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Memories of SSU

Daniel Markwyn

Professor of History
Spring 1967, 1970-2001
Department Chair, 1980-1983
Chair of Faculty, 1985-1986

             “Why these particular memories and not others?” is a fair question to ask anyone leading a trip down memory lane.  In my case the answer is simply that my association with Sonoma State had two quite different beginnings: in the spring of 1967 and in the fall of 1970.  The sharp contrast between the Sonoma State of 1967 and that of 1970 impressed me greatly at the time and continues to shape my understanding of Sonoma State and its history.

            In January 1967 I pointed my VW bug north from San Jose toward Sonoma State College. I had just completed an MA in history at San Jose State and in the fall would enroll in Cornell’s doctoral program, but at the moment was on my way to a one-semester position in the history department at SSC.  I had taught high school, but aside from TA assignments at San Jose, had no experience with college students and little familiarity with the culture of higher education.  At Sonoma State as a busy part-timer developing classes in the spring of 1967, I didn’t learn much about academic culture, but I honed skills important in the teaching life, met some good people, and formed some strong and lasting memories of Sonoma State’s physical landscape.

            When I arrived, the college was in its second semester on the present campus after five years on College View Avenue in Rohnert Park.   Separated by open space from both its former site and nearby Cotati, the roughly 200-acre campus was dominated by two massive poured-concrete buildings, Stevenson and Darwin halls, at its center. At some distance to the east and the south respectively stood the smaller field house and the boiler plant.  The Sonoma State campus in the spring of 1967 challenged conventional images of college architecture and its isolation made me wonder how the place connected to nearby communities.

            Daily life on campus in the spring of 1967 focused on Stevenson Hall and the centrality of that building remains a dominant memory.  Within its walls would be found the bookstore, food service, the health center, and the library as well as classrooms, academic departments and administrative offices. In its inner quad students, faculty, and staff often gathered for a variety of events.  Clearly, Stevenson Hall was the center of the action.

            At the end of the semester I joined faculty, graduates and guests and strolled eastward away from Stevenson to the baseball diamond near Petaluma Hill Road.  There we heard Louis Untermeyer deliver the first commencement address on the new campus, applauded the awarding of diplomas, and participated in the transformation of agricultural land into college campus.  Soon after the ceremony I said goodbye to colleagues, and pointed my VW south.  There seemed no reason to believe that I would ever see Sonoma State again. 

            Three years later, however, I rejoined the history department, this time as a tenure-track hire.   Much had happened at Sonoma State during my three years absence and the campus I had left in 1967 seemed barely visible when I returned. Not only was the faculty a much larger body—nearly eighty new faculty were hired in the fall of 1970 alone—but both the physical appearance and atmosphere of the campus were quite different.  New buildings had arisen on the campus and the days when all roads led to Stevenson and Darwin had ended.  Among those buildings were Ives Hall, where the faculty conference in Warren Auditorium began each semester, the Commons, where students and faculty ate and lounged at “The Pit” or “Anapendulum,” the Village, home of the Hutchins School, exemplar of Sonoma State’s controversial cluster school concept, and a new library building.

            Of equal importance to me was the change in atmosphere. By the fall of 1970, as a consequence of widespread protests, the reputations of colleges and universities had suffered in many parts of the world, including Sonoma County.  The campus, which had seemed very much an isolated and quiet work in progress in 1967 had been drawn into a wider and more turbulent world of social change and war and seemed in danger of becoming a pariah.  Amby Nichols, President of Sonoma State since its founding had resigned and returned to the classroom, rumors of secret meetings amongst “Friends” of the college swirled around campus, and Earl Jones, an interim President dispatched from “Long Beach” welcomed the assembled faculty at my first Faculty Conference by asserting that town and gown relations had not been so bad “since the Middle Ages.” 

            The tensions between Sonoma State and surrounding communities so apparent on my return in 1970 cast a long shadow. In combination with periodic budgetary challenges and continuing administrative instability, they troubled life at Sonoma State well into the eighties and beyond. Yet teaching, learning, research, and community service continued, as all of us who were here remember very well, and some of us never did see a nude student swimming on campus—which doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen!