Bonnie Cogbill


Bonnie Cogbill

How I came to the college is a story that requires a little bit of a preface, I think, which is relevant because it was the same way that a number of other early faculty members came to the college. I had been teaching high school in the Midwest. You may know that in the early '60s there was a severe teacher shortage in California, much as there is now. And the districts that could, went searching outside the state. Fullerton Union in North Orange County did a nationwide search for promising young teachers who might be willing to relocate. So I was recruited out here to teach high school in the Fullerton District, which I did for several years.

Then I decided that I wanted to move into college teaching. So I left California and was hired in New York. Of course, I still had contacts here, and it happened that my friends here told me that there was a wonderful new community college that had been voted into existence on Valentine's Day and was going to open the following year in South Orange County. Of course, this caught my attention, because that meant it was within commuting distance of Laguna Beach, which is my favorite place in the whole world. What a dream to be able to teach in a brand-new college and live in a place I love more than any place in the world. And it happened that the person who was chosen to be the first dean of the Fine Arts Division was Doyle McKinney, who had been the Dean of Instruction at the high school where I had taught in the Fullerton District. So he invited me to apply, which I did with great joy.

We're talking about the '60s here. This is before there were so many legal complications to the hiring process, and the early administrators of the college who knew people that they thought were qualified and would be suitable for the job could do that. And so I flew out here in the spring and interviewed and on my way back to New York -because, of course, the school year wasn't out and I couldn't not finish out the year there ­went up to the Disneyland Hotel to take the limousine back to the airport and had a little bit of time to wait. I remember walking around. It was so beautiful, so clean, with flowers just everywhere. I cried. I realized how much I missed California and how desperately I wanted to come down here and be a part of the foundation of the new college. And it happened I

When I came out for the interview, Saddleback College was in a group of model homes that were down at the corner of La Paz and Chrisanta in what was to become Mission Viejo. And the offices were in what were the rooms on these model homes. I came out to interview with the first person of the college, whose name I can't bring up because by the time my interview came up, that person had resigned and Fred Bremer had become president. And so I remember going into his office in one of the little model homes and doing my interview there. We're talking about pictures of the college when there was nothing here. Of course, the college in the first year was not at this location. The college was on the pad where Mission Hospital is now. It had just been bulldozed off, and little temporary buildings had been brought in. So the college was basically just a quad of the temporary buildings set around in a scooped-off open space on the rise where the hospital is now. All around were native brush and wildlife, and there were deer and coyotes and, yes, rattlesnakes and raccoons and yellow jackets. There were animals and people, and with the animals wondering what had happened to their home and the people wondering why they were here and where everything was.

When I was hired, I was promised a theater in the third year of the operation of the college. I think one of the reasons that I was chosen for the job initially was that obviously everybody who was in the founding faculty was going to have to rough it for a while. And particularly the arts, we didn't have any facilities. And we certainly didn't have a theater. The base that we had for the classes was simply one of the regular-sized classrooms. I have been trying to remember whether it was Building J or K, and that's left me. It was one or the other. But it was just one of those normal, portable classrooms.

I was speaking about the equipment that we had to begin with, which consisted of a metal case, and inside the metal case there were a couple of cameras, some nails, a handsaw, a screwdriver, and pliers, and that was it for equipment. We had no platform, no curtains, certainly no lights, no nothing. So I think one of the reasons I was chosen for the job was because my background in high school teaching had prepared me to be a one­person department, which I had to be for a while. I had experience in building sets and making costumes and doing lighting, which we didn't have to begin with. I could teach acting, and I could do all of the stagecraft things at least well enough with the help of the students to put together shows immediately.

When you're starting out, you really have to have someone who's more or less. a jack-of-all-trades, somebody who could do a little bit of everything. That first year, my teaching schedule was just absurd. I had all different classes, all different preparations. I was teaching acting; I was teaching stagecraft; I was directing all the shows, building the sets, making costumes, of course with the help of the students; and I was teaching speech. I was supposedly team-teaching a very large public­speaking class with Doyle McKinney, who wanted to do a little bit of the teaching as well as being division chair; however, the duties of being division chair at that point were so overwhelming that ordinarily I was there with a very large class, and he came in when he could.

And then, even though there were only a thousand students, we only had two English teachers at the time. We had Grace Lange and Pat Grignon, who were the original English faculty. That wasn't enough to accommodate the demand for basic English classes from the original students, so ironically, I also, in that first year, taught English grammar (not my favorite subject). Nonetheless, that was what we had to do to provide what students needed, to stretch ourselves just as far as we possibly could.

Part of the philosophy of the Fine Arts Division from the very beginning was to create a cooperation among the various arts, and this was partly from Doyle McKinney. I think the people that he wanted to be part of the first faculty were a reflection of that. Again, I think that one of the reasons I was chosen was because I have a great love for all of the arts and I did have, at the time, background in visual arts and a little bit in music also. The vision for the Fine Arts Division was for it to be an integrated group.

This was a philosophy that was current in other places at the time. This was also near the beginning of the founding 0f Cal Arts. I remember early in the history of the college, I remember going up to Cal Arts. That was when we were trying to look for ideas for what would become the Fine Arts complex, and how the theater would be designed. And I remember being taken on a tour of Cal Arts and seeing how the visual arts interplayed and inspired the theatre arts and how these inspired the visual arts, and that was how the Fine Arts Division was supposed to develop at Saddleback. I think, if you look at the physical plan, that you see something of that reflected in the way the Fine Arts building is put together to try to encourage camaraderie and interaction among the painters and the musicians and the actors.

One of the exciting developments was the idea that the various arts would work together in some of the activities that we did in the very early days. I don't think that this was all in the first year, but when we did move over to this campus, we had Building R, which was a double building with a partition in the middle, a collapsible partition, and actually an eight-inch platform at the other end. We were really uptown. We had escaped finally. We did a number of activities, and mainly for children, that tried to bring young people onto the campus. We had a Music Department doing music activities for them, and theatre would schedule a little show, and the Art

Department would have hands-on activities that they could do. And I remember particularly a great enterprise that the art students did. In front of Building R there was a large semicircular bench, and then there was some asphalt that came out from there and went between the various buildings -almost a precursor of the way the current Fine Arts building was laid out. So that was the central hub. The art students decided that they were going to build an organic sculpture that people could actually walk through, and they did. They built this enormous thing, like a blob in the semicircular area there. And, as I recall, the outside was painted in various shades of brown and the inside was white. They had cleverly done all sorts of tunnels through it so that you could walk through and go around and around and around inside this piece of sculpture and look up and see all the various shapes. It was very, very exciting. We all loved it and we wanted to keep it. We wanted to try to find some way, maybe fiberglass or something. But it didn't work out, and it had to be carried away. That was such a fond memory, how everybody pitched in and then all the excitement just generated to a whole area under all the different arts.

Another fun thing that we did was that in the theater we encouraged the students' shows right away. In the second year of the college, we did our student variety show, which I think was called "Festive Follies," which was written and produced by the students. The art students painted the sets, and of course the musicians came over and did their musical numbers and there was a script -sort of. These were the days of "Laugh-In," remember? There was a script written by a student, Larry Wheaton, and the students performed it with different sketches and interspersed them with musical numbers -and this was all theirs.

We also, I believe in the third year, had a totally student-directed children's play, called "Land of the Dragon," written by a student. Very wonderfully done, great success, and children came in from all the neighborhoods. So from the very beginning, much of the building was actually done by the students themselves. And this was something that we always tried to encourage. That's one of those things that's easier when you’re smaller and easier when you're not quite so departmentalized.

It was very exciting to watch the college grow from that little nucleus and, of course. I suppose the most obvious changes have to do with getting all those physical facilities that we laughed at in the beginning. It was in the sixth year [actually later] that we finally got permanent buildings for the Fine Arts Division. and that was a long and complex planning process.

Of course, once we had the facilities, then we could more fully staff and bring in specialists in the different areas, so I was no longer building sets and making costumes. We had Charlie Castagno and Wally Huntoon and all those wonderful people who really were professional in that area. And so that made production a great deal easier than it had been in the beginning and, of course, a great deal more professional polish to the finished product. That was a great joy to see us grow. The opposite side of the coin is, of course, you get segmented and departmentalized, and you lose a little bit of that thing we had when we all stayed here until 4:00 in the morning and we didn't have any lunch or dinner, but we did it together. So like everything else, it's a trade-off. But it's thrilling to see the college grow in terms of physical facilities and in terms of staffing.

Think of all the great people who were brought on even from the second year. We started to pick up wonderful, wonderful staff members. And then there was just a phenomenal growth in the student body from 1,000 students to whatever it is now. I think, at the time I retired, it was 28,000 and it's probably more now. And to see the college become such a vital ­and almost taken-for-granted -asset to the community! It's there for everybody from just fresh out of high school to the emeritus students that I saw as I was coming up from the parking lot today, coming up to the campus on a Saturday morning to enrich their lives. The college really does reach out to every facet of the community, and that's what you want a college to do, so that's very exciting.

That's one of the things that I love about a community college and one of the reasons that I preferred to come here rather than stay at the university where I was teaching. The mix of students is so interesting. And it's funny, I was thinking ... I was thinking about that first group of students and how diverse they were. There were the students who were fresh out of high school with total innocence, new to the world, and there were the returning students and the older students. Leisure World was new at the time, and the college being here was an exciting opportunity for people who were living there. Then, of course, this was in the middle of the Vietnam War. There were students here who wanted to be hippies. The people from my hometown kept coming over from Laguna Beach with their beads and their prairie skirts, and some of the young men were here because they didn't want to be drafted. There was a sizable group of veterans that had just come back from combat, so you had these four groups of people who were all so different, and yet in that first group of students, it became like a big family. I think it was so good for them, and it was so good for me, because I was very young, in a lot of ways inexperienced at the time. Just the opportunity to be with those people and to work with them and get to know them was one of the most wonderful aspects of those early years. The first show that was ever done at this college was "Winnie the Pooh." [Note: according to Revista, January '69, students received no academic credit for this performance and worked only as volunteers.] At that time we did not have anything, and so we took the show around to various elementary schools in the area and did it for them. And then we decided we really wanted to do it on campus, so we did it in the music building. The G Building at that time was a double building, and we seated the children on the floor in a semicircle and did the performance there.

You know, the production at the time that you're are doing it -every show that you ever do at that time -is the most important thing in the world. So every show is the highlight of your career. Later, as I left production and towards the end of the time that I was teaching, I was teaching public-speaking classes I suppose the highlights there really aren't anything that you can pinpoint. But in public-speaking classes, so many students come in really in terror and quite convinced that they just can't do it. So, every time when one of those people gets up there and succeeds, that's a highlight of your career. And seeing the dramatic changes in people come in so frightened and finding their voice and express their ideas so that they influence other people, well, every time that happens it's a highlight of your career.

One of the things that was the greatest about those early years, and especially the first year, was that everyone understood that we were laying the groundwork for something that was going to be very, very fine. I think as you look back over the first faculty, you probably noticed that most of us were very young. I'm sure I was the youngest. I think I was the baby of the first faculty. I was still in my 20s, and I think the profile of the first faculty was probably that most people were in their early 30s. We were all young; we were energetic. I think everyone, to a person, was excited, as I was, about being a charter member of a brand-new faculty and building a brand-new school and starting the departments from the ground up. I know every person really had one thing in mind, and that was to create the finest community college in the country, which, of course, meant the finest in the world.

That was the unspoken but underlying vision that really unified that first faculty, and it was there with the students too. Those early students knew they were making history, and they were a remarkable group. They had a great deal of pride in being the first group of students, and it spilled over into everything we did. There was such camaraderie -and with only 1,000 students. Everybody pretty much knew everybody else and, in a way, it was like a big family. I don't think there would be ever any way to duplicate that feeling, but somehow I think it's still there at the heart of the college, and I hope it always will be.