Grace N. Mitchell, Cuesta Colleges president from 1989 to 1999, died March 19 after a period of failing health. She was 78.
Known for her sharp academic mind, results-driven organizational skills, a warm smile and sense of humor, Mitchell succeeded Frank Martinez as the colleges third president-superintendent.
During her tenure, she oversaw growth in Cuesta Colleges enrollment from about 7,500 to more than 9,100, a staffing increase from 260 to 400 and a rise in the colleges annual budget from $20 million to about $35 million.
Its a great loss, Martinez said. She brought great new leadership to Cuesta College after the first 25 years. We were doing OK, or even very well, but she provided new ideas and leadership.
Raised in Rockford, Ill., to Italian immigrant parents Peter and Maria Nappi, Mitchells first job was working one summer as a 14-year-old clerk in Rockfords Chamber of Commerce. Despite almost being asphyxiated by her boss who was chain-smoking several feet away as she typed letters and answered the phone, she found that she loved to work.
Applying that ethic, she earned bachelors degrees in French and Spanish from DePauw University, masters degrees in French from the University of Wisconsin and in counseling from Dominican College, and a doctorate in higher education from USC.
When Martinez stepped down as president-superintendent of Cuesta College after a 42-year career in education, with 25 years at Cuesta College and the last 11 years as president-superintendent, nearly 100 candidates applied for the position. The Board of Trustees and a 14-member advisory screening committee narrowed that number down to two men and four women, with Mitchell getting the nod.
She was considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, community college administrator in the state at the time, said Barbara George, former executive director of advancement at Cuesta College. She was a good, strong leader. One of Graces strengths was strategic planning. She was considered a huge catch.
No doubt her statewide prominence in upper education played a major role in the trustees decision.
For example, during her 35-year career, she founded the Learning, Assessment, Retention Consortium, which involved more than 80 community colleges statewide. She was a member of the California Association of Community Colleges Commission on Student Services.
Prior to her tenure at Cuesta College, Mitchell was vice chancellor of student affairs at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana and vice president of instruction at Cabrillo College in Aptos.
As busy as she was working on creating a new North County campus which had the largest capital community college fund drive in the state up to that time and was the only campus built in the state entirely with private funding she was maintaining and expanding the colleges reputation for excellence, serving as president for both the Community College League of California and the Chief Executive Officers of California Community Colleges.
Mitchell also pursued civic involvement at the time.
For instance, although she and husband Dr. Ernie Berg, also a college administrator (with Ernie, we got two college presidents for the price of one, Martinez quipped), were residents of Morro Bay, the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce honored her as its citizen of the year in 1995.
She was a member of the San Luis Obispo Rotary Club, a founding chair of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce Leadership Program, vice president and board member of United Way of San Luis Obispo County, a member of the County Economic Advisory Committee and a director on the board of the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project.
That community involvement was just one aspect of her success, said current Cuesta College President-Superintendent Gil Stork.
There were four areas where she influenced my career choice. I was a dean, and she encouraged me to apply to for vice president of student services. I had always been on the instructional side, but she told me that student services will be important to broaden my experience. I served 14 years in that position, nine of those under her. It was a growth experience for me.
Another lesson was: Always hire the very best, regardless. Its OK to wait if you dont have the best.
Another, make sure the college is connected to the community. She was a master in integrating us with the community through think tanks on issues or her work with the Chamber of Commerce. Public relationships are important.
The last thing, Stork said, she never lost her student focus. It was always what was the best for students. It was a real privilege to work with her and for her. Ive been fortunate to have been mentored by two of the best: Frank Martinez and Grace Mitchell.
Julian Crocker, county superintendent of schools, recalled Tuesday, The thing that was most impressive about Grace was her understanding of how the K-12 and community colleges are a unified system. She recognized that half of our high school grads in this county go to community college, with most of them going to Cuesta. It was never like Were a separate system over here. She always integrated K-12 with Cuesta as it should be.
Later in life, she moved to Marin County to be closer to her children and grandchildren, yet she still kept her work ethic fired up.
Cuesta College Trustee Charlotte Alexander said Mitchell was the best person I ever worked with or for, then as the colleges public information officer.
She continued to work after she retired from Cuesta in 1999, Alexander added. She became president of PPL Inc., a community college consulting firm, and she was working on an educational master plan for the Santa Clarita Community College District at the time of her death.
After a diagnosis of cancer, she moved back to the San Luis Obispo area for treatment about a year ago. She then returned to Northern California about two months ago, according to George.
She was in Marin to be with her family, but most of her friends and colleagues remain in San Luis Obispo, and she wanted her memorial service to be here, Alexander said.
Services have been set for April 14 (her birthday), at 1 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church on Marsh Street in San Luis Obispo.
Sons Christopher, Peter and Robert Mitchell survive Grace Nappi Mitchell Berg. She has four granddaughters Morgan, Hillary, Roxanne and Grace grandson Jett and a great-granddaughter. Sister Louise Kivlin also survives her.