As a child, Irene Pinkard loved nothing more than staying up late into the night, talking with her father. When her mother dozed off, she and her minister father kept on, discussing politics, current events and biblical teachings.
Through those conversations, she trained herself to think things through and to have an opinion that was strong but not righteous.
The analytical skills Pinkard developed as a child are serving her well as an adult. As a top administrator of Ventura College and a trustee of Oxnard Union High School District, Pinkard is one of the most influential educators in Ventura County.
She is also enormously popular. In May, she received the annual distinguished service award, given by the staff at Ventura College to one outstanding manager each year.
Her reputation spread outside the walls of academia, when she was honored by Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks) as Woman of the Year in the 37th Assembly District.
Despite the honors and her growing power in setting educational policy for thousands of students, Pinkard, 55, remains in many ways the unassuming minister's daughter from Riverside.
Asked about her success, she waves a dismissive hand. "I don't look at myself as so great as much as having the privilege to touch the people I've had the opportunity to," Pinkard said. "In a spiritual sense, I'm doing what I've been sent here to do."
Mostly, what she does is communicate, and her skills have been especially valuable in her job. As director of the multimillion-dollar budget for Ventura College, diplomacy is essential.
"She is very approachable," said college President Larry Calderon. "She communicates openly. . . . She's willing to talk about anything."
Pinkard is the first African American woman to be named vice president of college services at Ventura College, a position historically held by a man. Pinkard oversees the school's annual $26-million budget and has shepherded final stages of construction of the new math and science center.
School Board Trustee
She was hired by the Ventura County Community College District in 1992 as dean of continuing education for Oxnard College.
She had moved to the area more than four years before, when she married Bedford Pinkard, an Oxnard city councilman. During that time, she commuted as long as two hours each way to various administrative jobs: assistant dean at Harbor College, dean at Pierce College and assistant to the chancellor for the Los Angeles Community College District.
As Oxnard College President Elise Schneider sorted through resumes for a dean position, Pinkard's stood out. But Schneider wanted to make sure that Pinkard was as good as she seemed on paper. Schneider, who is now provost for the district's international student program, called most of Pinkard's references.
"I asked if there was any reason why I should not hire her, and I received not one negative comment--which is really unusual," Schneider said.
As one of the new board members of Oxnard Union High School District, Pinkard has already navigated some tough political waters. When the school board was criticized for its decision to transfer popular Oxnard High School Principal Daisy Tatum to head up another school, Pinkard expressed her opinion by abstaining from the vote.
She said in a recent interview that while she supported the decision to move Tatum, she wanted to offer the principal more benefits in the new contract.
Soon after she was elected as a trustee last fall, the board began to sort through questions about whether Adolfo Camarillo High School would become part of the Pleasant Valley School District. The two districts have not yet addressed all the ramifications of such a move. But Pinkard has approached the proposal with her usual critical eye, questioning everything.
"I'm curious whether the [Pleasant Valley] district identified any actual problem leading to the need to pursue unification as the only way to go," she said at a board study session in February. "Did you find a lack of achievement at Adolfo Camarillo High School? Did you check the curriculum? . . . Did you identify the amount of funds that came to Camarillo and find that they did not equate?"
Oxnard Union Supt. Bill Studt said it usually takes new board members a while to get up to speed, but Pinkard has been able to adapt quickly to the often bewildering board procedures and politics.
"She speaks her mind and she's thoughtful," Studt said. "I appreciate that."
She has always been a talker. In the fourth grade, a teacher locked her in a small room for 20 minutes after school for talking too much during class. Although Pinkard kept her mouth shut for the rest of the school year, she returned to her chatty ways the next fall.
In high school, she was a cheerleader and got involved in a slew of community service activities.
After graduating, she attended Riverside City College, where her dad worked. After two years, she transferred to Cal State Long Beach.
Pinkard and a white friend decided to room together in the dormitory and submitted their housing application together. But the school placed Pinkard with an Asian American student and the other woman with another white student.
The friends fought the school, and their room assignments were changed.
Pinkard also decided that fall to attend sorority rush with a few African American friends.
"That caused a big stir," she said. "The dean called us in and asked us, 'What are you trying to do?' She let us know that we couldn't be a part of that."
But when the local press got wind of it, a media blitzkrieg ensued. Overnight, and unintentionally, Pinkard was an activist every local newspaper and television station in town wanted to interview.
The university was forced to reevaluate its policies. Greek organizations that barred minorities were pushed off campus.
"It brought to the forefront the hidden prejudices," Pinkard said.
Pinkard got married at 21 and a few years later had a son, Kevin, now 29. As she decided to continue her education and get more involved in community activities, she grew apart from her husband. After seven years they divorced, but have remained close friends, she said.
She continued to work in the public school system as a teacher, counselor and then administrator for the Los Angeles Unified School District and then the community colleges. While raising Kevin, who now works for the Department of Motor Vehicles in Oxnard, she continued her education, earning a master's degree and then a doctorate.
Pinkard always wanted to be an educator and a student.
"It was just something that I knew innately. When you teach, you learn. It's a continual process," she said. "I don't care how many times you do it."
By the mid-1980s, she had become an administrator in the Los Angeles Community College District. Then, the minister of her church introduced her to his brother, Bedford Pinkard, a former trustee of the Oxnard high school district.
Bedford was impressed with her accomplishments as an educator, and she liked that he respected her.
"I wanted someone who wouldn't be threatened that I had a doctorate," Pinkard said. "He and I could have a dialogue about our different points of view. He was into kids. I was into kids. Our thoughts were always about how could we make a difference for kids."
They married 12 years ago; she moved to Oxnard and commuted to Los Angeles until she was hired at Oxnard College.
A few years after they married, the couple started what has become an annual weeklong trip to historically black colleges. They take more than 15 youngsters on a college tour every spring.
They keep the cost low but will often pay for students who can't afford the trip. This year, they visited several schools in Virginia, before going to Howard University in Washington, D.C. Over the years, they have supported scores of young adults enrolling in college.
She credits her Christian faith and all those Saturday night discussions with her father for giving her an uncommon humble confidence.
"I never let my color stop me. It never occurred to me that I couldn't do anything. I just did it," Pinkard said. "And I still do."