Firstest With the Mostest

Today, we meet two Californians happy in their work. In more routine times, this might not merit much notice, but for California these are hardly routine times. We are stuck in a long, strange season of malaise and drift, musing grumpily about where it all went wrong, about how we lost the golden touch.

Handel Evans and Hank Hendrickson have no time for the California crying game. This unlikely duo--an English-born architect and academician, and a military man from Missouri--are making one of the first substantial plays at the much- ballyhooed peace dividend. In short form, they are intent on turning this Monterey Bay army base into a college campus.

*

When they began what Evans calls their "serendipitous relationship," Evans was the No. 2 administrator at San Jose State and Hendrickson was Ft. Ord's garrison commander--roughly the base city manager. Evans would represent San Jose at collegiate golf tournaments hosted by the base. Over rounds on the Bayonet Golf Course, a friendship was forged.

Later, Evans became president of San Jose State. Hendrickson retired from the Army and was hired as campus facilities director. This was toward the end of the 1980s. There were rumors that Ft. Ord was on a Pentagon hit list. Evans kept asking Hendrickson if he thought the base would be closed.

"No way," Hendrickson would reply. "Never."

Never came in 1991. The announcement that Ft. Ord was to be decommissioned produced what now, a couple of hit lists later, is a familiar response. Politicians vowed to battle the closure. Economists trotted out frightful--and wholly theoretical--forecasts of lost jobs. In short, it was just as we hear today from McClellan to El Toro: gloom and doom and when's the next bus to Oregon.

Evans took a different course. He assembled a video crew and with Hendrickson--"He's forgotten more about Ft. Ord than I will ever know," he says--headed over to the base. They taped a 13-minute video. Evans, as narrator, strolled through the barracks and recreation center, the football stadium and day-care center, suggesting that Ft. Ord offered everything a modern university might need. "It is already a living, thriving town," he said, peering persuasively into the camera. "We could use the word campus ."

Before long, the video was in wide circulation, and the CSU's Ft. Ord plan was being heralded as "the national model." Federal officials weary of fielding complaints about hit lists were delighted to hear from someone excited about the potential created by one closure.

Initially, Evans saw the Ft. Ord site as a satellite for overcrowded San Jose State. This soon gave way to grander schemes. What is now proposed is a residential university that specializes in environmental sciences and what Evans terms "Pacific Rim sort of studies." Moreover, it would form the centerpiece of a series of institutions, think tanks and private research centers, all calibrated toward environmental science and technologies--potentially the state's next big industry.

"I have listened to Handel talk about this for well over a year now," drawls Hendrickson, "and the dream never loses its punch."

*

With Hendrickson set up in a Seaside office--negotiating each day with the Army and community officials, staking out and protecting the 1,300 acres he calls the campus "footprint"--and with Evans lobbying elected officials and CSU trustees for support and seed money, the project has moved along further and faster than most people seem to realize.

If matters stay on course, by August the project will receive final federal approval, along with $100 million to refurbish the facilities. Renovation will start next spring, after the last soldier leaves. Classes will begin in the fall of 1995, with enrollment gradually building to 25,000. And California will have saved itself about $1 billion and a decade of turmoil over where to put the next CSU campus.

Of course, it could fall apart at any time. Latecomers have begun to advance other ideas for Ft. Ord--highways, prisons, condos--and there's always a chance another big war will come along. Great for the California economy, bad for those who would turn forts into universities.

For now, though, Evans and Hendrickson appear to have preempted the field, and there's a lesson in that for those who would fight the base closures forever, trying to postpone the inevitable. "We hit it very, very early in the game," says Evans, "and that speed is an important element. . . . The longer it takes to do something like this, the more likely it is that the wheels will fall off."

It's like the old general said: The battle is won by those who get there firstest with the mostest.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°