Bob Olson


Bob Olson

I'd just come to teach at San Jose State from General Electric Company. I had decided to get into teaching; that is what I really wanted, my passion in life. San Jose State was more academically oriented, more theoretically oriented, not as much student-oriented. So I decided to search for a community college, and I wanted to go south where the sun was, where the surf was. So I interviewed around here at a couple of different community colleges. Then I heard about Saddleback, and I came down here and fell in love with the idea of starting something brand new and kicking off a new program. So here I am.

I remember Jim Thorpe was the person who hired me. And I remember the then-superintendent was the only one who seemed concerned about me, because I'd worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and a couple of years at General Electric and then a year at San Jose State, and he thought, "What's your problem? Can't you hold a job?" But I had good references.

Coming down here, I was starting the engineering program! I was starting the mechanical drafting program! I started the architecture program; I taught mathematics; and I taught computer programming. So I was so overloaded with things. There was so much activity in my own sphere that I wasn't bored waiting for something to happen.

To start these programs, I'd just check with other community colleges and state colleges, and I wrote up all the courses. I had to write them all for engineering and all for mechanical drafting. For architecture, I remember it took about a year, and I was pretty worn out but excited because of all the different courses. Our mild-mannered dean at that time called me in and said, "Bob, we're gonna start some architecture courses here. We'd like you to teach them." I said, "Well, I've never taught architecture before. I've taken an architecture course before." He kind of casually said, "We need you, and we'll understand if you can't do it perfectly. We want you to teach it." So I taught that three semesters, and I'd be one page ahead of the students. Well, they were architecture students, people working at architects' offices, and we'd have arguments. So that was a big challenge to start that program. And the engineering program and the mechanical drafting program were a lot of effort, you know.

It was very demanding. My only teaching experience was one year full ­time at San Jose State and a couple years of part-time. I taught two engineering courses there, and then I ended up here teaching. In the first year I probably taught, I'd say, 15 different courses. Most of these were started from scratch. So I brought this slide rule. I thought it was kind of funny. I just noticed it on the shelf when I was preparing to come here. It's eerie, you know, to see this thing. We had a one-unit course teaching the slide rule. This is an antique. Now we've got computers and all these handheld devices. This is one of the many courses that we started.

We were on the quarter system. We had unbelievable preparations. We had five preps, different preps usually, and a lot of them were new classes. Then 10 weeks later, another five courses. It was grueling. But it was so exciting. Jim Thorpe was the dean and everyone was eager. We'd have nighttime meetings and weekend meetings. It was just very exciting but very, very demanding, very draining. My only saving grace was that to fill in, I also taught math courses. That was a constant. I'd teach the same math course over and over and over because that would give me a little balance against offering all these other new courses.

Challenges when we got started? I think just working with the administration was a challenge. You know, when I was at San Jose State, we had a few riots there. I couldn't teach a few classes because of tear gas. So the Board and the administration here were very concerned about rioting at colleges at that time. Basically they came here with the mentality that the students and the faculty were potentially dangerous. So they tried to hire a conservative faculty. I don't think it exactly worked that way. You probably heard about the dress code both for faculty and students. Flag salutes in the morning. I think it was 8 o'clock in the morning, they'd play the National Anthem over an outside speaker. People would stop and put their hands over their chests. Holy mackerel! I mean the whole student body! Everyone would stop. Students with short hair. The faculty with ties. They didn't want anything to get out of hand. So they were a little difficult to deal with, even though they were very committed to excellence. They were very committed to making things go well.

I think it was the second or third year, and Frank Sciarrotta was a faculty negotiator. We were asking for improvement in salaries and what have you. Hans Vogel, who was a very conservative Board member, recommended that we have extra steps on the salary schedule up to 30 instead of 25, which was traditional at community colleges, and that we have a very high salary schedule. His intention was so that the good faculty wouldn't go into administration to get better pay, and we'd get the best faculty. In general, we have had the best salary in the state since then, and I really think that's allowed us to hire a really high-quality core faculty. At least in my own situation, I know that a couple of times I thought about leaving. That was one reason I didn't leave. So this came from a very conservative Board member taking the initiative.

Changes over the years involve just the sheer numbers -numbers of faculty, numbers of students, numbers of buildings. And the impersonality that goes with that! I don't know too many faculty anymore. I don't know that many of the total percent of the student body. So that's the biggest change and the one that's probably the most disappointing. The college has gotten more bureaucratic. When I took my first job out of college, it was with the government-the Atomic Energy Commission -and one of the reasons that I left there was because it was so bureaucratic. Here it's gotten pretty bureaucratic and there's not really a vision anymore. You know, you think of leaders as having a vision that's going to really spark interest in everyone and get them motivated to move to a new horizon. It doesn't seem like there's that kind of vision or excitement that there was earlier on campus. The good news is that the students are still the same, basically good students.

I don't know why, for some reason, the student Larry Pomatto comes to mind. He was kind of an average engineering student. He just had a good personality and good attitude. He went on to Stanford, and now he has his own computer company. Otherwise there are just a lot of students. I don't think anyone stands out.

As far as events go, I think of one student in 1968 or ' 69 I was teaching a course on the impact of technology in our society. This was when I was starting to make my transition into teaching psychology, and it was kind of an avant-garde course. I remember the students who were taking it were kind of hippy style. We were talking about drugs in there, and I was talking about it mainly from a third-person position. I really hadn't had much experience with drugs even though it was in the '60s. I remember at the end of the course, I found a little box on my desk (and this was in the faculty offices where everyone saw everything). And I opened the box, and here were two rolled joints. So I kind of looked at them, and thought, "Wow!" Here we were playing the National Anthem and having dress codes and ... well! But I remember that student, he was a pretty radical type of guy.

Another thing: I think you know, I was doing the first TV course here. It was a "by the seat of your pants type thing." Herb Johns was very energetic and had almost no staff and no facilities. Things were getting ready just in time, I mean the first lesson. I mean, they didn't really know for sure what they were doing, and there were no retakes. I was kind of nervous. It was really a challenge.

I don't know if anyone mentioned this, but you know the athletic courts, the volleyball courts, and basketball courts were right there. You had to pass them to go to some classes or go to the parking lot. So a lot of the faculty played volleyball with the students and what have you. The students were getting on our case like we're getting old. I was only 27 at the time, but they thought we were old, not capable. So we organized a first and only intercollegiate three-man basketball contest: Me, and Roy Stevens as the basketball coach, and Bob Parsons, who had played basketball in college. Then we got the best student, Eric Christensen, and we won. And we are currently the three-man basketball champion of Saddleback College. They never had it again. I should mention this, in case someone picks up on this and wants to dethrone us. I don't think we'd be ready to get back together on all this.

When I think of what has made Saddleback exceptional to me, well, the first thing that comes to my mind is the faculty. They're really quality; and they're really dedicated; and they're heartful. I asked my son the other day, I said, "What would you say about the faculty here." He graduated, came here for a couple of years, 10 years ago. And he said, "They're substantial." And I said, "Substantial?" He said (this is being substantial), "They have a passion for their work and they really understand their subject matter." Somehow then, the word "substantial" stood out for me. There was a quality about the faculty here of substance, of integrity, of wanting what's best. Even through all the crises, there has been substantialness and passion for their subject matter and passion for teaching. And this has held the school together and created a great learning environment. I think that's the best thing.