It's a Trojan kind of town: Deep, long connection ties USC to La Cañada

The crowd erupts in cheers as a Trojan warrior parades a white horse down Foothill Boulevard.

“It's Traveler!” shouts a woman, who dashes into the street for a photo with the University of Southern California mascot.

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Sounds of excitement ripple like a wave down the boulevard during the city's annual Fiesta Days celebration in May, a showing of community pride in which the horse and its rider are the biggest stars.

Although La Cañada lies more than 15 miles north of the downtown Los Angeles campus, symbols of USC are everywhere — decorating private homes, the local high school and even City Hall.

Many residents in the city, including a strong contingency of alumni of the university, are die-hard fans of USC.

“There's definitely a deep, long connection among La Cañadans,” said Steve Orr, a lawyer who lives in the city with his family.

A family legacy

Orr's family is one of several in the foothills with multiple generations of USC alumni.

The family tradition started in the 1950s, when Orr's mother, Thelma, obtained a physical therapy certificate from the university. His father, John B. Orr, later became a professor of religion at USC.

Orr and his brother, John, both graduated from USC. Now he has two sons; Will, 19, and Matt, 21, both enrolled at the campus. Attending USC football games and picnicking with other La Cañada families also became part of the tradition.

Will Orr said he had offers at other schools but couldn't imagine going anywhere but USC after graduating from La Cañada High School in 2012.

“I grew up coming to USC for the football games,” he said. “It's like a home away from home. I've wanted to come here my whole life because it's been such a family institution for us.”

Orr, a sophomore studying history, lives in an apartment near campus with two other La Cañada High graduates. At his freshman orientation, he said, he could count about a dozen other classmates from his hometown.

“Once you get a family tradition going, it's really fun,” said Will Orr. “It's not just an education, it's a legacy.”

Strong alumni network

The network of USC grads living in the city has been described by locals as tight-knit.

Nearly 1,300 alumni live in the La Cañada area, according to the university. They attend football games together and socialize. Ask graduates to name another USC family in the city, and they'll name 10.

Alumni like Craig Steele, who had a parent working at the university, attended for a practical reason: His tuition was free.

Steele met his wife, Sue Wright, on campus and the two were members of the Trojan marching band. A room in the couple's home is filled with USC memorabilia.

The Gilmour family, which has several generations of USC alumni living in La Cañada, is also well known in the community for an affinity with USC.

“USC has such a strong tradition,” said Donna Gilmour. “You really feel connected to the school and the traditions and it kind of trickles down to your kids.”

A top choice for college

USC is consistently one of the top choices for La Cañada High School graduates. Nearly 100% of the graduating class each year enrolls in college, with the majority choosing a four-year university. The senior class usually ranges from 300 to 400 students.

Scott Tracy, president of the La Cañada school board, said the top four-year college students attend rotates every year between USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego.

But USC is consistently popular with students from La Cañada High, and is usually one of the top colleges that students both apply to and decide to attend.

“There's no question that a large percentage of our students are interested in attending USC,” said Tracy. “And it's reciprocated. USC is definitely interested in our students.”

In 2010, La Cañada High was the third-most-represented high school in the entering freshman class, according to USC Dean of Admissions Timothy Brunold. That number has fluctuated over the years, but students at the high school are usually well represented in the incoming fall class.

“LCHS consistently has a USC admission rate that is above the average than that of our overall pool,” Brunold said in an email.

In 2012, 36 students — 42% of the La Cañada High seniors who applied to USC — were accepted, according to Tracy. Nineteen students ultimately chose to enroll in the school.

Private high schools in the area also see seniors choose the downtown university, but more students at the public high school ultimately attend USC. Fifteen freshmen who listed their home address in La Cañada entered the university this fall, with eight from La Cañada High. More than 150 students from La Cañada enrolled in USC over the past five years as either freshmen or transfer students.

Visual reminders of USC

When walking or driving around La Cañada, it usually only takes a moment or two to spot memorabilia of the downtown university on cars or homes. But the biggest local reminder of Trojan influence may be La Cañada High.

La Cañada High's logo and school colors are nearly identical to those of USC.

Both feature a warrior — a Spartan for the high school, a Trojan for the university — as a symbol. La Cañada High's colors are red and gold; USC's are cardinal and gold.

Sheri Morton, who graduated from the high school in 1967, said she remembers students picking the colors over blue and gold, which are the colors of the rival campus in the west.

“As a town, we have always had a lot of USC alumni and UCLA alumni,” she said. “As children of those people, we got to make the choice.”

Morton was part of the first class that completed four years at the high school.

Today, a large illustration of a warrior's head is displayed on a building that overlooks Oak Grove Drive, where the campus is located.

Trojan presence across the city

For City Manager Mark Alexander, it was a USC education that brought him to La Cañada Flintridge.

Alexander started working for the city shortly before he earned his master's degree in public administration in 1990. The San Dimas native said the city was a desirable location for him.

La Cañada is a safe community close to L.A. with a strong educational system, all factors that could attract many USC alumni to the area, he said.

Alexander is still active at his alma mater. He sits on several boards, and chairs the school's City/County Management Fellowship Advisory Council. At City Hall, where several other members of the city staff are also graduates of USC, student interns from the university train to become future city managers.

And a new partnership between USC and a medical facility in the area excites him, he said.

USC acquired Verdugo Hills Hospital in July. The $30-million deal will give the emergency room a makeover and expand other departments. A smaller medical facility on Foothill Boulevard is also operated by USC.

Alexander is one of the more enthusiastic Trojans in the city. His office at City Hall is decorated with cardinal-and-gold memorabilia and he is always eager to talk about the school. His enthusiasm appears contagious.

At a recent City Council meeting, several of the cars parked in the lot behind the building were adorned with USC license plate frames. Inside, an intern shifted through city documents, stopping occasionally to sip out of a mug that was emblazoned with the words “Fight On!”


Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.


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