Melvin Mitchell


Melvin Mitchell

We wore many hats. I was hired to teach journalism, but I ended up with another job. Anyhow, I was director of community services, which meant that I handled the information for the community, for all the students, for the faculty. It was really a PR job, with a capital PR. We did lots of public relations. After that, I worked into teaching journalism when students arrived. But first, we had to tell people about the campus. We had to tell the prospective students about the college and really convince them that it was going to be a great college. We were hiring great people. And at that time the students didn't have a choice to go to another college. They had to go to the college in the district where their residence was. They couldn't go to Orange Coast; they couldn't go to Santa Ana. We wanted to tell them that they were lucky they were going to come to Saddleback College. And they were, too!

We had 12 communities, and we had lots of newspapers: The Los Angeles Times, Santa Ana Register, and the Daily Pilot as well as the San Clemente paper, the Tustin paper, El Toro. Laguna Hills, Leisure World.

After the campus got underway, I taught journalism and supervised the newspaper in addition to all my other duties. We had classes at night and classes during the day, too. It's kind of interesting that the newspaper's first issue was called La Prensa which, in Spanish, means "the press." We wanted the students to name the newspaper. So we said we'd give it a foreign name, and that will make it an original name. Gauchos was the name for the football team. So they came up with Lariat. So that's how we got the name Lariat.

And you know about the Gauchos? I think they had the G like the Green Bay Packers, which were pretty popular at that time. So that's why I think they selected Gauchos.

I would say in the beginning, we had 9 or 10 probably at the most working on the Lariat. We shopped the paper out because we didn't have paste-up at that time. We didn’t have the Linotype machines and hot type, and so they would write the stories, set up the typography, the pages, and take it into Tustin where it was printed. I had experience as a newspaper advisor in journalism, and so I used the experience that I had in developing that curriculum. I met with the students and just worked with them, teaching the elements of journalism and writing, and elements of making up a newspaper. So after selecting the editors and all, they sort of ran the show in terms of determining who was going to be assigned a story and what stories they were going to write. As an advisor I was overseeing the work that they did.

Well, after five years I could set aside all the other caps I wore, and I joined the Social Science Division. This was in the '70s, the early '70s. And it was a very interesting time. It was a time when students were motivated. At that time there were a lot of students during the Vietnam War. A lot of them were here because they didn't want to go to service. It was a very diversified campus and the students were motivated to learn about the world. So this is when we added an ethnic cultures class. I taught history of Mexico and Latin American history. It sort of diversified our history courses more. U.S. history, of course, was the bread-and-butter course of community colleges where we had the large classes and the great demand.

I suppose my fondest memories are looking out of my office window and seeing deer run by. You know, the college was built in two stages. It was an instant campus! We first operated in model homes. Prospective teachers or people would come to "college," and we'd send them up to one of the bedrooms, because that would be the office of one of the officials. I was delegated to be in the garage. This was where the Board of Trustees had their meetings, and my office was in the garage.

We constructed the first campus on leased property, and we moved from La Paz or Chrisanta Drive over to near Crown Valley where the hospital is now located. We established an instant campus with modules there. That was opened up in 1968. Then the following summer that campus was moved across the hills to the campus that we have now, just under 200 acres. Then from that the permanent buildings were added. So all of the professors, called instructors then, all the professors had to work in difficult conditions. They were a hardy group and had great success; we had a great staff. It was fun being able to publicize this great staff that we had. It wasn't long before the community and the students really admired the staff at Saddleback College.

One of the fun things back then was the dedication. Governor Ronald Reagan, not yet president, gave the speech for the dedication. Everyone participated. We had all the professors out having to direct traffic. Everyone helped in that dedication. It was a grand success. I recall trying to encourage all the media to cover the event because we wanted to publicize our college and let people know where it was and how good it was. We announced that Reagan was going to have a press conference following the dedication, so this brought in the media staff. Well, then, Governor Reagan didn't have time for the press conference. But he had such a warm reception, such a nice welcome in South Orange County that he changed his mind and did have the press conference. So it was a big event for the college, and people became acquainted with the college that way.

Of course there were challenges with the students. We’re talking about the Vietnam period. So we had a period where students were advocating free speech to the extreme. On the other hand, perhaps there was a bit of extreme regimentation imposed on the students. The board had a no-nonsense policy. A dress code was instituted, and that caused a problem. The students felt that they were being mistreated, but it was resolved. We had fellows who were opposed to the Vietnam War, and then we had veterans of the Vietnam War who were returning to campus. We had the official flag-raising on campus that was supported by the veterans who had returned. Of course, the other students didn't relish the fact that they were supposed to get out of the cars at the time and watch the flag being raised. It was a time people were trying to instill patriotism, and other people were trying to focus their attention on their freedoms, speaking out.

In the newspaper, in journalism, this was particularly difficult for the college newspapers, you know, because this was the time that the language in newspapers was a bit more open. And, of course, young people on the college level wanted to experiment with language, but it didn't cause any problems on the campus really. I didn't have a problem with the students. I simply tried to instill in them that the stories should not be offensive for people to read, and yet you should be free to write what you want.

There were changes over the 25 years I was here. You know, when I arrived in Mission Viejo there were 4,000. What do we have now, 100,000 or better? When we first came, to go to lunch you had the opportunity of going to the Mission Viejo Country Club or down to San Juan Capistrano. There were no other eating places in the immediate vicinity. And all the businesses that we have around the college now! With the opening of the campus, we had about 1,000 students, and so quickly we were up to 25,000 with the one campus. Now we have two campuses.

Starting out, we had manual typewriters. And pretty soon we got an electric typewriter. That was a big moment. And, of course, we moved from typewriters to computers. When we first arrived, we didn't have a copy machine immediately. That was just in the early stages of having a copy machine. We had a copy machine in one building so all the staff members had 10 use that one copy machine. Other than that, we had the stencils and the duplicating machines.

There are so many things that are outstanding about Saddleback College. I suppose another thing was with some of the programs that we had in Community Services at that period. We were trying to present programs for the community and for the students. We had programs on campus like films, classic films, or we had films on surfing, but we brought in, for instance, Dr. Edward Teller, the hydrogen bomb scientist. We had Mexican folklorical musical programs. We had the science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury. We had other noted personalities from the entertainment fields and programs that were related to the Fine Arts Department. The idea was to make Saddleback College a part of the area.

I'm thinking back about the staff itself, the teaching staff. It was a dedicated staff. Everyone had to perform many jobs and teach. You had to teach a variety of courses which meant that you had to do a lot of planning for different classes, and everyone accepted the role as it was handed to them. That was very significant.

We got rapid accreditation for the college, too. We started out as a junior college and the term changed to community college. You know, thinking back, you sit back and read the pages of history. Today, sometimes I think, "Damn, wouldn't it be fun to tear it down and start all over again!"

You know, one other thing that I might add is a thought about the construction of the permanent buildings. I always think: When I was teaching U.S. history, I made note to the students that I always thought of the library as being the memorial to the Vietnam War. I had classes in the library, and I say that because it had no windows. Some people said it looked like a fort. Well, at that time, with the planning of the construction of the community college, there were fears that there might be some student uprisings, because they had them at other campuses. And I think, and that's what I believe, that is what motivated them to build the campus without any windows.

Being an historian, I think I might side with the people who would give it a flavor of early California history. So I would think in terms of the architecture being in tune with our Spanish background. But as far as the heart, the heart's here.