WLAC is open!…but just barely
Picture the scene: First Day of Classes at a brand new college…How glorious, how inspiring, how beautiful. The sun glistening off majestic white columns outside of the Administration building, thousands of students strolling confidently to their classes along finely manicured lawns, or stopping to ask teachers where they should — WAIT…
It was not quite like that on the first day of school at West Los Angeles College. Not even close.
Rains and flooding had delayed construction and the instillation of utilities throughout the campus. The January open date had been missed, but College President Morris Heldman was not going to wait anymore. Even before Nike coined the phrase, the hallmark of Dr. Heldman’s presidency was his “just do it” approach.
The new opening day was set for February 10, 1969. Captain Ron Engen, a security chief for the District, received the call on February 7. Have a good weekend, he was told, and show up as the Chief of Campus Police for West Los Angeles College on Monday. “That first day, there was only one telephone on …Half the campus wasn’t even finished,” he recalled. “Buildings were still being built, the single story administration building was the only building reasonably finished. And across from that, the library was still an unfinished building.”
Due to incomplete buildings, some classes were held in the parking lot. Some faculty and staff brought their personal camping stoves to those outdoor classes and a handful of offices to provide heat. It was an example of the initial group’s “Can Do” attitude, and those first West students noticed. They were getting the feel of a hands-on private school, at a state-funded public school.
WLAC became the “little college that could.” When Dr. Heldman said “Just Do It,” people did.
Not that there weren’t some problems, like finding the classrooms in the dark. The campus had no lights in the first weeks and rains began again. Dean of Instruction Norman Chapman recalled being outside that first night, along with Assistant Dean Steve Kane. “We were out there in slickers, with flashlights, directing traffic for the evening classes.” And, instructors opened their doors to let the light flow out of the classrooms, down the stairs, and out into the night.
Many of the first classes were held in “temporary” bungalows. (Note: Some of those bungalows remained in use until 2013.) “When the trailers were ready, there were no chalkboards, so the Plant Facilities professionals came up with some plywood boards which were painted black. Somehow, the painted surfaces were not as satisfactory as is slate, so I purchased a ‘whiteboard’ from a teachers’ supply store on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles,” recalled Psychology Professor Dr. James R. Marks. “It served as a projection screen (don’t ask) and as a satisfactory surface for dry-erase markers.”
The pioneering spirit of West grew as the campus construction continued. The first term in the Spring of 1969 saw enrollment of 1,700, consisting of 1,000 day students and 700 evening, being taught by a faculty of 31.
Also apparent was the lack of racial tension, of neighborhood disruption or any of the other issues that some in the community had feared prior to WLAC opening. And, the staff and faculty seemed to enjoy the energy of creating a whole new institution.
By the Spring of 1969, a handful of students who had transferred to the college needing only a few credits to complete their Associates degree or certification program became the first graduates of West Los Angeles College.
Everyone that was there that first year, and especially that first week, knew it was something special. And they definitely will always remember an opening of a college that included administrators in slickers, cars getting stuck in mud, and teachers with so many lanterns and portable heaters that the college should have been sponsored by Coleman.
Above all, they participated in the start of something special.
This is an edited excerpt from “West Los Angeles College 1960s through 2010s”