Gil Stork has been named interim president of Cuesta College, and that’s a gift to the students, faculty and community at large. Stork’s nothing short of a gem — personally and professionally. I’m qualified to say that, having known the man for the past 50 years.
As an 8-year-old, I was a lousy baseball player — a decent fielder but hampered by a compulsive need to “step in the bucket” when at bat. I think my average was .003.
Stork was my San Luis Recreation Minor League baseball coach in 1959. And although he couldn’t cure my crummy batting, he was always attentive, kind and humorous — three qualities he still possesses.
The following year, I was an assistant water boy for the Cal Poly Mustangs football team with my pal Mike Lee, son of legendary Poly coach Tom Lee.
Stork was a Mustang — an intense player who certainly didn’t want a cup of water shoved in his face while his team was battling the opposition on the field. That was early fall, before Poly played Bowling Green, Ohio, on Oct. 29.
It was an incredibly pea-soupy night in Toledo when the pilot of the chartered plane decided to take off at 10 p.m. The plane was airborne at an altitude of 100 to 200 feet for two minutes when it dropped from the sky.
The concussion of the crash was such that Stork’s seat was ripped out of the plane and onto the tarmac, leaving his left leg and knees badly hurt. Eighteen of his teammates died in the fiery crash.
I make note of this because, as one who has never been through such a nightmare can only imagine, it was a critically determining moment in Gil Stork’s life.
“Every day is a gift” since the crash, the now 68-year-old Stork says. “I still have the feeling in my heart that there was a purpose for that; it’s taking a long time to find it, but I’m still searching.
“I’ll never forget those 18 people,” he adds. “Every month I spend some time chatting with my teammates; (the memorial at Cal Poly’s Spanos Field) is very meaningful to me, it’s a very sacred place.”
“It seems that his survival set off a personal kindness that affects everyone he meets,” said local businessman Frank Sheahan of Stork when Stork was honored as the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year in 2000.
Over the years, Stork’s path and mine would cross, whether he was umpiring Little League (yes, I was still stepping in the bucket) or as my golf coach at Cuesta. It was reassuring to be around his quick wit, laugh and good sense. Again, all qualities he still possesses.
Stork was born and raised in San Luis Obispo, graduating from San Luis High and later Poly. As such there was a certain symmetry when he began teaching math while coaching baseball and football at his alma mater high school in1964.
Then, two years later, he’d have a meeting that would link him with Cuesta for the next 43 years.
As former Cuesta College President Frank Martinez recalls, he and Cuesta football coach Warren Hansen met with Stork in the high school parking lot, recruiting him to be a physical education teacher and assistant football coach at Cuesta.
Martinez laughs when he recalls the meeting.
“If you saw three men sitting in a car in a high school parking lot today, they’d think you were into narcotics or something.”
Stork says he was initially unimpressed. The college classrooms at that time were surplus World War II Army barracks that baked in the spring and fall and became mudrooms during rainy winters. What the school did have going for it was a young, dynamic faculty that had been culled from colleges throughout the state and nation. Martinez was committed to adding Stork to that roster.
“I told them I really didn’t want to teach in the barracks. I had a minor in physical education, but what I really wanted to do was teach math.”
Stork relented and went to Cuesta the following year, 1967, on the understanding that he’d teach P.E. and then move into math, which he did three years later.
His career at Cuesta has been one of an ever-increasing upward trajectory that included division chairmanships, deanships and vice presidencies.
“Frank bugged me about leadership, and I became division chair for math. He bugged me about being the nighttime dean, Dean of the Dark, which is a great position because you run the college after 5 at night. When Frank reorganized programs around disciplines, I became the P.E. dean for 11 years.”
When Grace Mitchell was hired as the new president upon Martinez’s retirement, she elevated the position of dean of students to a vice president level. Stork then became vice president of student services, a post he held for the next 14 years. Although he retired in 2004, he still teaches math classes on a part-time basis.
Cuesta has been blessed with some great presidents; Merlin Eisenbise, Frank Martinez and Grace Mitchell come to mind. The hallmark of their tenures was recognizing the close-knit ties between the college, its students and the community. Stork follows in that tradition. He’s raised more than $1.7 million as a volunteer auctioneer for dozens of nonprofits around the county.
But the college gets a bonus in addition to his knowing each facet of its operations — he’s the real deal when it comes to being a people person.
“An important piece of my sanity is not forgetting whom we serve — the students. Education used to feel insulated when times got tough; that’s no longer the case. We’re in extraordinary times, making extraordinary decisions with extraordinary people. We can survive this extraordinary time in our history. I believe we can agree to disagree but not be disagreeable.
“We need to require excellence in serving each other, both our internal customers and external. There’s a lot of fear in the work force because of loss of jobs. When that happens, people retreat and protect their turf. We have to get by that and establish certainty in life. We have a great faculty and staff. We can and will do it.”