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An early backer is finally getting UCLA credit

Times Staff Writer

No classroom building or dormitory at UCLA is named after Reginaldo Francisco del Valle. Nor does any plaza, fountain, auditorium or library wing bear the name of the state legislator and Los Angeles civic activist who died in 1938 at age 84.

The name does not register with most UCLA professors, and the school’s official history mentions Del Valle just once, only in passing.

Such an omission is historically and morally wrong, contends UCLA medical school professor David Hayes-Bautista. For the past several years, Hayes-Bautista has been crusading to gain recognition for what he describes as Del Valle’s crucial role in founding the state teachers college that later became the University of California’s first campus in Los Angeles.

“It certainly would be nice to do something to commemorate him, with a statue or portrait or a building on campus named after him,” said Hayes-Bautista, an epidemiologist and demographer who is director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture. Such a step also would be a reminder that a California-born man from a Mexican ranching family had a plan in the 1880s that benefits today’s students.

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Hayes-Bautista had a breakthrough in his campaign last month when the written program at the inauguration of UCLA Chancellor Gene Block prominently mentioned Del Valle.

In the program, a brief history of UCLA explained that the first UC campus was created in Oakland in 1868 and soon moved to Berkeley. Southern Californians then clamored for public higher education in their own region and got it “thanks largely to the skilled efforts of a Latino State Assemblyman, Reginaldo Francisco del Valle,” the program declared.

Del Valle’s legislative maneuvers and heavy lifting in the Assembly and Senate led to the 1881 establishment of a state teachers training college in Los Angeles, despite intense competition from cities around California for the funding and honor. That college, called “the Los Angeles State Normal School,” was initially downtown and shifted in 1914 to a bigger location on Vermont Avenue in East Hollywood. UC Regent Edward A. Dickson and Normal School President Ernest Carroll Moore then forged a partnership to bring a UC campus to the Los Angeles area. After much debate in the Legislature, a UC “southern branch” was approved in 1919 and allowed to take over the Normal School campus.

Moore became the head of what subsequently became known as UCLA. Ten years later, the university built a campus on former ranchland and bean fields in Westwood; the Vermont Avenue property ultimately became Los Angeles City College.

Block said he wanted to have Del Valle’s role emphasized in the inauguration program as a recognition of “the leadership and philanthropic contributions made by key Californians like Mr. Del Valle.” Hayes-Bautista said he was gratified by Block’s decision.

Hayes-Bautista had never heard of Del Valle’s role in the Normal School until he was browsing through a Long Beach bookstore a few years ago and found a 1920s book about the plans for UCLA’s Westwood campus. The text’s mention of Del Valle and the Normal School intrigued him and launched him on a round of research in UCLA archives and handwritten records of the Legislature. He had help from two UCLA researchers and former Assemblyman Marco Antonio Firebaugh.

Two years ago, just after Firebaugh’s death, the history journal “Southern California Quarterly” published the group’s 35-page article titled “Reginaldo Francisco del Valle, UCLA’s Forgotten Forefather.” The piece detailed the complicated legislative struggles surrounding the Normal School’s founding and emphasized that UCLA “did not spring into being out of nothingness in 1919.” In February, Hayes-Bautista presented those findings to a campus Latino group and Block attended.

Some people at UCLA remain skeptical about the importance of the Normal School to the university’s history. But UCLA’s archivist, Charlotte Brown, who said she previously had not known anything about Del Valle, described the research as “significant.”

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“I like the fact that professor Hayes-Bautista was paying attention to this,” she said, adding that the research may be included in a campus history being prepared for UCLA’s centennial in 2019. A history published in 1969, “UCLA on the Move,” mentions Del Valle as the sponsor of the Normal School legislation but says nothing else of him while giving extensive accounts of Dickson and Moore as UCLA’s founders.

Del Valle’s role in higher education apparently was eclipsed as UCLA developed. At a 1930 dedication ceremony at the Westwood campus, he was not a speaker, was not mentioned in the speeches and was not among those honored, according to the journal article. In a recent interview, Hayes-Bautista said he was not sure why Del Valle was snubbed but said he suspected it had to do with his Mexican heritage. Born in Los Angeles four years after California became part of the United States, the bilingual Del Valle was part of a ranching family with roots in Jalisco, Mexico.

In the 1920s, discrimination against Latinos was on the rise in California and “it may have been extremely uncomfortable for the powers that be in Los Angeles to admit the founder of their university was a Mexican,” Hayes-Bautista said, adding that he had no solid evidence of bias against Del Valle.

In fact, Del Valle won public honors throughout his long life. He served in the Legislature for six years and then ran unsuccessfully for Congress and lieutenant governor. A well-known lawyer, he was active in state and national Democratic Party activities and served as president of the city Public Service Commission when that agency developed the aqueduct system that, amid much controversy, brought water from Northern California. A downtown Los Angeles post office was named after him a few months before his death.

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Del Valle remained prominent enough to merit a lengthy obituary in The Times describing him as “probably the most distinguished of the old Californians of Spanish blood and speech whose lives carried over into the present century.” He was “largely responsible for Los Angeles obtaining the State Normal School in ’81,” the September 1938 article said. His body lay in state in the City Hall rotunda for four hours and many city leaders attended his funeral.

Hayes-Bautista said he knows there is no landslide of sentiment at UCLA for a Del Valle Hall to join the building named after Moore and the plaza named after Dickson. But no matter what happens next in his campaign, he said, he is glad to see UCLA “a little more rooted in local history.”

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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