‘Vincit omnia veritas,” literally “truth conquers all,” was the motto of my first college. Despite the elegant Latin, in terms of social stratification, Compton College was as far removed from an Ivy League school as you could get, even in 1958.
But the teaching I received at Compton was as good as anything I have experienced since. It prepared me for everything that followed in life in a way that many other more elite institutions might not.
I reflected on this as I read former Cuesta College Trustee Ellen Harper’s appeal in this paper Wednesday.
Geography and community politics have injured Compton College in recent years. But for more than 50 years, Compton maintained standards of excellence commensurate with the other California community colleges.
That excellence reflects the spirit and intention of the people who conceived of what were first called “junior colleges.” The idea was the product of the friendship of William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, and David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford.
Jordan was pleased that by 1907 many California high schools were offering post-diploma courses. In that year, the progressive legislators in Sacramento got behind the idea with the Upward Extension Law.
Faculties at the University of California and Stanford helped select instructors for courses that prepared students for work in agriculture or industry. Fresno, followed by Bakersfield, Fullerton, Long Beach, Azusa, Chaffey, Riverside, Sacramento and Santa Ana formed college curriculums before U.S. entry into World War I.
The success of these experiments in preparing young people for the quickly emerging mechanically and technology-driven needs of a wartime economy was remarkable. The junior colleges were there to stay.
Here in San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly served as a state-run alternative to junior college until the late 1920s when poor state finances closed that option. In 1936, San Luis High followed the path of many other high school districts in establishing a junior college in 1927 at the new high school campus that still exists.
The junior college remained in operation until June 1959. After that, students had to travel to the new Allen Hancock College in Santa Maria.
On April 16, 1963, San Luis Obispo County voters approved the formation of a countywide junior college district, serving seven public high school districts. In the fall of 1965, the new Cuesta College began, ultimately setting up its first campus in former mess halls and other buildings at Camp San Luis Obispo.
I got to know faculty recruited by the first president, Merlin Eisenbise, and his talented partner and successor, Frank Martinez. My friendship with their “first hire,” San Luis Obispo-born Frank Avila, resulted in my receiving a whole new set of general education skills.
Frank served as vice president for properties for the County Historical Society when I was elected president in 1978. Together with Swede Tudor, Bill Froom and others, we cleaned up the Dallidet Adobe and, with Clark and Nancy Howland, stabilized the Dana Adobe in Nipomo. Thirty-three years later, I can still remember every detail about the land and the people as related to me by master teacher Frank Avila.
In recent years, I had a similar “mentoring” relationship with Cuesta anthropology instructor Bill Fairbanks, who preceded me as president of the California Mission Studies Association. Bill literally retaught me how to deal with volunteers and boards of directors.
Both men had the charisma, the knowledge and the wisdom of my first instructor at Compton. Dr. Ken Neary had me briefing Supreme Court cases at the age of 17 and remains a bright shining light in my life.
I know that both of our state legislators have had similarly profound connections with Cuesta College.
I hope that both will break with party and faction to protect Cuesta, a precious resource in the history of our region.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.