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