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Occidental College: A Lively Center of Learning Turns 100

April 20, 1987|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

It was the Rev. William Stewart, minister of the Boyle Heights Presbyterian Church, and several other ministers who met to plan a liberal arts college. Articles of incorporation were certified April 20, 1887. The cornerstone for its first building was laid in Boyle Heights on Sept. 20, 1887. The college became non-sectarian in 1910.

There was never enough money to pay the bills. "Suppliers threatened to sue the institution because they were unpaid," Rolle said. "One merchant was asked to take back 87 desks because there wasn't enough in the bank to pay for them. The mortgage was in danger of foreclosure and the taxes on the property were unpaid. Professors taught without contracts, their pay mostly in arrears."

Moved to Hill Street

Disaster struck in 1896 when the Boyle Heights building burned to the ground. What was salvaged could be carried away in a wheelbarrow. The college moved to an address on Hill Street. Another site was selected in Highland Park in 1898 where it remained until the campus was moved to its present location in Eagle Rock between Glendale and Pasadena in 1912.

Myron Hunt, an architect who designed the Huntington Hotel, the Huntington Library and Henry Huntington's home, was selected to create the master plan for the college. By the time he had retired in 1940, Hunt had designed 21 buildings for Occidental. He also landscaped the site, planting eucalyptus seedlings intended to rise above the buildings. Today eucalyptus and oak trees shade the quad and one road is lined on both sides with jacaranda. Rose bushes add to the beauty of the campus, which is surrounded on all sides by a city and yet isolated from it.

Occidental offers majors in 23 departments ranging from art, history, and comparative literature to geology, mathematics, psychology and religious studies. It also has one of the larger undergraduate enrollments in chemistry among Western colleges. Many of the chemistry majors have gone on to doctoral programs in geochemistry, nutrition, physiology, pharmacology, medicinal chemistry and other fields.

"Twenty-five percent of our graduates receive degrees in various sciences," said Dr. Franklin P. DeHaan, 52, chairman of the chemistry department. "The major field they enter is medicine. We receive a number of research grants, and during the summer students have an opportunity to participate in them."

Wee Ling Wong, 21, is a biochemistry major from Tucson and a senior. "I was looking for a small liberal arts school with a good science program," she said. "I'm interested in molecular biology and genetic engineering."

She is also a star player on the women's basketball team.

Variety of Vocation Choices

Among the students there is a wide variety of vocational preferences. Laura Narvaez, 28, is a junior who lives in Eagle Rock. "When I was 5, I would jump into the campus fountain on hot days," she recalled. "Now I am studying a course on the Caribbean nations. I'm also interested in pre-Columbian history. I enjoy working with youngsters and I want to be a teacher. During the summer of 1985, I worked in Visalia with migrant children."

Sewit Bocresion, 18, from Ethiopia entered Occidental because she wants to study electrical engineering, physics, mathematics, and business administration. Another of her interests is Greco-Roman history.

Laura Chase, 20, a sophomore from Glendora is majoring in German and linguistics. Under Occidental's foreign program, she will be going to Germany for a year's study abroad. In addition to Germany, students can attend universities in England, France, Japan and Spain.

Nikki Gilkerson, 39, is a junior studying for a degree in music. She just returned from New York where she attended a Time magazine awards dinner, having been chosen as one of 80 merit finalists in the magazine's 1987 College Achievement Awards.

Gilkerson, who is blind, attends classes with her guide dog, Buddy, a yellow Labrador retriever. "I want to be able to teach the blind at the Braille Institute," she said. "They are using music as therapy. It helps youngsters make the adjustment in public schools." She is learning to play the piano, memorizing music that is printed in Braille. She lost her sight from glaucoma in 1976. In a resume Gilkerson submitted to Time she wrote:

"Blindness, for a short time seemed to stop all forward movement of my life. However, it gave me time to evaluate my direction and goal . . ."

John Bouchard, 36, of the college's theater arts department--where students learn to be actors, directors, set and costume designers--was watching the construction of the new $9-million Keck Theater, a gift from the Keck Foundation. "We hope to have it completed by Christmas," he said. "We'll present drama and musical programs. It will seat 400. Theater Arts is a tradition at Occidental as old as the college."

Lynn Pacala, 35, is director of athletics and intercollegiate sports. As chair of the department of physical education and an associate professor of psychology, she supervises all athletic sports at the college. These include football, volleyball, swimming, track and field, tennis and men's and women's basketball.

"We also have a golf team for both men and women," she said, "and we've just added a soccer and softball team for women to our list . . . The athletic program is easily integrated into the mission of a liberal arts institution. We refer to them as student athletes--not athletes. They gain an appreciation for movement as a skilled art--the high jumper for example. They also gain an appreciation for the value of competition."

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