Occidental College: A Lively Center of Learning Turns 100

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The freshman class sat in Occidental College’s auditorium, waiting patiently for the dean to arrive. It was last September and the lecture by David J. Danelski was part of orientation week for newcomers.

So far, it had been a pleasant round of activities; being assigned to one of the dormitories, attending a square dance after a football game against Azusa Pacific University and getting acquainted with other students.

Student Body of 1,600

Already these young men and women had learned that 37 states and 22 foreign countries were represented in a student body of 1,600. The freshman class was limited to 425 students, with about 600 applicants turned away. They were an elite group--to be accepted at Occidental, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary today, senior high school students must be in the upper 10% of their graduating class.


Danelski came on stage. Chatter ceased. His background was enough to awe any 18-year-old. Danelski, 56, joined the Occidental College administration in the spring of 1984, as dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs. Before that, he taught political science at Stanford, received a doctorate at the University of Chicago, practiced law in Seattle, and had held faculty positions at Cornell, Yale and the University of Washington. He is the author of books and articles primarily on law, the courts and government. Danelski had an attentive audience. He began his brief welcoming speech:

‘Breadth and Depth’

“This week you will begin a fascinating program of study that will give you, over the next four years, both breadth and depth of knowledge. You will study the history, culture and ideas of Eastern and Western societies. You will learn science and mathematics and become proficient in a foreign language. And you will develop your creative powers in special courses designed for that purpose.

“Then you will select a field of specialization--a major--in which you will develop depth of knowledge that will prepare you for graduate school, professional school and employment. And all the while you will be developing basic skills of communication, critical analysis and evaluation. You will learn to think rigorously, express yourself with precision, and learn to enjoy the pleasures of the mind. In short, you will become educated men and women. At least, that is our hope.”

Since 1891, the year of its first graduating class, Occidental has awarded 18,370 diplomas. When Danelski told them they would be studying the history, culture and ideas of Eastern and Western societies, the dean was referring to the Core program. The quest for knowledge had begun.

Jane Jacquette, professor of political science, is director of the Core program. Its goal is to offer the knowledge to participate in life-long learning.

“We provide the students with an exposure to liberal arts and science the first two years,” she said.


Emphasizing the importance of science for all students she said, “We have to learn how scientists think. Students learn the experimental method by working in a laboratory. As citizens, we have to understand science to make decisions. The toxic waste problem in our environment is a good example.”

Richard C. Gilman, 64, has been president of Occidental College since 1965. Graduating with honors from Dartmouth in 1944, he served as a naval officer in World War II. He pursued graduate studies in philosophy at the University of London and Boston University from which he received a Ph.D. in 1952. He came to Occidental from Carleton College in Minnesota where he was dean and professor of philosophy.

As the college passes the century mark, his thoughts were on the future. “We want to bring students here from all over the country,” he said. “We want to help them do their best, becoming leaders in various professions. Each year, 25% of them go on to graduate schools. When it comes to student recruitment we’re looking for quality. Statistics show that 18-year-olds peaked (in population) in the early ‘80s. So we are preparing for the ‘90s. We began reducing the size of the freshman class, concentrating on quality liberal arts education. We want to bring in a young faculty with new ideas . . . . We started an early retirement program with full benefits after 30 years.”

Gilman paused to gaze out the picture window of his office at the panoramic view of the city in the distance. “Occidental tries not to be something different, but something better,” he continued, “providing undergraduate education in the letters, arts and sciences. The future and the years ahead? We began looking at tomorrow the day before yesterday.”

Andrew F. Rolle, 65, the Cleland professor in history at Occidental, is a 1943 graduate of the college and the author of a number of books. Rolle’s “California: A History” is now a standard text. He has also written a centennial history of Occidental College. While seated in a book-filled study, he related some of the incidents that occurred a century ago.

It was the Rev. William Stewart, minister of the Boyle Heights Presbyterian Church, and several other ministers who met to plan a liberal arts college. Articles of incorporation were certified April 20, 1887. The cornerstone for its first building was laid in Boyle Heights on Sept. 20, 1887. The college became non-sectarian in 1910.


There was never enough money to pay the bills. “Suppliers threatened to sue the institution because they were unpaid,” Rolle said. “One merchant was asked to take back 87 desks because there wasn’t enough in the bank to pay for them. The mortgage was in danger of foreclosure and the taxes on the property were unpaid. Professors taught without contracts, their pay mostly in arrears.”

Moved to Hill Street

Disaster struck in 1896 when the Boyle Heights building burned to the ground. What was salvaged could be carried away in a wheelbarrow. The college moved to an address on Hill Street. Another site was selected in Highland Park in 1898 where it remained until the campus was moved to its present location in Eagle Rock between Glendale and Pasadena in 1912.

Myron Hunt, an architect who designed the Huntington Hotel, the Huntington Library and Henry Huntington’s home, was selected to create the master plan for the college. By the time he had retired in 1940, Hunt had designed 21 buildings for Occidental. He also landscaped the site, planting eucalyptus seedlings intended to rise above the buildings. Today eucalyptus and oak trees shade the quad and one road is lined on both sides with jacaranda. Rose bushes add to the beauty of the campus, which is surrounded on all sides by a city and yet isolated from it.

Occidental offers majors in 23 departments ranging from art, history, and comparative literature to geology, mathematics, psychology and religious studies. It also has one of the larger undergraduate enrollments in chemistry among Western colleges. Many of the chemistry majors have gone on to doctoral programs in geochemistry, nutrition, physiology, pharmacology, medicinal chemistry and other fields.

“Twenty-five percent of our graduates receive degrees in various sciences,” said Dr. Franklin P. DeHaan, 52, chairman of the chemistry department. “The major field they enter is medicine. We receive a number of research grants, and during the summer students have an opportunity to participate in them.”

Wee Ling Wong, 21, is a biochemistry major from Tucson and a senior. “I was looking for a small liberal arts school with a good science program,” she said. “I’m interested in molecular biology and genetic engineering.”


She is also a star player on the women’s basketball team.

Variety of Vocation Choices

Among the students there is a wide variety of vocational preferences. Laura Narvaez, 28, is a junior who lives in Eagle Rock. “When I was 5, I would jump into the campus fountain on hot days,” she recalled. “Now I am studying a course on the Caribbean nations. I’m also interested in pre-Columbian history. I enjoy working with youngsters and I want to be a teacher. During the summer of 1985, I worked in Visalia with migrant children.”

Sewit Bocresion, 18, from Ethiopia entered Occidental because she wants to study electrical engineering, physics, mathematics, and business administration. Another of her interests is Greco-Roman history.

Laura Chase, 20, a sophomore from Glendora is majoring in German and linguistics. Under Occidental’s foreign program, she will be going to Germany for a year’s study abroad. In addition to Germany, students can attend universities in England, France, Japan and Spain.

Nikki Gilkerson, 39, is a junior studying for a degree in music. She just returned from New York where she attended a Time magazine awards dinner, having been chosen as one of 80 merit finalists in the magazine’s 1987 College Achievement Awards.

Gilkerson, who is blind, attends classes with her guide dog, Buddy, a yellow Labrador retriever. “I want to be able to teach the blind at the Braille Institute,” she said. “They are using music as therapy. It helps youngsters make the adjustment in public schools.” She is learning to play the piano, memorizing music that is printed in Braille. She lost her sight from glaucoma in 1976. In a resume Gilkerson submitted to Time she wrote:

“Blindness, for a short time seemed to stop all forward movement of my life. However, it gave me time to evaluate my direction and goal . . .”


John Bouchard, 36, of the college’s theater arts department--where students learn to be actors, directors, set and costume designers--was watching the construction of the new $9-million Keck Theater, a gift from the Keck Foundation. “We hope to have it completed by Christmas,” he said. “We’ll present drama and musical programs. It will seat 400. Theater Arts is a tradition at Occidental as old as the college.”

Lynn Pacala, 35, is director of athletics and intercollegiate sports. As chair of the department of physical education and an associate professor of psychology, she supervises all athletic sports at the college. These include football, volleyball, swimming, track and field, tennis and men’s and women’s basketball.

“We also have a golf team for both men and women,” she said, “and we’ve just added a soccer and softball team for women to our list . . . The athletic program is easily integrated into the mission of a liberal arts institution. We refer to them as student athletes--not athletes. They gain an appreciation for movement as a skilled art--the high jumper for example. They also gain an appreciation for the value of competition.”