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Memories of SSU

Gaye LeBaron

Newspaper Columnist, 1960

Gaye LeBaron and Lou Miller, OLLI director

Gaye LeBaron and Lou Miller, OLLI director

            As far back as my Sonoma Valley High School days in the early 1950s, there were great hopes for a four-year college in the county. There was much talk around the possibility of locating the college in the valley, or across the ridge on western slope of Sonoma Mountain  above where Sonoma State University now stands.

            There were also rumors of a University of California campus. After World War II, the UC system was known to be planning a fifth branch, to accommodate the post-war rush of GI Bill students flooding the Berkeley, Los Angeles and Davis campuses, as well as the medical campus in San Francisco.

            Santa Rosa Junior College, with its 30-year history of providing upper-division students to the UC system, was deemed a likely candidate for conversion. However, that honor went to Santa Barbara, and all attention turned to the state college system.

            In the mid-1950s, while every state legislator from six counties was writing his own bill to establish a state college, Santa Rosa got the first hint of a four-year program when the Santa Rosa Center of San Francisco State College opened in a small building on outer Mendocino Avenue.

            The faculty of the Santa Rosa Center, headed by George McCabe (who brought along his wife Kay so that both could become stalwarts in this newly-minted liberal arm of the community), was a welcome addition to the cultural life and most stayed on to anchor the new college once it was established.

            When Sonoma State was ordained, with Senator Joe Rattigan’s dramatic stop-the-clock, last-possible-minute legislation (a story that Joe tells so well in the video history made in the 1990s), the scramble for a location began.

            My earliest impression of Sonoma State on its permanent campus was that it seemed far away. It was too far to think of attending lectures or musical programs, although I remember a delightful afternoon I spent with my three-year-old daughter at the Cotati Veterans Building for a performance of the opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors – my first exposure to the work of the remarkable Peggy Donovan-Jeffry.

             I think the community in general regarded the college in its early years as a kind of re-entry program, since there did not seem to be a lot of young people. Also, those years coincided with the blossoming of women’s independence, and the first graduates we noticed seemed to be middle-aged mothers becoming “liberated” schoolteachers.

            The nation underwent dramatic changes in the 1960s, and Sonoma County in those years was suffering its own identity crisis. The economy was moving away from agriculture, and there was a power shift that favored the construction and banking industries. It is safe to say that for a time, we didn’t know what we were or what we were to become. Drop a college into this climate, with a wide diversity of expectations, and it was bound to be a difficult birth. As we moved closer to the 1970s and deeper into both the Vietnam War and the student unrest that it engendered, the campus seemed even farther away from the center of our communities.

            The Chamber of Commerce element had expected an institution that would produce a new generation of mortgage bankers and real estate brokers. The dairymen waited for the establishment of an agriculture program. Others saw it as a liberal arts institution, which would fill our nooks and crannies with culture and put an end to our “cow-county” image.

            Like UC Santa Cruz, which was born in the same troubled decade, the town and gown grew apart rather than together. The newspapers were eager to report the latest example of student protest, regarded with bemused head-shaking at the vagaries of youth, and in the case of the editorials of Ernest Joiner at the Sebastopol Times – red-faced outrage at the disrespect of their elders and their country’s flag. It did not matter that student protest was happening on nearly every campus in the nation. Sonoma State had no history, no tradition to buffer itself against the community fears. It was the new kid on the block.

            It was from the student unrest and what followed, the new “look” of students, the collection of VW buses and trailers on the Appleton property across East Cotati Avenue and the very basic residences, that “Granola U” got its name. And the college students responded with criticisms (and nicknames – Rohnertia, and Rodent Park) of their own. Activists dabbled – and more – in local politics. In truth, even among us 30-somethings who agreed with the students’ views, there was doubt about the efficacy of their approach, which seemed, as the historian Alan Brinkley has termed it, “unrealistically idealistic.”

            It takes a half-century, sometimes more, for historians to judge the lasting importance of events, for things that seemed disastrous to morph into, simply, “traditions.” There were more “traditions” ahead for the university, including, of course, the Diamandopoulos years. But that’s another story.