Ruben Armi?na was 14, verging on chubby, and, as he tells it five decades later, had only a dime in his pocket.
It was Nov. 6, 1961, and he was saying goodbye to his parents, preparing to enter "the fishbowl," a glassed-in departure lounge at Cuba's Jose Marti International Airport.
He was one of 14,000 Cuban children extracted from post-revolution Communist Cuba in the U.S.-sponsored Operation Peter Pan. Armi?na would not see his parents for nine years.
Before he left, he promised them two things.
"I will go to college," he said. "And nobody will ever bully me into anything."
Today, at age 64, he is in many ways still in a fishbowl: the presidency of Sonoma State University.
When he arrived at the Rohnert Park campus 19 years ago, SSU depended largely on commuter students and was among California State University sites being considered for closure because of faltering enrollment. Now 10 students apply for every available seat at SSU and Armi?na is its longest-serving president.
"And I have kept those promises," he said.
Armi?na's mother used to call him "cabeza dura," or hard head, and Armi?na says she was right. "In some ways I have the temper, the temperament of a Cuban," he said. Indeed, he says, many years ago in New Orleans, he brandished an empty revolver at a man who was threatening him, ending the confrontation.
A refusal to be turned aside from his goals has been his signature as SSU's chief executive and he has attained largely what he set out to do.
"I'm pretty confident in what I have done and how I have done it and what I have achieved," he said in a two-hour interview conducted in his modest office filled with masks collected from around the world.
The sixth SSU president, he will in two weeks lead faculty and students in his 18th graduation ceremony on a campus that now has 7,592 full-time students, up from 5,783 in 1992.
He is recovered from an ulcer condition two years ago that sapped his strength and just two months ago secured a huge donation that all but assures completion of the Green Music Center, a signature symbol of his tenure.
Now, his skin ruddy, he rapped for emphasis on an office supply store-issued table, saying he has no plans to retire soon.
"I'm in better health than I have been in probably a very long time," he said. "I think I'm still intellectually pretty sharp. I think there are still things to do."
He is the highest-paid public official in Sonoma County, earning $351,000 a year, and has remade a university once known — both fondly and derisively — as Granola U.
"Its academic reputation has changed," said California State University Chancellor Charles Reed. "If you look all the way back, it was a giant community college."
When he joined the university, 35 percent of the student body was from outside the region of Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Marin and Solano counties. This year 75 percent, or 6,220 students, come from outside the region, many from Southern California, where the school recruits heavily.
The campus has changed, perhaps most dramatically, in visual terms, with the addition of more than 1million square feet of new buildings.