Carnett: Former students liked dorm life at OCC

Will student housing be introduced at Orange Coast College in the not-too-distant future?

It appears likely, according to a couple of recent Daily Pilot posts. And the housing is certain to usher in a "Back to the Future" atmosphere on campus.

The college had two student dormitories at its inception in 1948. The dorms were two of more than 100 two-story barracks buildings constructed on the 1,300-acre Santa Ana Army Air Base facility between 1942 and 1945.

OCC opened for classes on 240 acres of that base on Sept. 13, 1948.

One dormitory was set aside for athletes — football, basketball and baseball players and wrestlers. Non-athletes used the dorm next door. There were no dorms for women.

Wrestler Dean Burchett, who was recruited to OCC from El Centro in 1948, lived in the dorms for two years. He later became an Orange Coast professor.

"(The dorms) weren't bad at all," he told me many years later. "We had everything we needed."

Dave Heikes, a petroleum technology major and football player, lived in the dorms from 1952 to '54. He ended up working for OCC for 41 years, retiring in 1993 as director of maintenance and operations.

"The dorms were great," he told me. "For $30 dollars a month we had a clean room, a comfortable bed, two meals per day, a closet for our clothes and a desk for our homework. You couldn't beat it."

"Talking to some of the dorm's residents, one may get the idea that they goof off … all the time," wrote school newspaper reporter Richard Rohweder in 1960. "Nothing could be further from the truth. In each room are two desks, one for each person in the room. The dorm boys almost always study during the evening hours.

"Several residents seem to have a knack for paper hanging, however. Several walls are covered with pictures from Playboy, Esquire and other publications."

The dorms came to life weekdays at 7 a.m.

"About 15 alarm clocks go off at once," wrote Jerry Finnicum in a 1959 school newspaper expose about the dorms. "At approximately 7:15 a.m., the wash basins in the restroom have lines five and six deep. By 7:40, all of the boys are over in the student snack bar getting their morning nourishment: a cup of coffee and a cigarette."

According to Finnicum, at 6:30 p.m. one could hear a shout echoing throughout the dorms: "Shut up! How can I study with all this noise?"

Things usually simmered down by 8 p.m.

"(Then), about 9:30 or 10 p.m., somebody yells, 'coffee time,' and the stampede (begins)," Finnicum continued. "In a matter of minutes, the parking lot is almost empty and the hamburger joints are … invaded by a hungry, brain-fatigued mob."

After quaffing down 17-cent burgers, plus fries, sodas and shakes, the group would return to campus to gather in dorm rooms and spend an hour kibitzing.

Dorm students purchased meal tickets and ate all meals — Monday through Friday — in OCC's cafeteria. On weekends, however, they were on their own.

"We'd have to go off campus to eat when the cafeteria was closed," Burchett told me. "There was a restaurant or two a couple of miles from campus."

A fence surrounded the perimeter of the campus, and the gates were pulled shut on weekends and holidays.

"Most … dorm students were from Los Angeles, Riverside, Barstow or San Diego," early 1950s student Fred Owens told me years later. "They'd … go home on weekends, unless there was a big football game or something."

School newspaper reporter Rohweder offered his take on dorm life in 1960, shortly after it was announced the dormitories were to be torn down.

"The dorms are being scrapped to make room for more classroom buildings, which will be needed for the … influx of (new) students," he wrote. "The dorms, which were a part of the old Army Air Base, were inherited by the college in 1948. Their age is starting to show."

OCC's dorms were razed in the summer of '60 to make room for a classroom building, and that was the end of an era. But a new campus housing era may be on the way.

Stay tuned.

Former Orange Coast College employee JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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