Thomas G. Lakin came to Ventura County in his lifelong quest for a bigger podium.
Lakin had wrought huge changes in five years as president of Los Angeles' Southwest Community College.
By 1991, he had pumped new life into the campus, improving everything from the curriculum and community outreach programs to the football team and the flower beds.
But when he was tapped that year to run an entire community college system in Ventura County, said a longtime friend, Lakin jumped at the chance.
"He knew it was a challenge, an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to really make decisions for the district," said Ned Doffoney, a Lakin protege.
"This was a chance . . . to put his brand of leadership on an institution," said Doffoney, now president of Saddleback Community College. "Tom was a passionate man. He was a marathoner, he had that kind of drive that says, 'I will do all that I can.' "
Yet Lakin strived quietly, with a privately held desire to move higher in the administration of academia where his ideas could have more impact, colleagues and friends said.
"What you saw was a quiet confidence," said LAPD Deputy Chief Bernard Parks, a boyhood friend of Lakin's. "As he moved along, there were few things he did not feel he could handle."
The 50-year-old chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District died suddenly Sunday of a rare infection, known as "flesh-eating bacteria."
Had he lived, Lakin probably could have reached the chancellorship of the Los Angeles Community College District, an administrator's post at the state level, even a cabinet position, Parks said.
"I just think he saw at a very young age that he could make some impact," he said. "I think he was viewing that these were steppingstones, and the higher he went, the more influence he could garner."
In his earliest days as a college counselor in the Upward Bound program at Manual Arts High School, Lakin pushed his pupils to make something of themselves, said Regenia Cooper, a former student.
"He made sure I carried through to realize the potential in me," said Cooper, now a counselor at Pasadena Community College.
As Lakin worked his way through a master's degree and later a Ph.D. in education from UCLA in 1972, he was laying the groundwork for what friends said was an ambitious journey into the world of college administration.
"He had a vision, and he made sure he put everything in place to make that vision happen," said Stanley Viltz, a Southwest dean who first met Lakin when she coordinated community services at the fledgling Mission College.
Even before Mission College had its own campus, Lakin was helping instructors forge new curricula in electronics, aerospace engineering and even a licensing program for day-care operators, she said.
Lakin moved on in 1980 to Trade Technical College as vice president, where he oversaw a massive revamping of the school's curriculum, said President Thomas L. Stevens Jr.
And when he came to Southwest College, he literally transformed the place.
Lakin roped colleagues into cleaning out the weed patches that had passed for flower beds and planting roses that live to this day, said Viltz.
He doubled enrollment to its current 5,800 students.
He persuaded aerospace giants Hughes Aircraft Co., McDonnell-Douglas and Northrop Corp. to let their workers study at the plants with Southwest instructors to earn their college degrees.
He helped establish Middle College High School on the Southwest campus, a school where 325 teen-agers from South-Central Los Angeles can take high school and college classes without the distractions of gangs and drugs they face on the streets, said Viltz.
And he launched an ambitious project to rebuild the Los Angles campus that resulted in construction of the college's Technical Education Center and October's ground-breaking for the planned Physical Education Complex, she said.
Lakin considered himself a role model, not just a mentor and administrator, said one colleague.
"I didn't see it as him leaving (Los Angeles for Ventura), I saw it as him taking the next step in being the role model for all of us," said Joni Barmore-Collins, who administers community service programs Lakin set up at Southwest.
"We were always very proud of him as a brother going on to do something great," said Collins, who is African American. "I never thought it would stop there. I visualized him going on . . . to be an educator over more college districts or a state--to be an educator throughout the country."