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Memories of SSU

Ron Caselli

Student, Educational Counseling, 1961-1967
First Editor of SSU’s Student Newspaper, 1962

George McCabe with students in front of the Santa Rosa Center of San Francisco State University

George McCabe with students in front of the Santa Rosa Center of San Francisco State University

Remembering George McCabe

            George McCabe was an amazing man who guided several important phases of my own personal and professional growth, while also functioning at-large as educator, creator, and ultimate founder of what came to be Sonoma State University.

            George was a supportive friend to many of us post-World War II teachers, and a man to whom the total North Bay community came to owe a great debt. He was literally the brain, political activist, and midwife of SSU.

            In the mid 1950s, I spent at least double the usual time getting my associate-of-arts degree (AA) at Santa Rosa Junior College, taking as many courses as busy days might allow. I was also working night shifts at Sonoma State Developmental Center in Glen Ellen, pressed for the time needed to begin a family, commute to and from Santa Rosa, and get sufficient sleep. During that period I had the good fortune to meet George McCabe, a youngish Columbia University PhD who had established teacher extension classes for SF State in Sonoma County. During his youth George had enjoyed living in St. Helena (Napa County), and he held good feelings for the North Bay area.

            I guess George took a liking to me. Perhaps he was sympathetic that I wished to finish my own college work, even if I already had a wife, two children, and a fulltime night job. He outlined his desire to bring an accredited Santa Rosa Center of SF State to local students like me, thus enabling us to work for, and to obtain teaching credentials without the considerable expenses a San Francisco move or commute might require.

            By September 1956, George had established his beloved Center, offering a focus on elementary education year-around, including popular summer sessions. He had moved his own family to Santa Rosa and began to assemble the kind of personable and competent humanists with whom he wished to staff the new faculty. Early faculty members included some of the early bright lights in Sonoma State University history: Barbara Biebush became the school’s first librarian (only recently retiring during the past several years); Cheryl Petersen, “Red” Thomas, Gordon Tappan, Dorothy Overly, and Wright Putney were also well-regarded early SSU faculty members.

            George spent a great deal of his early time “selling” the notion of the establishment of the major North Bay campus for the counties of Marin, Solano, Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino. He developed strong ties with then-state-senator Joseph Rattigan, U.S. House of Representatives’ member Clem Miller, and other influential pro-education political supporters. 

            To support his family, George continued his own teaching and administration chores, on the SF State payroll, mostly by way of teaching extension courses in neighboring counties. I remember several courses on personnel training he gave at Hamilton Air Force Base, using me as his teaching assistant. Those were great evenings, observing George’s skills in the classroom, working with intimidating collections of military brass, viewing the impact of education on such diverse groups of adults. As his combination TA, chauffer, confidant, and friend, I received a sidebar to my own teacher training otherwise unavailable in “regular” coursework.

            Glenn Dumke, then president of San Francisco College, was one of George’s early supporters, as well as his employer. McCabe covered most of the politicians and civic leaders in Marin, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt, Napa, Solano, and Sonoma counties, generating enthusiasm for the new college whenever possible. Sonoma County Schools’ Superintendent Walt Eagan and Santa Rosa City Schools leaders Lloyd Wood and Mitch Soso also aided the growing pro-Sonoma State College effort.

            In what seemed like a very short time, Sonoma State College was established in Rohnert Park, California. At one point, during these busy years, McCabe ran for the House seat vacated by Miller’s tragic death in an airplane crash, only to lose a close race to Don Clausen, Miller’s perennial Republican foe. Those of us who worked for George’s candidacy can still regret our inability to get him elected. His energy and idealism would have made a huge difference had he been able to exercise it.

            Once the formal establishment of Sonoma State College delivered, George functioned as its first interim president to get the program started, but he declined any titles beyond “Chairman of the Education Department” thereafter. His last major administrative task, as he saw it, was to lead a nationwide search for the new institution’s president. That effort brought Dr. Ambrose Nichols to the honored chair, thus proving that George McCabe never lost his talent for identifying unique educators.

            Once I was able to obtain my own teaching credential, George and I saw progressively less of one another. My own busy life teaching in Rincon Valley Schools and Santa Rosa City Elementary and Secondary systems, plus my 21 additional years at Sonoma County Office of Education, began to match the effort George always brought to his own professional schedules. I think we both realized that his busy pair of decades had also detracted from family life, and we began to devote more effort to our homes.

            I attended a few local functions with George over the last period of his life, enough to realize that his health was failing. Looking back I wish I had tried to spend more time with this uniquely sensitive human being, this man who brought so much to me, and to the traditions of a major university of higher education…

Bless you George McCabe…