Thousands of Malibu families are mourning the death this week of Phil Cott, the beloved former principal of Webster Elementary School. Cott served as principal from 1990 until his retirement in 2013. He was 68.

SMMUSD Board of Education member Craig Foster, eulogizing Cott at a board meeting last Thursday, reminded those gathered that through his retirement, Cott often filled in for Malibu administrators on leave and even served as an interim principal in 2018 during the formation of the new Malibu Elementary School. 

Foster said Cott was present for many families tragically affected by the Woolsey Fire. 

“He was always upbeat and his sense of humor never failed to cut through a tense situation and make people smile,” Foster said.

Cott began his career as a teacher in the early 1970s, but then detoured to go to law school. He worked as a deputy district attorney and had successes including the conviction of a murderer in a jury trial. But, according to his lifelong friend Al Friedenberg, “He hated it. He missed the intimacy of school and being an influence that way.” 

Foster said Cott was drawn back to the classroom.

“He was sad because he left his job teaching and he thought he’d never be able to get it back,” the board member said. “He thought he’d given up the love of his life, career-wise.” 

Cott returned to education as an administrator and then began his long tenure at Webster. “He always felt lucky to be at Webster because it never felt like a job to him,” Foster told the board of education.

The other love of Cott’s life is his wife, Charlee, who retired from teaching at Franklin Elementary in Santa Monica. He also leaves behind two adult children and two grandchildren.

The innovations Cott implemented at Webster are many and include Websterville—the re-creation of a colonial village that Foster remarked was done “long before people were doing project-based learning.” Yearly, he took the fifth grade class to Yosemite National Park—a trip “that changed so many kids’ lives,” according to Foster. Cott also initiated Gardening Angels, the school’s computer lab, Poet’s Park, expanding the campus’s green spaces and trips to Astrocamp. 

Phil Cott

“His vision was a place of creativity, exploration, experience and, most of all, growth,” Foster said. “For him, test scores were always a byproduct—they were not a goal. Phil had a deep and abiding love for children, an unquenchable passion for their education, enrichment and an inexhaustible reservoir of compassion for students, faculty, staff, and parents alike.”

Cott gracefully battled cancer for just over a decade, but “he kept coming back to work. He didn’t make an excuse,” his friend and colleague Friedenberg commented. The two worked as interim principals forming Malibu Elementary in 2018.

“There are certain individuals in education that make a mark. We all remember those few teachers in our lives that we’ll never forget that influenced us,” Friedenberg added. “Phil, as a teacher and as a principal, was a total of about 37 years—so many people remember Phil. I don’t think that happens with every principal. Webster was a difficult school. Parents were very educated; they had the money to go to private schools, but Phil was so beloved. He changed Webster forever, in a good way.”

Former Webster parent Mary Tafi, a teacher at Malibu Elementary, praised Cott. 

“Because of Phil, we had ‘Eat a Rainbow’—a nutrition program. With Phil’s encouragement and guidance, I’m now a teacher,” Tafi said. “I still remember him showing up wearing his Dr. Seuss hat to read to my class. He tirelessly went to every single class and read a story on Read Across America Day. He was bigger than life in many ways—a real hero without a cape.” 

Cott’s friend of 56 years—Friedenberg, retired Grant Elementary School principal—said the pair would always ask “the hard questions” of the school district, “but we both ran very successful schools. 

“Our deal was, you don’t have to take life so seriously, but we’re professionals when we’re supposed to be,” he reflected. “I think Phil did that at Webster.” Freidenberg recalled a story Cott told him of when rap mogul Suge Knight (now in prison for manslaughter) had a child enrolled at Webster. One day, Knight’s driver threw a cigar onto campus and Cott told Knight he’d better pick it up. 

Friends and former colleagues are planning a celebration of life for Cott. A likely venue for the event is Webster, which can accommodate the hundreds expected to attend. Details will be announced when finalized.

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