Lynn Wells Nelson


Lynn Wells Nelson

LYNN WELLS NELSONUpon receiving my Masters’ degree, my first job interview was with Doyle McKinney who was looking for his replacement at Lowell High School in Whittier since he would soon become one of the founding faculty at Saddleback College. I turned down Doyle McKinney’s offer and traveled first to Northern Illinois University then a year later back to California State University, Long Beach. After a short stint in San Diego it was time in 1974 to interview with McKinney again. This time I accepted his offer to teach at Saddleback College, albeit at first on a part time basis but eventually as full time Speech and Theatre faculty.

Our offices and classrooms were in portable buildings on the “lower campus” until a few years later when the Fine Arts complex was built. Being part of designing that structure and building the programs housed there created a sense of camaraderie among us all. Early on we had a strong and unified Speech and Debate program with Bonnie Cogbill, Joann Bennett, Carolann Messner and me—all women. We used to joke that we held our department meetings in the restroom.  Then, since I was hired as half Speech and half Theatre, I shared classes and directing duties with Wynn Pearce. In fact, I recall at first personally directing three shows a year, as did Wynn.

Because we were a burgeoning community with a strong tax base our budget was large. The student government generously funded our arts programs so that the speech team traveled to many tournaments in and out of state and our theatre productions grew in scope. Because the main stage (now named after Doyle McKinney) was not yet completed, I directed and performed in the very first production in the new complex in the Studio Theatre. It was T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. The air conditioning did not work yet, so we had to leave all the doors open. During the production a stray cat came through one door, hopped onstage, strolled among the actors, and ambled backstage where it was locked in the restroom and where it screeched throughout the performance.  When the first production Man of La Mancha was produced on the main stage, I remember standing in ovation with tears remembering my first peek into the theatre. In the foreword of Making History: The First Years of Saddleback College I recounted that during construction of that theatre one sunset evening, I had seen dozens of rabbits all sitting on the cement footings seeming to face the coming stage in the skeleton of the building.

It would be impossible to be involved in any field of performance and not have dozens of stories to tell, like the time an actor didn’t show up, so I crawled into his quite smelly animal costume and played the role. Once, I asked a cocky speech student just what it was he did with his spare time. “Nothing,” he said. “Well,” I told him, “you will be doing something now, because you’re joining the speech team.” He did and went on to become a statewide winner.

McKinney had initiated what became one of the largest festivals of performed literature in the country and then he turned it over to me. We welcomed schools from Maine to Hawaii each year for the three-day Southern California Oral Interpretation Festival. We were especially honored to host such luminaries as Anthony Zerbe, Maya Angelou, Charlton Heston, and many others.

Over the thirty-plus years I spent at Saddleback College, I chaired both the Speech and Theatre Departments, directed Readers’ Theatre, musicals, children’s shows and Shakespeare. During that time I served as Director of the Articulation Council of California, President of the Western Speech Communication Association, won three grants, wrote numerous scholarly articles and one textbook still in use in 2013.

Early on Saddleback was on a quarter system, which made teaching three (or four quarters if you taught summers) quite a scheduling challenge. I think most of us were relieved when we switched to the semester system.

Technology changed our lives in the eighties. The emergence of computers literally transformed the educational milieu. While only office staff originally went from electric typewriters to computers, the faculty was not far behind. I began with a Macintosh computer and remember Mark Schiffelbein (my former student, now the College technology director) instructing us on how to use both the new computers and the “World Wide Web.” From that moment on the doors swung wide open to give us all access to knowledge and to each other. 

Saddleback was a mere six years old when I first arrived. There was much to be done and a small faculty to do it all. I remember that we had annual retreats to determine the direction of a given year and of the future of the College. While it is easy in retrospect to glorify the “old days,” I really believe that in that earlier time there was a greater sense of unity and less divisiveness than what later evolved as competition for funds and positions became fiercer.

So many students passed through the halls of those semesters. Many of those students have become colleagues and dear friends. Just this past year, 2012, two incidents touched my heart. I was at the Isthmus on Catalina Island when a woman stopped me to say that she knew I did not remember her but that my class had had a profound impact on her life. Not long after that I received an email from another student who wrote, “I just wanted to contact you and thank you for a difference you made in my life, and subsequently, in the lives of many others.” Wow, this is why we teach!

In 2004 with a grandchild on her way and a golden handshake, I retired. I know that I could have continued teaching part time but I was ready to move on and since have worked on community projects and written plays that have enjoyed a modicum of success.  I’ve won golf tournaments, sailed a boat from Canada to here and on into the Sea of Cortez, and accepted awards for my writing. Because I have always loved working with the words of George Bernard Shaw, let me end with a quote, “The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”  We did that with Saddleback College.