photos courtesy Glendale Community College; Building construction

The College that Could

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: History Issue: December 2015
Group Free

Glendale Community College celebrates 50 years of molding Valley minds.

One spring day in 1965, accounting professor Charles Vawter II stood in the middle of a barren field near 59th and Olive avenues with members of the Glendale Chamber of Commerce, staring at ropes strung from stakes to show where the walls of the proposed Glendale Community College campus would be.

“When I was in high school, we’d talk about old guys, like ‘Well, you know, he was here when the last brick was laid,’” Vawter says. “Well, I was here before they ever put the first brick down.”

Planted next to palm-dappled Smith Ranch – later renamed Sahuaro Ranch – a little more than 50 years ago, Glendale Community College has grown into one of the busiest campuses in the Maricopa County Community Colleges network, with around 19,000 students enrolled in the most recent academic year. It offers 36 degrees and certificates, and famous alumni include former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Vincent Furnier (aka Alice Cooper) and New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara. GCC’s various athletic teams have won seven championships over the years in the National Junior College Athletic Association.

Maricopa County Governing Board President Dr. Robert J. Easley (left) and Maricopa County Junior College District President Dr. Robert F. Hannelly, 1965And it all started with some stakes and string. And some legislation.

In 1960, the Arizona state legislature provided for the funding of junior college districts. Phoenix College, established in 1920, became the first institution in the new Maricopa County Community College District in 1962. Glendale Community would become the second. Governor Sam Goddard attended the dedication ceremony on October 16, 1966, in which GCC’s alma mater – fresh off the composition sheets of English and music department faculty members – was sung from the second-floor balcony of the business building.

Dr. John F. Prince was the first dean of the college. Its chosen mascot: the Gaucho, proposed by student government member Kris Horstman, who picked through a dictionary for words that alliterated with “Glendale.” She found “gaucho” – the word for a South American cowboy – and liked that it evoked people who are “hardworking, leathered from living in a climate similar to ours, resourceful, almost legendary heroes in their countries.”

When the campus opened, much of the first crop of faculty was culled from Phoenix College, including Vawter and Phil Smelser, who taught history and philosophy. “There were cotton fields all around the college, and orange groves,” Smelser, now 83, recalls. “There wasn’t much out there. There were no stoplights at 59th Avenue. It was just a four-way stop.”

Rose Larkin, who enrolled at GCC the first semester it was open, recalls the rural setting vividly. “It was just open fields – cotton fields, broccoli, cabbage,” she says. “On my way to school, it was kind of fun, because I could see the crop dusters going over the fields. And that was kind of interesting. I would sometimes pull over and watch. I was fascinated by them.”

More than 243 of the original palm trees from neighboring Sahuaro Ranch remain on the GCC campus to this day. The wildlife also endures, particularly ranch peacocks who visit from next door. Less evident is the bygone remoteness: During its genesis, GCC seemed a world unto itself. “Once you passed either 35th Avenue or 43rd Avenue, there was just nothing out there,” Larkin says. “The college was all by itself.”

Library circulation desk4,085 students enrolled at GCC in its first year. There were about 100 faculty members to teach them. Professors doubled as administrative staff at the outset. “We had no registration dean. We had to keep track of student records, student grading, and there was no person to do that. So we split the responsibilities,” remembers founding faculty member Mark Montanus, who taught computer science and was instrumental in creating GCC’s first High Tech Center in 1986. “A man from the math department ran registrations. I was given the responsibility to oversee the recording of all the grades… there was no dean of women and no dean of men, so we found a speech teacher who was willing to do the deanship for men, and a gal in P.E. who did the women’s. And so everybody pitched in and ran it. It was really kind of mind-boggling, how beautiful to see that. The camaraderie in those early years was fantastic.”

Some students did double duties, too. “When [the college] opened up, it didn’t have any landscaping. It wasn’t completed. A lot of the students were hired to do a lot of the landscaping at the college,” Larkin says. “It was just bare bones at that time. They were still unloading books in the library. There were still boxes everywhere and empty shelves. I mean, it was useable – you could go in there – but it was still being unpacked.”

The first graduation ceremony was held on campus in May 1967, the same year GCC’s track team won the National Junior College Athletic Association Cross Country Championship. Athletic facilities arrived in 1968, with the completion of a swimming pool, a gym annex with stadium seating, and an outdoor stadium and track. An observatory opened the following year, north of the stadium. In 1977, a performing arts center opened, and in January of 1986, GCC broke ground on its first High Tech Center, with Montanus at the helm. “This was a smashing success. The first lab started with only 30 computers, and I helped 500 students who signed up for these different classes,” Montanus says. “Well, that exploded, and the president said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to expand this.’”

So staff started knocking down walls in adjacent rooms. “It went from 500 to 2,000 students. It doubled in capacity and quadrupled the output,” Montanus continues. “The first two years of the high-tech centers, we had 2,000 visitors from all over the world – Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Ukraine… out of that, people built new high-tech centers. I would run workshops for them.”

But computer labs and meandering peacocks weren’t the only sources of excitement on campus. “One time, they had a robbery at one of these retail establishments, and the police were chasing them, and they came right down the middle of this campus and hit this palm tree right out here,” Vawter says over the phone, presumably gesturing at said tree through the window of his office at GCC, where he still teaches. “And one of the guys that was on the football team grabbed the guy, and the police came and picked him up, right outside of our building here. And I happened to see that thing go down.”

In November 2014, founding faculty and students converged on campus to celebrate GCC’s impending 50th anniversary. Professors Vawter, Montanus and Smelser were among those in attendance, as well as several former students, including GCC’s first Associated Student Government president, Terry Bloss. Bloss wrote and performed a song on his guitar for the gala, and remembers his time at GCC fondly. “The [instructor] I remember the most was Mr. Smelser,” Bloss says. “He was a history teacher and he gave me a great love for history that remains to this day. I still do a lot of historical reading.”

Smelser retired in 2007, but echoes Bloss’ sentiments about the lasting impact of the college: “I do think, if you went there, that [your years at] Glendale [Community College] are some of the vital years of your life.”

Dr. John F. Prince, first executive dean of the college
campus candid, circa the 1970s