Digging in and making a name
Coming into the 1990s, West was moving forward, gaining students and programs, and making progress under President Thor. The pledge to raise enrollment had been met. The goal to expand curriculum was being achieved. Everything seemed to not only be on track, even settling into a comfortable status quo. But if there’s one thing that’s constant in the history of West, it’s change.
PRESIDENT THOR EXITS – PRESIDENT WONG ENTERS: In the summer of 1990, at the age of 40, Dr. Linda Thor resigned to become president of the larger Rio Salado College in Phoenix. She would go on to become Chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District.
After several months under an interim president, the District hired another woman to head the college, which by that time had a large number of women and minority students. And the new president reflected the diversity. Dr. Evelyn Wong, a Chinese-American who had begun her career with the District at East Los Angeles College, became the newest president at WLAC. At the time she was tapped for the post at West, she was 41 years old and serving as Trade-Technical’s vice-president.
President Wong understood first-hand that community colleges really could make a difference in students’ lives. Her Chinese-American family believed that there was no need for a girl to focus on university schooling. Clearly, Evelyn Wong thought differently, and WLAC was fortunate that she did.
“It was a particularly challenging college,” Wong recalled. “The resources were always very limited – both the personnel resources and the physical resources,” she said. “We were just a small college in a 9-college system,” Wong added, saying that some on the staff didn’t feel as if WLAC got as much support as some of the larger colleges in the District. “But the teachers,” she said, “are what made WLAC work. They helped WLAC become the school it is today…I can’t give enough credit to the teachers…We always had to be resourceful and innovative, and I really think that was a strength of the college,” Wong said.
Wong was interested in finding out more about West students. She learned that WLAC was perceived by students around the District as “a more prestigious college,” particularly for students from lower income areas. “What characterized the college was that there were a lot of students who would travel quite a bit,” she said, adding that those students were making a choice not to go to the college that was closest for them.
West was generally competing with Santa Monica College (SMC) for students. But while students were aware that West’s course offerings might not be as varied as the larger campus, they knew they would get a good education, from teachers who cared.
THE STRUGGLE TO COMPLETE FA, ATA & THE ATHLETIC COMPLEX: That’s not to say everything was smooth sailing. At the beginning of her tenure, President Wong was involved in legal battles against the college to block the construction of the Aviation Technology Complex, Fine Arts Complex, and Gym/Athletic Field. “I think the high point of my time was when we were able to resume construction of the buildings that had been in the master plan for 20 years,” Wong said. “The building with the theatre, the Fine Arts building – I didn’t think people were expecting that it was ever going to be done.”
But done they were. The aviation program moved from the LAX satellite to its new home on campus in 1993 and the Athletic Field and Fine Arts Buildings opened in 1997 and 2000 respectively. The latter two venues are not only used for instruction but are also frequently used by community organizations and neighbors.
ATHLETIC SUCCESS & NFL ALUMNI: Along with the addition of the gym, athletics continued to move forward as well in the 1990’s. In 1996, the Oilers averaged 413 yards per game and finished third in the Western State Conference Southern Division. As a result, the run-and-shoot Oilers played in their first bowl game, the inaugural Los Angeles County Bowl. The Oilers that year were lead by running back Romell Knutt, who had 970 yards in 173 carries.
Knutt would later transfer to West Texas A&M University, and become a leading rusher and pass catcher. He was recruited along with his God-brother Kory Jones (6 feet, 180 pounds), who would go on to become one of the team’s leading pass catchers, and the first WT player in two years to be voted the Lone Star Conference South Division’s player of the week after only his third game.
The WLAC to West Texas A&M transfer train became a popular one, especially from that stalwart team, as Knutt and Jones were joined by linemen LeShaun Bell (6-3, 330 pounds) and Tish Pierce (6-3, 320). Those transfers, and the other university programs that were now looking at WLAC athletes, were a testimony to the athletic program that had been under long-time Athletic Director Jim Raack.
Raack came to WLAC in 1972 as an assistant football coach and physical education instructor. Even with limited facilities, Raack was able to recruit quality talent and produced competitive and exciting teams, winning the Western State Conference football championship in his first season, and repeating it two years later. Raack was with West 37 years, until 1999, and was responsible for countless success stories including:
- STEPHEN BAKER, also known as ‘The Touchdown Maker, spent his five-year pro football career as a New York Giants wide receiver.
- ISAAC BRUCE, a 1999 All-Pro Team wide receiver and 14-year Rams player, earned a Super Bowl Ring in 2000.
- CHARLES DEJURNETT’s 12-year career was spent playing for the Chargers and Rams.
- KEYSHAWN JOHNSON went from WLAC to USC and became the first pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. He played wide receiver for the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers before becoming a sports broadcaster. (Note: His long-time agent W. Jerome Stanley, a star in his own arena, is also a WLAC alumni).
- WARREN MOON played for the WLAC Oilers in 1974-75 and set school and conference records before transferring to the University of Colorado. He was a star in the Canadian Football League before joining the Houston Oilers where, as quarter back, he become the highest paid player at the time and a 9-time Pro Bowler. Later, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
- SAM ROGERS was a second round draft pick out of the University of Colorado and played for the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers and Atlanta Falcons.
- EDELL SHEPHERD played for the Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Houston Texan and the Detroit Lions.
- TERRELL WILLIAMS transferred to East Carolina where he was an all-star nose guard, then became a university and NFL defensive line coach.
IN 1999, AS THE CENTURY CLOSED, West celebrated its 30-year anniversary. The college was continually increasing enrollment, expanding course offerings, improving technology, and earning national recognition for athletics and academic achievement.
Wong had successfully led the fight against those who questioned the college as a resource and sought to slow its progress. “I think the most significant thing for me,” she said, “is that West does provide an educational opportunity for many, many students who might not otherwise be able to experience or participate.”
A lot of West students, she said, are first generation college students. Many of them come from families who are economically struggling, “West gives them an opportunity to participate economically,” she concluded.
This is an edited excerpt from “West Los Angeles College 1960s through 2010s”