Gaye LeBaron, the longtime Press Democrat columnist, Sonoma County historian and 1955 graduate of Santa Rosa Junior College, has been honored by the Community College League of California with the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award.

The awards are presented to alumni who are accomplished professionals and outstanding citizens of their communities.

LeBaron, a columnist at The Press Democrat since 1961 who continues to write twice-monthly Sunday columns, credited Santa Rosa Junior College with helping her find her vocation as a journalist.

“I was 17 years old when I went to the JC, and at 17, you don’t have a clear grasp on who you are,” said LeBaron, now 81. “Really, it was the junior college and the faculty there, some of whom have remained my friends for my whole life, who showed me that I could write.

“I really grew up at the junior college.”

LeBaron’s family settled in Sonoma Valley on 1950 when she was 14. She graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 1953, then attended Santa Rosa Junior College.

LeBaron has made her mark on the community and the junior college, said Dr. Frank Chong, Santa Rosa Junior College president and superintendent.

“Among her many accomplishments, Gaye is also an active volunteer with SRJC. Her impact on the community is immeasurable. Her gifted writing has ensured that current and future generations will know Sonoma County and its rich history,” Chong said in a statement released Friday by the junior college.

After graduating from Santa Rosa Junior College, LeBaron transferred to UC Berkeley, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and history in 1957, and took a reporting job that fall at The Press Democrat where she already had served as an intern for three summers.

Her first column was published Nov. 23, 1959, and she became the paper’s community columnist in 1961. During her long career, she has had 8,000 articles published and co-authored a two-volume history of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.

LeBaron’s late husband, John LeBaron, a former Press Democrat photographer, taught in the Santa Rosa Junior College art department for more than 30 years.

LeBaron was one of three community college graduates statewide to receive the award Nov. 18 at the annual Community College League of California convention in Riverside. The League has recognized more than 200 distinguished alumni of California’s community colleges since 1964.

In 2014, another Santa Rosa Junior College alumnus, former Oakland Athletics outfielder Jonny Gomes, received the Distinguished Alumni award.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.