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Part I - Transforming Vision to Reality, 1954-1969

Part I - Transforming Vision to Reality 1954-1959

Part I - Transforming Vision to Reality

The Vote

It came down to one vote.

The date was April 28, 1959. For the previous three and a half years, a group of business, civic and education leaders had worked assiduously to prove that Rockland County was ready for a community college:

  • The county's population was exploding, especially among schoolchildren.
  • Higher education was becoming more accessible to the masses.
  • An increasingly specialized society demanded a skilled and knowledgeable work force.
  • The economy was prospering and New York State had passed several multimillion-dollar bond issues dedicated to higher education, including one for $250 million.1 Governor Averell Harriman was the bond's biggest proponent. His successor, Nelson Rockefeller, elected in 1959, sustained ardent support for education.
  • After initially rejecting it, state university officials had approved the proposed site for the college, a former almshouse for destitute residents set amid 26.5 acres of cabbage and tomato fields, apple orchards, a pumpkin patch and a grape arbor in the pastoral hamlet of Viola.
  • A two-year, community college would provide an affordable, quality education in a convenient location and would raise taxes by just $4 a year – the cost of a tank of gasoline or two cartons of cigarettes.2
  • Perhaps most important, Rockland residents were eager for a community college. Comprehensive surveys distributed to adults and high school students in the county revealed large majorities favoring the idea.

Now it was crunch time. The fate of a community college in Rockland rested in the hands of the Board of Supervisors, the five town chiefs who ran the county in the days before the Legislature was created in 1970.

Last-minute presentations were delivered by Dr. Lester Rounds, the superintendent of Ramapo Central School District No. 1 (Suffern), whose doctoral dissertation at Columbia University had provided a blueprint for the establishment of the college; Frank Manley of Nyack, president of Orange and Rockland Utilities and chairman of the steering committee to create the college; and Dan Brucker of Valley Cottage, a prominent lawyer in Nyack and vice chairman of the committee.

 

Two supervisors, Democrats Victor Shankey of Haverstraw and Edwin Wallace of Ramapo, wanted to put the issue to a public referendum, despite the fact that no community college in the state – there were 17 at the time – had resorted to such a measure.3 All had been approved by vote of the local governmental sponsor.

The amendment to referendum was defeated, 3 to 2.4 The vote was now squarely in the hands of the supervisors. John Coyle of Clarkstown and Arthur Jobson of Stony Point, both Republicans, were known to be in favor of the college. Clarence Noyes of Orangetown, the board chairman and also a Republican, had been noncommittal in previous public meetings. It was to him that Brucker and Manley directed their most fervent entreaties.

Harold Laskey, a book publishing consultant from New City and key steering committee member, was too nervous to witness the taut proceedings, held in a basement meeting room of the county courthouse in New City. Instead, he stood outside the door and listened.

"I could hear Dan Brucker inside begin to wind down his last plea urging them to finally take action," Laskey remembered. "I heard one of the supervisors, Victor Shankey I think it was, say something like: 'Why do we need a half-baked college school here anyway? Our kids can go to school anywhere.' The tireless efforts of so many good-hearted, dedicated people, the work of those who had prepared the presentations, the work of all of us for all of those years, stood riding on one vote." 5

Supervisor Coyle introduced a resolution that the college be approved.6 Jobson seconded the resolution.7 Shankey and Wallace voted against it.8 That left it up to Chairman Noyes. One month before, in the steering committee's final appearance before the board, Brucker and Manley had ratcheted up the pressure on the supervisors, mindful that Noyes had not yet tipped his hand.

"This time we threatened them; 1959 was an election year, and they all were running," Brucker recalled. "We said that if they didn't pass the vote, we'd have a representative at every meeting they attended, someone who would ask them over and over again what their position was on the community college. By October or November, they'd be so damned sick of hearing about it that they'd wish they had passed it in the spring." 9

The full-court press apparently worked. Noyes voted yes.10 The college had been approved by a margin of 3 to 2. "For all of us, it was quite a moment," Laskey said.11

Just two weeks later, the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York in Albany granted approval of the plan, the last legal step required, thereby making Rockland the 18th community college in the state system.12

 

Hatching The Idea

Although Rockland County was isolated by its location in the lower Hudson River Valley, in the shadow of the Ramapo Mountains, local forefathers held a progressive view toward higher education. An institution called Rockland College, chartered by the state Board of Regents in 1878, thrived for 16 years in Nyack13 More than a century before, the antecedents of Rutgers University were conceived in an academy founded by a minister of the Reformed Church of Tappan.14

 

Rockland Junior College was established in 1932 as one of several Depression-era two-year schools modeled after the California Junior College movement of the early 1900s.15 The school was federally funded, disbursed through New York State, and sponsored by Nyack High School, where classes were held.16 New York University and Syracuse University accepted two years of credit from the college.17

Kenneth MacCalman, the superintendent of Nyack Public Schools, served as the college's president.18 Student enrollment rose from 150 at inception to about 350 at its peak.19 The school was host to student organizations, a basketball team, student publications, and dances.20 After three years, however, federal support was withdrawn and the state followed suit soon thereafter.21 The college shut down in 1935.22

The impetus for Rockland Community College came some 18 years later. Lester Rounds could see momentum building for some form of post-high school education locally. The state Legislature had filled an educational void in 1948 by establishing the State University of New York as a legal entity.23 Governor Thomas Dewey recommended to the Legislature an appropriation of $2 million to initiate the community college movement.24

Furthermore, Rockland's population was one of the fastest growing in the state, expected to double from 107,000 to 215,000 between 1956 and 1970.25 In the same span, the number of high school graduates was projected to rise from 700 to 2,463.26 Rapid technological advances in society left people hungering for commensurate education. Large local industries like Avon Products in Suffern and Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River required more skilled workers, and the growth of hospitals such as Nyack and Good Samaritan in Suffern warranted the creation of a nursing program.

Cognizant of the swirl of progress sweeping Rockland and beyond, Rounds pondered a topic for his doctoral thesis – not some theoretical treatise but a practical plan that would benefit people directly. Garrett Nyweide, executive director of the Vocational Education and Extension Board – the precursor of the Board of Cooperative Educational Services – suggested that Rounds delve into the possibilities of a local community college.

It was perfect.

"This fit neatly into my own educational philosophy, for I've never been much of an elitist," said Rounds. "I've always felt that all the schools are for all the people." 27 His dissertation, titled A Plan for Meeting the Post-High School Educational Needs of Older Youth in Rockland County, was composed in the summer of 1954 on the shores of serene Skaneateles Lake in New York's Finger Lakes region, his boyhood home.

Rounds established the need for a local community college through interviews with personnel officers of county industrial firms regarding their needs for local, technical and semi-professional education beyond high school, as well as surveys among educators and professions. In September 1954, Rounds, participating in a panel discussion on public education in the county, first presented his concept of a community college at a conference of Parent-Teacher Associations in New City.28 A year later, the program of the annual district PTA conference was devoted entirely to the prospect of a community college. PTA leaders embraced the proposal and sought details for their members.29

 

Community support for Rounds' idea crystallized on December 2, 1955, at a countywide forum called by a temporary committee of educators, PTA leaders, and others.30 Some 300 citizens attended the event, held at Clarkstown Junior-Senior High School.31 They approved a proposal to set up a steering committee of about 40 people from all strata of society to make a thorough study of the community college concept.32 This group, which eventually expanded to become the Rockland County Community College Committee, spent the next three and a half years immersed in an urgent pursuit to transmute Lester Rounds' vision into reality.

 

Shaping a Plan

The twin pillars of the steering committee were chairman Frank Manley and vice chairman Dan Brucker, guided by a step-by-step checklist from Lester Rounds' seminal work. They coordinated a group of unrelenting volunteers that met at least once a month for more than 40 months, examining every facet of a community college.33

"It seemed my dad was on the phone or at a meeting someplace every darn night of the week," said Loring Manley, a New City attorney who was Dan Brucker's law partner for many years. "Traveling to Albany, talking a lot with Dr. Rounds and others. He really worked hard on that."

Surveys conducted by the committee manifested a clear need for a proposed post-high school public institution. (Dominican College in Blauvelt and St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill were private schools with a Catholic emphasis each founded in 1952 by neighboring orders of the Dominican Sisters.)

Some 69 percent of parents polled expressed interest in their children attending a community college in Rockland, and 183 high school juniors indicated a strong interest in and an ability to attend such an institution.34 Based on projections of Rockland high school graduates and the experience of neighboring Orange County Community College's early years – it was founded in 1950 in Middletown – a local community college could expect a growth in full-time enrollment from 150 the first year to 680 in six years.35

The steering committee heard loud and clear the financial concerns of higher education by parents and school officials. At $266 per year, the tuition at a proposed Rockland community college would be one-quarter to one-third less than that of a typical four-year privately endowed college or university in New York.36

Rockland voters also registered robust support for public education in general; 65 percent of them pulled the lever for an amendment in the 1957 general election authorizing $250 million for higher education facilities, including community colleges, in New York State.3

All the work of the steering committee was beginning to pay dividends. A meticulously executed public relations campaign yielded endorsements from more than 80 community organizations – educational, civic, military, religious, municipal, business and others.38 Every development was reported to the Board of Supervisors, one of two ultimate arbiters for the project.

 

The other decision-maker, the State University of New York, originally had not factored in Rockland County when its master plan was crafted in 1954. "The fact of the matter was, we weren't in it," said Lester Rounds. "We had to convince them that we were big enough to be added to the master plan . . . it meant many trips to Albany." 39

It also meant an Everest of perseverance, which Rounds summoned with unremitting conviction. "He was a principled man, and when he believed in something, he would go to the mat for it, whether it was a belief in a student or a teacher or a vision," said his son, David Rounds, a retired elementary school principal.

The main stumbling block to that vision became the building planned as the cornerstone of the campus – the former Rockland County Welfare Home, or Almshouse. The other site considered was Iona Island, a former Navy munitions depot just south of Bear Mountain with plenty of buildings to suit a growing educational enterprise.40 But its location in the sparsely populated northern reaches of the county, in the mountainous Hudson Highlands, proved too great a handicap.

The Almshouse had been vacated in 1957, when residents were moved to the renamed Rockland County Infirmary and Home at Summit Park. The original welfare home was a frame structure built in 1837, the year the 47-acre parsonage farm property was bought for that purpose by the county Commissioners of the Poor from the Dutch Reformed Church of West New Hempstead.41

The frame edifice was replaced in 1883 by the first of three sections – today's north wing – constructed of brick from the thriving Haverstraw brickyards.42 The south section came later, followed by the connecting west wing to form the current "U" shape.43

The surrounding 26.5 acres, centrally located on pristine farmland in the Ramapo Mountains foothills, provided ample room for the immediate space needs of a community college. Seeing its potential, Manley and Brucker asked the Board of Supervisors not to sell the property until a decision on the college had been made.44 The supervisors agreed. That cooled the ardor of suitors such as the Bais Yaakov congregation of Spring Valley, which sought the tract for use as a rabbinical school and dormitory.45

But the college proponents faced a formidable hurdle: the Almshouse itself had been condemned by the state as unfit for instructional purposes.46 "The rooms (were) nothing more than small cubbyholes," said Harold Laskey. "The basement – it was a dungeon used to hold uncontrollable inmates – was littered with dead rats. Everywhere there was a dreary, institutional green. No wonder the state condemned it." 47

Here is where Frank Manley performed his greatest work. A civil engineer with a real estate law degree and a knack for pulling people together for a cause, Manley assembled a group of four volunteers – architect George Schofield of Nyack, engineers Earl Jacobson and Edward Keine of Orange and Rockland Utilities, and contractor John Holt of Pearl River – to rehabilitate the structure sufficiently to conform to the state's specifications.

After a thorough engineering study, the group concluded that the three-story building was salvageable and that with a few structural changes, it could be adapted for college use at a cost of $150,000 to $160,000, almost 10 times less than the $1.5 million price tag for new construction.48 The group prepared two separate floor plans for renovation that they said would render the building school-worthy for 5 to 10 years with minimal maintenance, and for 20 to 25 years with regular maintenance and periodic alterations for arising school needs. 49

The building committee's detailed plans won over state university officials. After originally red-lighting the Viola site, the SUNY leaders, spearheaded by Dr. Lawrence Jarvie, executive dean for institutes and community colleges for the State University of New York, appraised the property's educational value at $145,500, all of which would be matched by the state.50

The county was in a no-lose situation. Besides the estimated $160,000 to prepare the building for college use, Jarvie figured another $50,000 to $55,000 would be needed for items such as furniture and lab equipment.51 Since the state, by law, would finance half the capital costs – that is, buildings and property – the initial capital costs for the county amounted to only about $27,500.52 (Operating costs of $800 per student would be split equally by the state, the county and student tuition.53 )

At the same time," Jarvie said, "it would be converting an unused asset to broad civic use." Jarvie added that the county would be "well advised" to sponsor a community college that would be up and running by the fall of 1959.54

The state's imprimatur legitimized the efforts of the building committee and of the entire steering committee. Manley and Brucker submitted their final report to the Board of Supervisors in March 1959.

Since approval from Albany was now assured, it fell upon the supervisors to weigh the scales of a community college for Rockland County in the balance.

One month later, they tipped those scales in favor of educational opportunity for all.

 

Assembling The Players

The new institution was officially named Rockland Community College. But where did it go from there? How do you go about starting a community college? From the state approval date in mid-May until the college's projected opening in late September, each passing day brought a greater sense of urgency, a collective pulling of oars to carry this vessel across the finish line before the academic year began slipping away.

Things started percolating in late May with the appointment of the first five members of the Board of Trustees by the county Board of Supervisors, one from each town in Rockland: Frank Manley of Nyack in Orangetown; Dan Brucker of Valley Cottage in Clarkstown; Belle Mayer Zeck of Suffern in Ramapo, a lawyer who, during and after World War II, served in the U.S. Department of the Treasury and was a prosecuting attorney at the Nuremberg Trials for German war crimes; Crystal Potter of Tomkins Cove in Stony Point, the former New York City deputy welfare commissioner under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia; and William Cobb of Garnerville in Haverstraw, a sales manager for a New York City firm.

In mid-July, the four appointees by Governor Rockefeller were named to complete the board roster: Lester Rounds of Suffern; John Bratton, an insurance broker and former Orangetown councilman from Pearl River; Harold Laskey of New City; and Frank Ciancimino, a doctor from Nyack. The board chose Manley as chairman; Brucker, vice chairman; Zeck, secretary; and Potter, treasurer.

Even before the governor's nominees were chosen, the locally appointed trustees had begun the legwork: completing arrangements for pre-registration of prospective students, for preparing capital and operating budgets, for planning the building renovation, and for selection of administrative and teaching staff. 55

None of it was familiar territory to these custodians of a freshly minted college. "I must say I don't think anybody quite knew what exactly we were supposed to do," Brucker said. "That is, we knew what we had to do, but we didn't know what the exact qualifications of people were, what they were supposed to be, what a president did, what a dean did. It was all thrust upon us very quickly." 56

Garrett Nyweide, executive director of the county Vocational Education and Extension Board, and his staff helped shepherd the effort through from its incipient stages. Orvis Hazard, who had coordinated many of the survey projects in the research phase, served as acting director of admissions, conducting interviews with prospective students at the VEEB offices on South Main Street in New City. Hazard was assisted by Dr. Jane Freeman, who became director of student personnel shortly thereafter, and Doris Marquardt, who became executive secretary to the dean and executive assistant to the president.

"It was like sailing into uncharted waters," said Freeman, who is 80 and has lived in Sun City, Ariz., since 1970. Working closely with SUNY, Freeman designed forms and developed procedures for admissions, registration, student records and class scheduling. "It was daunting, yes. But the excitement and enthusiasm on the part of everyone made it a lifetime experience."

The trustees hired the very first applicant for dean of students – Henry Larom of Montana State University. Larom was originally from the Saranac Lake region of the Adirondacks.57 A pipe-smoking, fun-loving man who wrote Western novels for children and cultivated a close rapport with the students, Larom learned of the position through Dr. Lawrence Jarvie of SUNY, with whom Larom had taught at ranch schools in Montana. Larom hit the ground running when he arrived in August, setting up the college curriculum and selecting the teaching staff.

The final piece of the administrative puzzle was hiring a president. The board chose Dr. Charles Hetherington, on loan from his post as educational consultant at Colgate University, to serve as acting president until a full-time chief could be brought in.58 Hetherington's expertise in the recent founding of Auburn Community College, near Syracuse, proved pivotal.

Hetherington devoted four days a week to his tasks in Rockland: completing administrative arrangements for opening the college and working with various constituencies, including the architects chosen to spearhead the building refurbishment, Schofield and Colgan of Nyack; the Board of Trustees and county officials in financial and budget matters; the admissions staff; the teaching staff; suppliers of furniture and equipment; and others.59

The call then went out to fill faculty positions at the college. Trustee Belle Zeck wanted to postpone the college's opening until January because she thought all qualified teachers would have been signed to contracts by that late stage. Some gentle persuasion by Lester Rounds changed her mind.

"He said, `Nonsense,'" recalled Zeck, who is 80 and still practices law part-time in Suffern. She is the only surviving original trustee. "He said he could hire retired teachers, housewives who were well educated and certified but had not taught because they had young children, and others with teaching degrees. He was right."

The enormous response for faculty applications left Hetherington and Larom flabbergasted. They interviewed 150 applicants in four days.60 Rounds himself interviewed many applicants and assigned them a rating of A, B, or C. "Dr. Hetherington took my bundle," Rounds recollected, "and removed all the `A's'. I think he hired all of them."61

Charter members of the fledgling RCC faculty were: Robert Burghardt of Stony Point, mathematics, physics, and engineering drawing; Dale Hunt of Nyack, biology and chemistry; Raymond Rossiter of Valley Cottage, social sciences; Michael Tulevech of Pearl River, English; Marjorie Markham of Suffern and Marion Manning of Pearl River, business and secretarial sciences; Maureen Haberer, psychology; Elaine Magid, French – the only foreign language offered at first; and Elizabeth Phelps, librarian.

Burghardt recalls being torn between keeping his teaching job at Haverstraw High School and accepting an offer from Henry Larom to stand at the cusp of a new era in Rockland higher education.

"It was a tremendous decision to make," he said. "But how often do you have the opportunity of starting a college from scratch? After a lot of thinking and praying, with fear and trepidation, I said `Yes.'" 62

 

Fashioning a Campus

The transformation from Poor Farm property to community college campus proceeded right through the first year. From a place housing the dying, the impoverished, the infirm, this tranquil 26.5-acre plot evolved into a vibrant epicenter of intellectual vigor.

Nestled on the crest of a sloping rise in a former farm community known as Mechanicsville, renamed Viola when a post office was established in 1882, the property included: 63

  • A wooden barn that once housed cows and horses, replete with cow manure, bird's nests, cobwebs and shards of broken equipment. The cattle stalls, stanchions, hay lofts and milk shed still remained before the barn was renovated into a theater and assembly room in the second semester.64
  • Fields leased to local farmers that yielded succulent tomatoes and cabbage. Unharvested cabbage often was left to rot in the field, which was just south of the college.65 "When the cabbages were ripe, they did not have to broadcast the fact," said Jane Freeman. (The college later acquired 150 acres of farmland - 100 to the south from the Hurschle Brothers Farm, and 50 to the west from the Springsteen Farm – for its current 175-acre campus.)
  • A "potter's field" cemetery, the burial grounds for many of the Almshouse residents.66 (Shortly after the college was founded, the county deeded a tract of land in the northern section for establishing a veterans cemetery, which remains today.)67
  • A small square building with barred windows that served as the first Rockland County jail, later the Ramapo town police headquarters, and still later a police radio station.68 It was converted into offices and men's locker rooms for the physical education program in the second semester.69 Today it houses campus security.
  • A decrepit, two-story brick laundry building that was demolished soon after the college opened.70
  • A three-car garage adjacent to a water tower that was toppled that autumn.71
  • A root cellar that had stored farm produce harvested by Poor Farm residents from the surrounding fields.72
  • A grape arbor that produced Concord red and white grapes.73
  • In front of the Almshouse, a wooden gazebo that still stands today.
  • A narrow, tree-lined country lane known as Almshouse Road, which became an interior access road when the current College Road was built.74

 

One other remnant of the property's Poor Farm lineage was its county-salaried caretaker, John Rypka. When the Almshouse was abandoned in 1957 for new quarters in Summit Park, Rypka stayed behind and didn't cotton to these "strangers" intruding on his fiefdom. Both Henry Larom and Maureen Haberer told harrowing tales of being chased off campus by a shotgun-wielding Rypka before the college opened.75

Jane Freeman, whose office was adjacent to Rypka's first-floor apartment in the Almhouse's south wing, often scheduled interviews around his cooking times because of his fondness for garlic.76 "John guarded the property like it was Buckingham Palace," she said. "If his shotgun didn't keep people away, his garlic cooking would." By the end of the first school year, however, Rypka - along with a beautiful flower garden he maintained - had departed the grounds.

Of course, the centerpiece of the complex was the three-story, colonial design Almshouse, which was to serve as the main academic and administrative building. Under pressure by the Board of Trustees to have the structure ready for instruction by late September, supervising contractor Theodore Perini of Haverstraw and his workers accepted the gauntlet as if it were a personal crusade.77

The attractive exterior remained untouched. Inside, partition alterations and new lighting constituted the major structural changes. Roof repair, floor renovation and room painting took care of the bulk of maintenance work.78

 

Perini's crew toiled seven days a week – working the extra time gratis – to complete the job. "They got the mission, caught the `disease,'" said Lester Rounds. "They wanted to get the college into use. It was phenomenal." 79

By September 8, the first-floor renovations had progressed enough to allow faculty and staff to shift operations from the VEEB offices in New City to the new campus in Viola. Large rooms at the front of the south wing, which had been used as the Almshouse director's residence, were converted into administration offices.80 Henry Larom's office had the only working telephone on campus.81

A small room further down the south corridor became the library and bookstore, managed by Liz Phelps.83 With an inventory of zero, Phelps borrowed books from the state library, which supplemented the handful of magazines ordered and books received as gifts.84 By January, two rooms on the second floor were ready to accommodate the still-modest library.85

Through generous funding from Albany, the school gradually built a respectable stock of volumes. In 1959-60, 244 books and 120 periodicals were obtained.86 (By 1963-64, those numbers had risen to 13,495 and 233, respectively.87 )

"The state provided us with millions of dollars with a deadline to use it," said English professor Michael Tulevech. "We spent every penny wisely."

The building's face lift included more than a dozen classrooms, including a former chapel that served as the first classroom, used for engineering classes; an assembly hall in the connector wing formerly used as a recreation area for Almshouse residents; a chemistry/biology lab in an old basement kitchen; and a cafeteria and lounge, also in the basement.88 Later came a secretarial/business machines room – equipped with only a handful of manual typewriters – on the second floor, and a physics lab.89

The early phase of remodeling steered clear of the north wing, where the poor-house ambience was unmistakable: 6 foot-by-10 foot, sparsely furnished cell-block rooms; dark, narrow corridors; residents' names posted on door cards, duly noting those recently deceased.90 Also excluded from the primary renovations was the south-wing cellar and its dank, prison-like cubicles used to punish recalcitrant residents.91 (Today this space is used for the college mailroom and computer technology center.)

From these unprepossessing beginnings, the old Welfare Home metamorphosed from a sterile monolith on the far side of hope to a welcoming hearth with a warm embrace for those who sought its illumination.

"When I started here as a student in 1960, it had bats on the third floor, cheap old toilet paper, still-rotting cabbages in the field," said Joan Silberman, who later taught English at RCC for 32 years, retiring in 1998. "It was, in many ways, a sad place that turned into a happy place." 92