Courtesy of The Napa Valley Register
Founded during World War II, Napa Valley College celebrating 75th anniversary
KIRK KIRKPATRICK email@example.com
Aug 19, 2017
An undated graduation photo from when Napa Junior College shared a campus on Jefferson Street with Napa High School. The current campus was built in 1965.
To old-school Napans, it will always be known simply as "the JC." To others, the name Napa College seems stuck in their heads, even though officially the school has been known as Napa Valley College since 1982.
Napa Valley College's 75th anniversary is the fruit of efforts by a Napa visionary of the early 1940s: Dr. Harry McPherson, superintendent of schools in Napa County.
"He saw the need for a college in the Napa area," recalls daughter Ann Cash, who later became a director of the Napa Valley College Foundation board. "He knew people here really needed jobs, and to get a good job, they needed an education."
As a result of McPherson's dream and determination, the people of Napa passed a $650,000 bond issue in 1941 and the next year, Napa Junior College was founded as part of the school district. The first class numbered only 16 students, 15 of whom were young women.
The college occupied a couple of classrooms in the old Napa Union High School building at Lincoln and Jefferson, and offered only a handful of classes, primarily for the nursing program.
Today, the school boasts 6,000 full- and part-time students, according to current president Dr. Ron Kraft.
Dolores Fischer, long-time Napa educator, recalls those early years as a student: "I was able to get 18 college credits taking JC courses while still in high school," she remembered, "and that meant I could get my college degree in three years."
Fischer, who joined the college faculty as a Spanish teacher in the late 1950s, vividly recalls when Napa Junior College built its own campus in 1965. The relocation was largely thanks to McPherson and a few others lobbying Gov. Pat Brown for the state property at a sweetheart price.
"The parking lots weren't paved yet," Fischer said, "and there was dust everywhere. When the rains came, that turned into a sea of mud. The next year," she noted, "the teachers promised to give up their raises if the money would go towards paving the parking lots."
Betty Malmgren, former director of community relations at the college, was also a student in the early days.
"When I was a student," she recalled, "it was very much a continuation of high school with homecoming, football games and dances in the cafeteria. While employed there, I saw the population had changed: many more older and 'non-traditional' students returning to college after an absence for re-training," Malmgren noted. "Today the college is much more diverse in population and their goals."
Jose Hernandez, assistant dean, is a 15-year veteran of the school who is involved with diversity programs.
"Coming from a low income, Hispanic family, I'm a replica of many of our students," he said. "Now we have become an HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution) site because at least 25 percent of our student population is Hispanic. As a result, we received a government grant and bought a lot of equipment for our science and engineering departments. Now we have equipment that four-year colleges would be envious of."
Hernandez is also very involved with the Math Engineering Science Achievement program at NVC. "We have a lot of first-generation students here," he said. "We provide free tutoring and we help in locating internships for them."
Perhaps the school's most high-profile graduate is former NFL coach Dick Vermeil from Calistoga.
"I was not really planning to attend college when I graduated from Calistoga High, but my football coach, Bill Wood, talked me into it," recalled Vermeil. "I wasn't what you would call a stellar student when I got there, but my time there straightened out my thinking. The school was not there to eliminate you, it was there to educate you."
He played on the football team, which was discontinued in the early 1980s, and went on to get a scholarship at San Jose State.
Later, Vermeil returned to coach Napa JC's football team to its best record ever and was later recruited to coach at Stanford, then UCLA. He went on to the NFL and won a Super Bowl in St. Louis. "I will always be in debt to Napa Valley College," he said. Today, Vermeil's family funds the Vermeil Foundation at Napa Valley College.
Another notable alumnus, Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, recalled taking classes at Napa Junior College when he returned from Vietnam.
"The school really opened my eyes," said Thompson, who is still involved with the school and has funded a scholarship there for students interested in public service.
Thompson is a chair of the 75th anniversary committee and his office hires many interns out of the school.
"I think this school is well-positioned for the future," he said. "They have an excellent faculty and do a superb job working with the community to educate, train and retrain people of all ages. They truly understand and serve the needs of the local community."
One of the jewels of the school today is its world-class Viticulture and Wine Technology program. Paul Wagner has taught in that program for more than 22 years.
"We're in the Napa Valley, we should be a leader in this area," Wagner said. "It's amazing the number of students we have who work in the industry and already have post-graduate degrees.
"They are extremely smart and committed students and see a real practical application to what they are learning, that's why I love teaching there," he said. "They are there because they really want to learn.
"The faculty in the VWT program is absolutely amazing: We have award-winning wine makers and many authorities in the field," Wagner said. He noted that a textbook he has written, based on the curriculum at Napa Valley College, is now the gold standard worldwide.
Passage of a bond measure some years ago led to the building of a new library, some science classrooms and the impressive Performing Arts Center. President Kraft said campus student housing is also well into the planning stages.
The college has struggled with its public image in recent years. It suffered a defeat in 2014 when it asked the public to approve a $198 million bond for new buildings and extensive renovations to older facilities. Critics said the school's plan was vague and they raised questions about the handling of funds from previous bond measures.
That came on top of several years of unusual turmoil at the top, after the unexpected death of President Chris McCarthy in 2009.
McCarthy was succeeded by several interim presidents, punctuated by the short and tumultuous tenure of President Edna Baehre.
Kraft was named interim president in 2012 and became permanent in 2013, returning stability in the president's office. Kraft has refocused the school on long-term goals and the building of a stronger relationship with the public, which he admits had become strained in the run-up to the 2014 bond vote.
He has made a point of getting his board and staff out into the community to remind people of the history and importance of the college.
"Community involvement is huge for Napa Valley College," Kraft said. "There's a great respect here for the college as an institution and locals think of it as 'their' college.
Kraft believes one of the school's important missions is to lead the cultural change in the county. "My board and all of the faculty and their constituents want Napa Valley College to be a leader in the community."
"In some ways," he said, "we've kept a lid on ourselves but I'm proud of the fact we've been named the state's leading community college a couple of years running and that has given us a real opportunity to step up here."
Jennifer King, professor of theater arts at Napa Valley College, joined in 2006, and serves as artistic director and coordinator for the Performing Arts Center.
"Most definitely I see the college in a leadership position in the community. We are building bridges into the community," King said, "so people know we are an important resource for them now. Part of my charge as director of the Performing Arts Center is building those bridges, especially with different cultural groups."
"We work with students of all ages, not only young people but lifelong learners, and serve many needs. We foster cultural literacy. The arts programs in the public schools have been decimated so we have a real opportunity to bridge that gap," she said. "We have a theater for young audiences program in the fall where we have low cost matinees. We are taking Shakespeare outdoors as well as going into the schools and performing there."
King feels she is in the ideal place at the ideal school. "I get to keep people excited about theater and cultivate a new generation of theater artists here and life doesn't get much better than that," she said.
A college is always concerned with its endowment and fund raising is an ongoing priority at Napa Valley College. Melissa Gibbs, former executive director of the school's foundation, pointed out what a difference Napa Valley College has made in the area.
"Working at Napa Valley College was a humbling experience that made me realize that without the college, thousands of individual students and families over the last 75 years in our still predominantly rural community, would not have been able to realize their personal and professional goals without the support our foundation offers," Gibbs said.
In 2016, the school handed out over $250,000 in scholarships to more than 200 students. Gerardo Martin, recent past president of the foundation, believes the 75th anniversary is going to help put the college back in front of local people's minds.
"We just hired a new executive director for the foundation and that's going to be a game changer," said Martin, a student at NVC himself in 1985. "If the foundation has success, the college has success. They are very connected."
The foundation is preparing multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign to expand and revamp the wine program facilities.
Martin said he believes some area people still don't understand what a jewel they have in Napa Valley College, and they need to know about all the new facilities and programs.
The current president of the Napa Valley College Foundation, Bill Hardy, got involved because he was once a scholarship student and understands how much it can benefit students.
"I've had the opportunity to hand out over $250,000 in scholarships to students who really need it and appreciate it," he said. "It's just the most heartwarming thing you can possibly imagine."
Jerry Somerville, was a student at the school from 1962-64 and played football and ran track. He later returned to work for Napa Valley College as a night counselor and Financial Aid Officer. His 40-year employment at the school also included many years as tennis coach.
"As a student the college gave me an opportunity to purse higher education. Without Napa Junior College, as it was called then, I could not have gone on to university. Literally I had no other path to higher education," Somerville said.
"My high school grades were not strong enough and I did not score high enough on the entrance exam to be considered for admission to universities. I feel a deep appreciation for the opportunity that Napa Junior College gave me.
"I had three siblings who attended the school and in 1983, my wife took a seminar there that launched her mail order business that has lasted until today." Somerville's son and daughter have also taken classes at NVC."
Another prominent Napan, Jose Hurtado, current chair of the Napa Valley Unified School District, was a student at the college in the early '70s. He later returned to work at Napa Valley College for 38 years as a counselor, a role in which he touched thousands of students who attended the school. He was also a volunteer athlete counselor for 20 years, working with dozens of athletes on his own time.
"I loved working with students and athletes," Hurtado said.
He was also the first counselor hired in the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services program.
"We would recruit students to the program, mostly first-generation Spanish-speaking students. The school is now diversifying its faculty and understanding that not everyone learns the same way. Different resources are often necessary. I also chaired the diversity task force that developed the school's first diversity program."
Hurtado also chaired the counseling department. "We had a great counseling staff. They're all engaged and they're all committed," he said. "We worked hard to shape the college into what it should be. It wasn't easy and I have battle scars, but it worked."
One of the biggest changes on campus recently is the building of the McCarthy Library and Learning Resource Center that has enabled the college to better address the needs of the students, said Rebecca Scott, dean of the Library and Learning Resource since 2010.
"The LLRC has changed the dynamics of the campus substantially. Before its opening, the campus lacked a library and center that could provide the support that students need to succeed in the 21st century," she said. "With the opening of its doors in 2010, the McCarthy Library and Learning Resource Center became the hub" of the campus, providing access to technology, resources, study spaces, meeting rooms, classrooms and support systems. It is the centralized place on campus where everyone gathers both formally and informally."
From its tiny beginning as a 16-member start-up, the college has come to embrace a wide spectrum of students from Napa County and surrounding areas. Perhaps typical of the "non-traditional" students at Napa Valley College is Kelsey Hadfield. Hadfield, who has a 9-year-old daughter and a near full-time job as a music teacher, has been taking between six and nine units a year since 2011.
A "straight A" student, Hadfield said: "I wasn't ready for college right after high school, but now that I'm in my 30s, I am ready to do my homework and go to class every day."
"There are so many things I like about the school including the small classroom sizes and the attention you get from your teachers," Hadfield said. She noted there are students of all ages in her classes.
"I encourage everyone to try Napa Valley College," Hadfield said. "Just sign up for a couple of classes. You'll be so impressed with the teachers that it's going to be a great experience."
Editor's note: This item has been modified from its original form to correct the enrollment numbers.