Gaye LeBaron: Century of success at Santa Rosa Junior College makes for plenty of stories

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A centennial is more than a chance to celebrate, an opportunity to honor, a means to cue nostalgia. And certainly, it is a hook on which to hang any number of history lessons — so many that it’s hard to choose among them.

Santa Rosa Junior College’s centennial year is producing all of the above and then some.

The late Harvey Hanson, who taught history at the college from 1955 to 1983, had a favorite anecdote to illustrate the way the past washes over us when we open the floodgates.

Harvey, invited to speak to a historical society in Sonoma, the cradle of California history, was well into his expansive descriptions of Bear Flag days when one of his audience — an elderly woman — raised her hand.

“The trouble with Sonoma,” she said, “Is that there’s just too much history.” She repeated it for emphasis: “TOO MUCH HISTORY!”

If Harvey were still here, he would see in the celebrations of SRJC’s centennial the truth in what she said. On the beautiful, oak-studded home campus, and on the also-beautiful Petaluma campus with its backdrop of hills, people have been talking and writing about the “first” 100 years, and will celebrate them with a community dinner on Thursday. There is a book in preparation telling the whole story.

And a person such as I, with only 1,500 words to sum up 100 years, is in deep trouble.

The only choice is to pick and choose just one of those 100 years from an impressive timeline of milestones and memories. So today, from the long association of college and community, I choose 1944. I choose the GI Bill.

This milestone, enacted while World War II still was being waged in Europe and the Pacific, may be the most significant piece of legislation the country had seen since the Bill of Rights.

In the decades of the ’40s and ’50s, with the flood of veterans, most still in their 20s, returning from World War II and the Korean War, the government offered not only to pay these men and women to go to college or learn a trade, but offered them low interest loans to buy a house.

The education component of what was properly known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (despite the name, women veterans were eligible) flooded the nation’s colleges with young people eager to start their real lives. And no sector of higher education was more affected than junior colleges.

And, while it meant considerable change in the entire nation, the SRJC chapter is a kind of microcosm of what that legislation did to change the country.

In his book “Santa Rosa Junior College, 1918-1957, A Personal History,” Floyd Bailey, the JC’s first president — founder, really — notes that the enrollment dropped from 670 to 235 “almost overnight” in December 1941, telling a former student in a letter that “We have 235 civilian students … three sophomore men and 33 freshmen men. The rest are women.”

President Bailey also recalled that trustee Clarence “Red” Tauzer left for the service urging his fellow board members to get as many new buildings as possible on campus as soon as they could. He wasn’t sure why, he said, but he was certain the school would need the classroom space when the war was over.

It was prophecy. In the school year 1946-47, Bailey recalled, the average daily attendance hit 1,306 and the faculty list of 20 from the pre-war years swelled to 35.

Some 25 years ago I had the privilege of interviewing several Sonoma County men about their post-war experiences. All of them attended SRJC on the GI Bill.

Of the seven, only two were pretty sure they would have gone to college if there had been no wars. The others were very clear that it wouldn’t have been an option. And that they lived much different lives because of the financial nudge from the government.

All of them had successful careers in their chosen fields and, according to the criteria we use today, “made a difference.”

The late Willard “Bill” Rush was one who was college-bound before the war. After his time in the Marine Corps, Rush, a San Franciscan whose family had a summer home at the River, enrolled, played football — made all-conference in fact — and lived with several hundred other vets in the barracks moved to the back end of the campus from the Army Air Corps Field, now the Sonoma County Airport.

“Two to a room, $10 a month,” Rush told me in 1994. “The average age of the freshmen males went to about 23 — and the girls coming in from the high schools were still 17. There was a lot of education going on!”

Rush, who died in 2012 at the age of 86, went on to UC Berkeley and a successful career in the savings and loan industry and a term as an SRJC trustee.

Another returning GI who would spend 23 years on the board of trustees was the late Ben Race, who was already married and a father when he enrolled in ’47. A former Navy radioman, Race, who was destined to be a partner in Brelje and Race, one of county’s leading engineering firms, remembered:

“We had to work our tails off but we were ready to do that. We might have gone to college, but all of us achieved so much more — in law and engineering and medicine.”

Race, who died last year at 91, was honored with the naming of the Race Health Sciences Building on campus.

John Pedroncelli, who died in 2015 at the age of 89, joined the Coast Guard at 18. He told me he probably would have gone home to the vineyards without that incentive. But this eldest son of the pioneer wine family commuted to JC with “the Geyserville gang” and went on to UC Davis’ viticulture program before coming home well-prepared for the “Wine Country” that was on the way.

Bob Bailey, a retired Santa Rosa dentist, is still absolutely certain he would never have gone to college. Seventh in a family of eight, he left Santa Rosa High before graduation to join the Navy. In ’46, he enrolled at SRJC. Like so many vets I talked to in the past, including Sebastopol dentist Fred Fujihara, Santa Rosa pharmacist Tom Konicek and many others, Bailey credits a remarkable life sciences instructor named Ellis Nixon for guiding him toward his profession. Bailey is sure he would have “taken a safe job, maybe with a utility” if the government had not, in effect, paid him to go to school.

Bill Mitchell, who was in the “first wave” of Marines to land on Iwo Jima, was another high school dropout who was driving a cab when the taxi owner talked him into trying SRJC. Now, at 91, Mitchell is a retired teacher of math and accounting in Santa Rosa’s junior and senior high schools and is planning on starting his 56th year as a part-time instructor in the college’s Community Education program — now aiding computer lab students with math and language skills.

Nationwide, some 7.8 million WWII veterans and another 2.3 million Korean War veterans were educated and trained under the GI Bill.

And Bill Mitchell was not the only one to choose teaching as his profession. These new-age teachers brought a dramatic change in American education.

Among other things, they brought hope. In pre-WWII years a college degree was beyond the dreams of all but a privileged few, perhaps 10 percent, of America’s young people.

Once the dream was within the reach of millions, the entire country benefited. Economists estimate that better-educated, high-earning veterans returned to the U.S. Treasury in taxes three times the amount they received in benefits.

And that’s just one story from 100 years of an institution that has touched the lives of so many Sonoma County residents. And, in comparison to today’s multitasking institution, it looks easy.

Education has become much more complex in the ensuing decades. Why are we surprised? A quick comparison, by the numbers: When those war veterans came home, the school had fewer than 2,000 students, a full-time faculty of 50, no vice presidents, (Floyd Bailey was a one-man band), two deans — one of women, one of men — and no such thing as an assistant dean or a department chair.

Today — well, last Friday — there were 37,677 students taught by 1,117 faculty members, led not only by its fifth president, Dr. Frank Chong, but by five vice presidents, 22 deans and assistant deans and — enough! I think you get my drift.

This is not to say these administrators are not necessary, not at all. Today’s educational system is so complex, with long lists of new criteria boggling the untrained mind.

Santa Rosa Junior College continues an ever-expanding offering of classes for university transfers, certificates in medical and technical fields, new languages (including English), and not only leads thousands to learn, but also helps them discover, to their surprise, that almost anything is possible.

Now, at 100, this community college, still proudly known as a Junior College and counting itself among the oldest in the state, takes stock of its foundations as it marches onward into the next 100, riding on the shoulders of a very proud community.

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