The first classes at College of the Canyons began in 1969, but this story actually begins two years earlier. That’s when the citizens of the Santa Clarita Valley decided it was time they had a college to call their own.
On Nov. 21, 1967, they voted overwhelmingly to transform the idea into reality. While they were at it, they also elected a five-member board of trustees to oversee the creation of their new junior college.
Optimism abounded for what lay ahead. This once-sleepy whistle-stop along Southern Pacific Railroad’s Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line was growing like it never had before.
In communities we now call Saugus and Canyon Country, a growing assortment of tract homes was sprouting – although vast expanses of vacant or agricultural land still separated the valley’s distinct communities. Downtown Newhall was the established commercial center with car dealerships, a supermarket, a bank and other merchants typical of a small town of fewer than 60,000 people.
But things were changing. And quickly.
During the summer of that pivotal year of 1967, the master-planned community of Valencia was born, luring young families from “over the hill” with homes priced at about $25,000. Valencia Town Center did not exist, of course. Neither did the Valencia Auto Mall. Magic Mountain, Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital and California Institute of the Arts were still several years from appearing on the local landscape.
There was no Stevenson Ranch, just a vast unadulterated plain accented by rugged foothills, most of which have since been terraced and built upon. Old Orchard Shopping Center on Lyons Avenue and The Newhall Land & Farming Co.’s first golf course – Valencia Country Club – were barely two years old.
The Valencia Industrial Center was just beginning to be developed. The single-screen Plaza Theater in Newhall and the Mustang Drive-In off Soledad Canyon Road were the lone cinematic venues.
The emergence of the Santa Clarita Valley as a viable place to live, work and play was precipitated by several key developments, chief among them the country’s post-war westward migration and California’s remarkable growth. The two greatest obstacles to further development locally – limited access and insufficient water – were in the process of being resolved.
The old Highway 99 was steadily being circumvented by a major north/south freeway, Interstate 5, that would cut a vital swath through the Santa Clarita Valley on its way to becoming California’s most important roadway, connecting north with south, border to border.
And, following California voters’ approval seven years earlier to bring state water south, plans were moving forward on a major new State Water Project dam and reservoir in Castaic.
This project, part of what would become the biggest water-delivery system in the world, finally ensured a reliable source of water. All of these developments set the stage for the dramatic transformation of a dusty domain of cowboys and sodbusters into a rapidly growing suburbia, one that would need a public institution of higher learning.
Thus was born College of the Canyons, which would go on to become one of the fastest-growing community colleges in California and the nation.
Things moved quickly once voters gave the go-ahead. The Board of Trustees – President Dr. William G. Bonelli Jr., Edward Muhl, Peter Huntsinger, Sheila Dyer and Bruce Fortine – began functioning as an official body on Dec. 11, 1967.
They initiated a search for someone who could create a college from the ground up and get it running quickly. Santa Barbara City College President Dr. Robert C. Rockwell emerged as the top choice. He became the first superintendent of the Santa Clarita Valley Junior College District, as it was then called, and the first president of its college, which would eventually adopt the now-familiar name of College of the Canyons.
Other names were considered for the new college district, among them North Valley, Upper Santa Clarita Valley, Bouquet, Canyon, and Vasquez.
Asked why he would consider leaving a plush coastal clime for a dusty semi-desert outpost, Rockwell replied: “A college president has very few opportunities to create an entirely new college, and I’m still young enough to do it – and I want very much to do it.”
The trustees liked his answer, as well as the fact he’d earlier overseen the construction of Cerritos Community College. Accompanying Rockwell from Santa Barbara was his loyal vice president, Gary Mouck, who would stay on at College of the Canyons long after his mentor retired.
“College of the Canyons is what it is today because Bob Rockwell was the right man at the right place at the right time,” Mouck said. “There is simply no question about that. He brought invaluable experience and an innate leadership quality to the project.”
Rockwell, Mouck and the trustees soon began the crucial task of finding the people who would give life and character to the new college. First to be built was an administrative staff, composed of Charles Rheinschmidt, assistant superintendent-student personnel; Carl McConnell, dean of admissions and records, and Joleen Block, director of library services.
Rockwell often boasted that he had personally “hand-picked” the college’s instructors. But they first had to get past Mouck, who interviewed and screened every one of them. During the months leading up to the first classes in the fall of 1969, he and fellow administrators turned their attention to recruiting the first faculty members. They sifted through the resumes of some 4,000 applicants. Thirty-one would be chosen.
The inaugural faculty were William Baker, communications; James Boykin, biological sciences; Louis Brown, police science; Steven Cerra, history; Theodore Collier, political science and history; Robert Downs, music; Alice Freeman (Betty Spilker), English; Kurt Freeman, psychology; George Guernsey, technology; Mildred Guernsey, mathematics; Ann Heidt, art and English; Donald Heidt, English; Donald Hellrigel, foreign language; Elfi Hummel, foreign language and drama; Leonard Herendeen, police science; Iris Ingham, art; Jack Israel, physical education; Edward Jacoby, physical education; Jan Keller, librarian; Thomas Lawrence Jr., physics; Clifford Layton, business and mathematics; Betty Lid, English; J.J. O’Brien, police science; George Pederson, police science; Lynora Saunders, physical education; Lee Smelser, physical education; Dale Smith, sociology and anthropology; Gretchen Thomson, history; Gary Valentine, chemistry and biology; Frances Wakefield, counseling, and Stanley Weikert, business.
The composition of the original Board of Trustees elected in 1967 changed, as John Hackney replaced Sheila Dyer in 1969.
The challenges facing the young district were formidable. Even with the key people in place, the college still existed in concept only. There was nothing yet tangible and very little money. By May 1969 the college’s first catalog was ready to go – minus an important detail. “There was no cover because the college didn’t have a name,” Mouck recalled years later. That issue would soon be resolved.
Mouck was in his office one day in early 1969, examining topographic maps of the Santa Clarita Valley, when he noticed the number of canyons. “I counted over 50. So I yelled out, ‘How about College of the Canyons?’ ” There already was a College of the Desert and a College of the Redwoods, so College of the Canyons made sense, he reasoned. On May 15, 1969, the Board of Trustees agreed. “College of the Canyons” won out over other suggestions such as Santa Clarita College and Valencia College.
The rationale behind the selection of the cougar as official mascot was far less complicated. “I came up with ‘cougar’ because I like cougars,” Mouck said matter-of-factly.
Attention soon turned to the reason Mouck was examining topographic maps in the first place. The college needed a home. Although there were still vast swaths of vacant land in 1969, a significant portion of it was owned by one company, Newhall Land. The college identified some 45 possible properties on which to build, including land that Newhall Land and Sea World planned to transform into a major theme park. That place would open on May 29, 1971, as Magic Mountain and quickly become a regional landmark, but only after Newhall Land made college leaders an offer that was hard to pass up.
The company offered to sell the district more than 150 prime acres along Interstate 5 near Valencia Boulevard for about $10,000 an acre, then return 10 percent of the purchase price as a gift. Now, all the district needed was the money.
With hundreds of prospective students eagerly awaiting their new college, temporary quarters were arranged at Hart High School. It was there, in a Newhall Avenue bungalow, that College of the Canyons officially welcome its first class of students on Monday, Sept. 29, 1969. Rockwell expected about 600 people to sign up for that first fall quarter. But, in a precursor to the years that would follow, demand was underestimated as 735 students showed up.
Administrative offices were located several blocks away, at 24609 Arch Street, in a strip-mall storefront just over the railroad tracks at San Fernando Road (now called Main Street). The college organized its first-year schedule around the quarter system, with the winter quarter starting Jan. 7, 1970 and the spring quarter commencing April 8, 1970. There was no summer session.
Courses of instruction were comprehensive for such a new institution. More than 150 classes were offered in anthropology, art, astronomy, automotive technology, biological sciences, business, chemistry, communications, economics, engineering, English, French, geography, geology, German, health education, history, home economics, library technology, mathematics, meteorology, music, philosophy, physical education, physics, police science, political science, psychology, social science, sociology and Spanish.
The college fielded its first athletic teams in baseball, basketball, cross country and track under the auspices of the Desert Conference.
Student activities began immediately. The college’s first student body president, Paul Driver, was elected. The first issue of the student newspaper, “The College Sound,” rolled off the press in November. A steady succession of events with names such as Sweethearts Dance and Annual Awards Banquet followed, as did theatrical productions such as “The World of Ferlinghetti” and “Our Town.”
— “The History of College of the Canyons” By John Green, Managing Director, District Communications