by all and has been reflected in each of the roles he has held while at Catlin Gabel.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the ’60s, Sobel learned Spanish from both his family and the Spanish-speaking customers at their men’s clothing store. He loved the language and “made a decision to teach Spanish when [he] was in eighth grade.” He took Spanish classes through middle and high school and minored in Spanish at San Jose State University, along with majors in political science and international relations and a minor in physical education. After graduating from college he worked at a business in Los Angeles.
His time at Catlin Gabel began in September of 1971 after what he described as “a chance meeting on the beach” with Clint Darling, then head of the foreign language department. The two met in Monterey, California, at an event designed to teach people how to take students on global trips. During a game of Ping-Pong Darling described the school he worked at to a bewildered Sobel. As Sobel explained, “I’m from the big, big public schools – three or four thousand kids”; he had no way of understanding the small, progressive school that Darling described, but was intrigued.
After asking Darling if they might be interested in hiring a Spanish teacher he was invited to Oregon for an interview. Months later in September of 1971 he began teaching at Catlin Gabel as a coach, assistant athletic director, and the school’s first seventh through twelfth grade Spanish teacher, although at that point he had absolutely no teaching experience.
He only stayed for three years before he left to return to school. He obtained an MA in Spanish literature at Middlebury College in Vermont and Madrid and also taught at other schools around the country.
Three years after leaving, in 1977, he received an unexpected call from then-head of school Manvel Schauffler asking him to return to the Middle School as a full time Spanish teacher. Soon after, Sobel returned to Catlin Gabel, but this time he was back to stay. After returning he spent one year teaching before he was asked to fill in for a year as the head of the Middle School. That one year quickly evolved into an eight-year tenure, but throughout that time he continued to teach and coach.
During his time as Middle School head many changes were made in the Middle School, some of which can still be seen today. “We made the decision to bring back the [eighth grade] musical,” Sobel happily recalls. His enjoyment in this is still shared by the Catlin Gabel community when the eighth grade performs a musical once a year. He also played a crucial role in hiring Roberto Villa in 1984, who has continued teaching at Catlin Gabel and now considers himself one of Sobel’s closest friends.
In 1985 he was asked to move positions once again and within a week was hired as the school’s head of admissions. Sobel described it as “a difficult yet rewarding job,” and though he made it clear that he has loved all his positions at Catlin Gabel, it was his favorite: “The work I enjoyed the most and the work I found the most fulfilling was in the admissions office.” He compared the job of an admissions officer to that of a farmer who helps his crops to grow and finds great satisfaction in the crops that make it to the harvest.
Throughout his time at Catlin Gabel, Sobel’s cheerful demeanor and amiable qualities made him a likeable person, especially as a host for newcomers to the school. “I was always very enthusiastic about talking to people about the school,” he admits. Karen Katz, Catlin Gabel’s communications director and a friend of Sobel’s, summed up how he worked as an admissions officer: “I know of several people who would say they enrolled at Catlin Gabel because of Ron Sobel.”
Twenty-three years after returning to Catlin Gabel and 15 years into his time as the head of admissions, Sobel decided to make the switch back to teacher and did so in 2000. Since then he has taught Spanish in the Upper School, a fitting completion to the circle of jobs he has held at the school.
Though he greatly valued his positions at Catlin Gabel as an important part of his life, the role the school played in his personal life was of even more weight. Sobel met his wife, Jeanie, through Catlin Gabel: “she was a single mom, with a daughter in the Beehive, and someone on campus fixed us up on a blind date.” Her daughter, Emily, became his daughter as well, and she continued her education at Catlin, graduating in 1993. He also celebrated Passover with Catlin Gabel faculty and past students.
Now though, it is time to start down a new path. “[Retirement] will represent a huge change when you’ve been coming to the same place with many of the same people for over half your life,” says Sobel. He plans to travel and “become involved in the mental health community.” He also hopes to stay in shape and sleep in for at least the next year. Still, he expects to be seen around campus, “if [the administration] get desperate and need a sub!”
Sobel’s close friend and office mate of more than ten years, Roberto Villa, echoed a thought shared throughout the community, “this [modern language] office won’t be the same without him — he’s a great guy to work with…and I’ll miss him.”