In 1931, when Herold Mahoney walked through the doors at Santa Rosa Junior College as a student, he probably never envisioned the impact he would have on education in Sonoma County and particularly on the development of the SRJC Petaluma campus.

Today, the 5,500 students that walk through the doors at the Petaluma Campus know the Mahoney Library, but very few know who the man behind it was.

A young Herold Mahoney became galvanized by the joy of learning. As a third-generation Petaluman, he came from a modest, working-class family. But he always had a passion for education — both for himself, and for bringing possibilities for learning to others. He went on to U.C. Berkeley to finish his degree in Business Administration and then served in the military in World War II.

Returning to Petaluma, he met Connie Bell, a charismatic woman with an equal dedication to education. Bell had been a school teacher, attained a Masters Degree, and in 1954 was recruited by Helen Putnam to become the Head of Curriculum for the Petaluma School District, all in an era that had few women in senior positions.

Within three months of meeting, Mahoney and Bell married and began to raise a family in Petaluma, two boys and two girls. Their shared beliefs and enthusiasm led them to envision new projects and ideas, and, more importantly, to turn those visions into reality. They worked shoulder-to-shoulder to create resources for the community and to personally give their time to make a difference.

It was these qualities that prompted Jane Saldana-Talley, vice president of SRJC's Petaluma Campus, to create a tribute to the Mahoneys that would resonate with the students.

"The amazing achievements of this family are a true inspiration," said Saldana-Talley. "It shows our students what is possible when you take an idea and follow it through. We hope it will motivate people and give them confidence in their own abilities." The new exhibit, "The Magnitude of the Mahoneys: The Reach of One Family," opened Wednesday and contains family memorabilia, pictures and paintings, offering a personal look at Herold and Connie Mahoney.

Part of the exhibit will relate to the creation of the Petaluma campus. When the opportunity arose to acquire land for possible use as a Petaluma annex for the Santa Rosa Junior College, Mahoney recognized the potential and convinced the school board to take action. Without this first step, the expansion of the SRJC to Petaluma might have taken a very different turn.

"Herold played a tremendous role in the development of the Petaluma campus," said Saldana-Talley. "We literally would not be where we are today without him." In 1995, the library was dedicated in his name and, as the Petaluma campus was expanded, a new library was built. Dedicated in 2008, it is considered to be the "cultural and architectural heart" of the campus.

Daughter Kerry Mahoney-Davison recalls that the concept of "service" was always part of their family traditions. "We never thought twice about Mom and Dad starting a community project or attending events that were important to the people involved," she said. "All of us kids, in one way or another, are working with our community to better the places we live. The concept of public service is part of who we are."

Mahoney-Davison smiles with pride when people say, "Thank you for sharing your father with me." She understands the feeling of being listened to and appreciated by her father. "He always put other people first and he was interested in everything that anybody had to say."

Herold passed away in 1999, but the irrepressible Connie Mahoney just celebrated her 94th birthday April 30 and still keeps a full schedule.

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com.)