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Memories of SSU

Bill Kortum

Community Activist, 1959-present
Cotati Chamber of Commerce, 1959

Looking across the lake at Stevenson and Darwin halls

Looking across the lake at Stevenson and Darwin halls

            I had just started my veterinary practice in Cotati in 1957, when news came that the State Department of Education was looking for a new state college site for the North Bay, with a preference for a location in Sonoma County within a 7.5 x 15 miles rectangle between Santa Rosa and Petaluma. A pilot site was suggested at the abandoned Navy airfield west of Rohnert Park and north of Cotati.

            The Cotati Chamber of Commerce was properly interested in the prestige and economic consequences of a new college and to make our case we put together a book of photographic enlargements of scenes. It was sent to all pertinent agencies in Sacramento, and the book remains in the university archives, bound between redwood covers and titled “College in Cotati, It’s Natural.” Meanwhile, Sonoma County chambers of commerce from Santa Rosa, Cotati and Petaluma met monthly to show unanimity against either Napa or Vallejo proposals, but each city also had its own site.

            In February 1958, the Department of Education rejected the airport site as being in a flood plain. I immediately contacted landowner Chris Knudsen about his land in the rolling hills south of Cotati as a new proposal. Knudsen was willing to sell, and I thought the terrain and vistas gave unique qualities to the site. At a subsequent meeting of the State Public Works Board that I attended in Sacramento, various sites were discussed, but Cotati’s new site was not considered. I learned that their specs required a rectangular piece of land with a 5 percent slope. The next morning, I contacted realtor Joe Dorfman to help find a new site. We discussed a numbers of possibilities, but found that only the Forrest Benson property on East Cotati Avenue met qualifications. Dorfman picked up the phone, called Benson and found he was willing to sell.

            I rushed back to my home and my wife Lucy and I composed a telegram twenty hours after the Public Works Board had essentially rejected Cotati’s Knudsen site. The telegram was addressed to the Public Works Board, “Have new college site, will call with further details,” or words of that order.

            In the meantime, I obtained a campus site study from one of my dairyman clients, John Watson, chairman of the State Agriculture Board and therefore member of the University of California Board of Regents. The study was done by the Bechtel Group to determine criteria for placement of proposed new campuses at Irvine, Santa Cruz, Riverside and San Diego. The essential finding was to recommend the purchase of 1,000 acres, but have land use control on 3,000 acres surrounding the campus. The idea was to prevent a university from being surrounded by development that would preclude the campus from expanding as so many European campuses experienced over time. The Benson property, on a smaller scale, met this criterion and I used the Bechtel study to strengthen the pitch for Benson.

            A busload of decision-makers and the Public Works Board visited the various sites in the early fall of 1959. We presented them with a box of freshly picked golden delicious apples, but no liquor. We urged them to buy the whole 300 acres, but they would not budge for more than 200 acres. The decision was made on March 2, 1960 to buy the Benson property.