By Jim Carnett
(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 37th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)
It was a long and unbroken chain of student affairs deans, dating from 1948 through 2001.
It unfolded like a grand, slow motion, relay race. Fred Huber came out of the blocks and passed the baton to Joe Kroll; Joe Kroll handed off to Dave Grant; Dave Grant passed to Sharon Donoff; and Sharon Donoff gave the cylinder to Jeff Dimsdale. All right, there were five runners in the 53-year-long race – not four – but you get the picture.
Huber became OCC’s first dean of Student Affairs in 1948, and later went on to serve as president of three colleges. He trained Joe Kroll and handed off the baton to him in 1957. Kroll died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1975, but for years had groomed Dave Grant to be his successor. Dave handed off to his long-time assistant, Sharon Donoff, in 1986. Sharon passed the truncheon to her assistant, Jeff Dimsdale, when she became vice president of student affairs in 1989. Dimsdale crossed the finish line with the baton in hand when he retired in 2001.
“For all those years it was always an insider taking over the position,” Dimsdale reflects. “That built consistency and continuity, and it kept the momentum going. It was a very positive situation.”
It also went a long way to ensure the continued survival of OCC’s unique – and not-to-be-taken-for-granted – “Coast Culture.”
Dimsdale, who joined OCC’s faculty in 1968 and remained through ‘01, had a campus-wide reputation for being a provocateur. He was the initiator of a gazillion ideas while on campus – give or take a few hundred thousand – and he shared them liberally and with much munificence at every turn. I’ve been associated with only one other person in my professional career who possessed a similar ready supply of creative ideas. That “other guy” was Dr. Bernard J. Luskin, OCC’s fourth president, who served from 1982-84. Jeff and Bernie could churn out a useful idea every 15 seconds or so for about as long as you cared to keep a stopwatch on them.
“I used to make some pretty outrageous suggestions at meetings, I readily admit that,” Dimsdale says with a chuckle and wry smile. But there was a method to his madness. “My intention was always to open up the discussion and to get the group thinking outside the box. Many of my suggestions I wouldn’t have endorsed myself, but I wanted to get people mulling and talking.”
And that’s exactly what happened whenever Jeff sat at the table: people mulled and they talked.
Jeff was a master at taking on challenging campus projects, and he was perpetually accomplishing something new and exciting. Dimsdale’s wellspring of creativity NEVER ran dry. He was the recipient of six faculty fellowships during his tenure at the college, the most awarded to any single OCC staff member.
The mathematical and creative mastermind was chief architect of numerous big-ticket items on campus – though he hastens to interject that he always had “lots of help.”
The spectacular Children’s Center – the finest child-care facility found on any community college campus in the nation – was his baby, so to speak. Jeff worked closely with architects and contractors in getting the job done. He calls it the crowning achievement of his career.
“But I didn’t make the Children’s Center what it is today…that was Lucy Groetsch’s accomplishment,” he is quick to note. “She made what happens on the inside of the building, happen. That’s the greater achievement in my eyes.”
He was in charge of OCC’s scholarship program for many years, and built it into a national model. In the course of one 30-month stretch during his period of oversight the scholarship endowment increased by a jaw-dropping 48 percent!
For 15 years he was producer, director and “imagineer” of OCC’s annual Honors Night Program, one of the college’s signature events. That was no insignificant accomplishment – especially for a mathematician! Mathematicians aren’t supposed to have a “creative” bone in their body. They’re left-brained (logical, sequential, rational, analytical and objective individuals who look at parts, not the whole). Jeff took over Honors Night in 1986 and transformed what had been your average garden-variety high school-quality awards ceremony…into the freaking Academy Awards! How dare anyone say Jeff Dimsdale is no artist!
A Los Angeles native, Jeff grew up in West L.A. He was a football player and shot putter at University High School, which sits in the shadow of UCLA. He was also a member of several campus clubs. As a 10th grader, Dimsdale began to volunteer his time with the YMCA, an activity that became a lifelong passion and continues to this day. He learned the importance of community and volunteerism.
Jeff enrolled at UCLA as an engineering major, but switched to mathematics his second semester.
“Mathematics was perfect for me,” he says. “I found my calling.”
Jeff lived in a small fraternity house next to the Westwood campus. A fellow resident in a room down the hall was UCLA All-American basketball star, Walt Hazard. A huge hoops fan, Jeff was a regular at games at Pauley Pavilion. During his five years at UCLA (four as an undergraduate and one as a graduate student) the Bruins won four national championships. Jeff even played in a pickup game with Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar).
Dimsdale graduated from UCLA, and began working on an M.A. the day following his commencement. His thesis advisor was Dr. Edwin Ford Beckenbach one of the premier mathematicians in the world.
“He was amazing,” Jeff said. “One of the reasons the Russians were able to launch Sputnik in 1957 was because they’d stolen his textbook.”
Jeff earned his M.A. in four quarters.
“I received my degree in June of 1968, but in February and March of that year I began to look for work,” he recalls.
While attending UCLA he worked as a programmer analyst with IBM. IBM had a permanent job awaiting him when he graduated, but Jeff had other ideas.
“I didn’t want to be stuck in a box,” he says. “Research and industrial math were not my thing. I realized that I needed to teach…I’d thoroughly enjoyed my YMCA teaching duties. I thought first about the high school level, but realized that the community college setting was a better environment for me.”
Jeff had taken a graduate course at UCLA from Dr. Arthur Cohen, an expert on the national community college movement.
“Art was THE community college guru in the land at the time, and I learned a great deal from him.”
In the spring of 1968 OCC dean of instruction, Dr. Jim Fitzgerald, visited UCLA’s campus as part of a recruiting fair to interview prospective teachers. OCC, an institution on Orange County’s coast that was growing by leaps and bounds, was going to need 72 new professors for the fall semester of 1968.
“I interviewed with Jim, Bill Shaul – the Golden West College dean of instruction – and with several other employers,” Jeff says. “I was invited to the OCC campus to interview with math and science dean, Chuck Lewis, and with president, Dr. Bob Moore.”
OCC was the first community college campus that Jeff would visit. He was unfazed by its many unattractive steel-gray World War II barracks buildings.
“I thought it was a nice campus, I’m a mathematician and not into externals. When I was at UCLA we had lots of ugly dorms that were torn down to make room for Pauley Pavilion. The barracks buildings at OCC really didn’t register with me. They weren’t an issue.”
Dimsdale was impressed with the people he met, Lewis and Moore.
“They were first class gentlemen. The first person I met on campus was Kay Stanberry, Dr. Bob’s secretary. She was so professional and so efficient that she scared me to death. Chuck interviewed me alone, and then took me into a class being taught by John Clark. I was impressed.”
Clark, a professor of mathematics and computer information systems, is the person for whom the John R. Clark Computing Center is named.
“John and I later became good friends. Then I went to see Bob. The interview with the president went well and was very informal. I felt comfortable with him.”
Shortly thereafter Dimsdale was tendered an offer, and he accepted.
“Five months later, in September – the week before school started – I and the 71 other new faculty members met in Music 101 for a pre-semester orientation. As I walked into the room, Bob came over to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome to OCC, Jeff.’ I was amazed. I hadn’t seen him in five months, yet he remembered my name.”
Jeff began his career at Coast as a mathematics instructor. He completed his Ph.D. in instructional technology at USC in 1975. Despite the doctorate he’s always been a Bruin, never a Trojan.
In 1976, he was named director of instructional development, and continued to teach part-time. He and faculty members Sandra Toy and Nancy Rubinstein worked on projects that promoted unique teaching and learning styles. He worked directly under Lee LaJeunesse, dean of the Media Center, who would become his mentor and lifelong friend.
“I worked on the CISTRAIN Project (Coordinated Instruction Systems Training), which was a staff development program that focused on producing instructional materials,” Dimsdale says. “CISTRAIN naturally led into a more intensive instructional program where we actually helped to redesign curricula for faculty.”
The instructional development program was so successful that Jeff was assigned to work it full-time.
“Lee was the one who got me involved in all of that,” Jeff says. “He opened the door for me to do creative stuff on the instructional side. We’ve been good friends over the years.”
Dimsdale was moved back into the classroom after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.
Lajeunesse left the campus in 1980 to go on a decade-long sailing adventure and Jeff was named interim dean of the Media Center. He later was upgraded to associate dean of instructional media. Jeff was responsible for building the class schedule and managing instructional media. All audio-visual course assistants answered to him, and he ran IMC (Reprographics).
“I was spread pretty thin,” he admits.
Moore retired in 1982 and Luskin became president. Because of severe budget cuts, the Media Center closed down and Dimsdale went back into the classroom for five years. He taught everything from arithmetic to second semester calculus, as well as several different computer courses.
“I focused mostly on the algebras,” he says. “My favorite class was Math 170 (Precalculus Mathematics). I taught lots of large-group sections in the chemistry and science lecture halls. My style is to involve people, so we had considerable student participation in those classes.”
He enjoyed being a classroom teacher.
In 1986, college president, Donald R. Bronsard, moved OCC’s dean of student affairs, Dave Grant, down to the School of Sailing and Seamanship on Newport Bay as director. The associate dean of student services, Sharon Donoff, moved up as interim dean of student services, and then became permanent dean.
“That meant the associate dean position was empty,” Jeff says. “The district decided to fill the post with an internal candidate. Three people applied, and I was one of them.”
What made Dimsdale think he could work in student services?
“I enjoyed working with students, and I’d been working with kids since the 10th grade. I had the analytical skills to computerize the scholarship program and to upgrade Honors Night. It seemed to me that it was a good fit for my skills.”
Jeff landed the job and assumed his post on January 5, 1986.
Surprise, surprise! After just one year in the position, Dimsdale turned the Student Services Office into the most highly computerized office on campus.
“Sharon took an administrative leave in June and left me in charge,” Jeff recalls. “She expected the office to be computerized by the time she returned and, when it wasn’t, she was upset. I told her the staff wasn’t ready and I wasn’t comfortable in pushing it on them.”
Slowly, during the fall semester, Jeff sold all staff members – with one exception – on a new Macintosh system.
“The one holdout had an old word processor that she refused to give up. Finally, late in the fall I said, ‘I’m about ready to submit the P.O. Are you sure you don’t want me to include a Mac for you?’”
She began to waver.
“Finally, she asked me if she could get a Mac, but also keep the word processor on her desk. I said absolutely.”
The computers arrived after the first of the New Year. Jeff went into the office on Super Bowl Sunday to run the wires.
“I figured it would be the perfect day to do it and no one would be around. Well, the entire office staff had keys, as did numerous student government leaders, and we must have had 25 people in there throughout the day.”
The office network – there was NO campus computer network at the time – was up and running by Monday morning: 14 tiny-screened Apples and a single printer.
“When I came into the office on Tuesday, I noticed that the word processor was unplugged. In fact, the cord was cut and it would never be used again. By the end of the week the first student project – a handout card about the college designed for high school students – was cranked out by the system. We were off and running.”
In 1989 Donoff became vice president of student services and Jeff assumed her former title, dean of student services.
Jeff produced his first Honors Night Program in May of 1986.
“The first three Honors Nights I did were held at the Community Center in downtown Costa Mesa. As we began to prepare for the 1989 production I told Sharon that we needed to do it on campus…in the Student Center and Robert B. Moore Theatre. She said she didn’t think it would work, but graciously added, ‘If you want to give it a try – and if it doesn’t work – I’ll never say I told you so.’”
Voila! Jeff made it work.
In the early 1990s Jeff and his crew began to work with themes for each year’s production.
“One year, in the early ‘90s, we had a circus theme. Our two campus facilities – the Moore Theatre and Student Center – were closed for renovation that year. We decided to do the entire event in Peterson Gym…which we knew would be tough because the gym has atrocious acoustics. The reception would be held out front and in the foyer, and the program would be conducted in the gym.”
Jeff thought about renting an elephant to add authenticity to the evening’s theme.
“We thought the trunk would be a great touch, but then we began to worry that what might emanate from the opposite end could offend our diners. We rented a hot air balloon instead. It was difficult pulling it off without a kitchen nearby, but Barbara Cooper and her culinary students did a wonderful job.”
Another year, Honors Night featured a Vietnamese theme. The Culinary Arts Department prepared an authentic Vietnamese menu. Cooking began three weeks in advance of the event.
“We needed 3,000 spring rolls and a company was hired to make them for us. Unfortunately, at the last minute they told us they’d not be able to deliver on their promise. A day before the event Barbara Cooper and her students had to hand-roll 3,000 homemade spring rolls. Fortunately they came though for us. Barbara and her crew were amazing!”
Decorations began going up in the mid-1990s in the Moore Theatre and Student Center for the Honors Night celebration. According to Dimsdale’s orders, the theme each year was never revealed until the doors opened for the show. Unlike a mathematician – and more like a sergeant major – he always kept things tightly under wraps.
“We prided ourselves in keeping the theme a deep, dark secret. Even the college president didn’t know the theme. Margaret Gratton was always nervous about what we had up our sleeves.”
Dimsdale prepared a slide show that listed the names of all the award winners and scholarship recipients.
“During the early years we routinely mispronounced a host of student names. As a result, students wouldn’t recognize their names so they wouldn’t come forward to pick up their awards. After we began to flash the names on the screen the problem was resolved.”
Jeff wrote sophisticated computer programs to produce meticulous Honors Night scripts. Names were printed phonetically on each script.
He knew he’d come up with something pretty special after the second or third year of producing Honors Night. A student approached him in the quad and said, “My friend got to attend Honors Night this week. What do I have to do to be able to attend next year?”
“I knew we’d made it,” he says.
Though Jeffrey knew Honors Night was a hit – ever the perfectionist – he wasn’t content to sit on his laurels. There were new dimensions and wrinkles added to the production each succeeding year.
“It became an event that the entire campus was proud of and completely bought into. If we needed something for Honors Night, no one on campus ever refused us. We had carte blanche. It was a very special event.”
What did he learn from producing the program?
“No matter how well you plan things, something will go wrong every single time – without fail. The key is this: it’s okay if you’re aware that something went wrong, but it’s our goal that the guests never know. If you’re able to hide the mistake, then it never happened in the first place!”
Jeff remembers the Children’s Center construction campaign as a “difficult and challenging” project.
“We plugged away at the fundraising and designed the building a number of times. It took us several years to get it built. Construction alone took a couple of years, and we ran out of money before we ran out of building.”
The Associated Students of Orange Coast College kicked off the fundraising campaign in 1995 with a generous $1.5 million contribution. Other major contributions included a $500,000 gift from the Harry and Grace Steele Foundation of Newport Beach; $250,000 from the W. M. Keck Foundation; and $100,000 from the Weingart Foundation in Los Angeles.
For groundbreaking ceremonies, children were bussed to the site from OCC’s temporary Children’s Center next to the soccer field on the northern perimeter of the campus.
“The kids brought buckets and sand shovels and I managed to borrow a three-handed shovel from Clark-Dye Hardware. Donald Ackley (dean of the library) documented the event photographically. We produced 30 copies of a 20-page book of groundbreaking ceremony photos, and had it ready for distribution by the end of the day.”
The building opened in November of 1997. Official grand opening ceremonies were held in April of 1998.
A week after the grand opening, Lucy Groetsch, Margaret Gratton and Jeff went to Miami to receive the 1998 Model Program Award presented by the American Association for Women in Community Colleges (AAWCC).
“We were only about 10 days away from Honors Night, and I could ill-afford to be gone for four or five days, but Lucy was receiving an extremely prestigious award, and I wanted to be there to support her,” Jeff says.
AAWCC was astonished at the quality of OCC’s program for children.
“We were impressed with the mission and goals of Orange Coast College’s Children’s Center, which are in keeping with the goals of AAWCC,” said Dr. Judy Snyder, chair of the AAWCC Model Programs Committee. “We liked the cooperative ventures which built and maintain the center, and the center’s breadth of student services.”
And, of course, the women of AAWCC were blown away by the college’s new Children’s Center facility.
Over the years many students who’ve been involved in student government have returned to OCC’s campus to visit with Jeff and his staff.
“A common thread in their remarks is that they’re happy to have been able to leave something behind on the campus after they left. They point to the Moore Theatre, the Student Center, the Student Bookstore, the Boat House and, of course, the Children’s Center.
“Leaving a piece of oneself behind was very important to them. That happened because of Sharon’s leadership. It couldn’t have happened without her.”
Jeff says mentors are what made the difference for him throughout his Orange Coast College career and he points to five who dramatically impacted his life: president Bob Moore; Math and Sciences dean, Chuck Lewis; Media Services dean, Lee Lajeunesse; math professor, Ron Schryer; and Student Services vice president, Sharon Donoff.
“Bob was like a second father to many of us on campus. He was a great administrator and a wonderful human being. When we were facing potential layoffs, he took me into Admin. 103 and rolled out an organizational chart for the entire campus. ‘Jeff,’ Bob said, ‘if you had to lay off x-number of people, how would you go about doing so?’
“I told him what I would do, and why. He nodded, thanked me, and said that that wasn’t how he’d do it. He proceeded to show me what he would do. He taught me an important lesson about being a compassionate manager.”
Jeff calls Chuck Lewis – who died with his wife in a horrible automobile crash in 1979 – a “great person, teacher and dean.” It’s no coincidence that a building is named in his honor on campus.
Dimsdale worked for Lajeunesse for many years on the fourth floor of the Watson Library.
“Lee was always Lee…steadfast, dedicated and a strong advocate for students. We were always close. Lee is one of the most ethical people you’ll ever meet.”
Schryer had been an OCC student in the early days of the college. His father installed the lights on the college’s first football practice field. Ron’s son and grandson both attended Coast. Schryer was an OCC math professor from 1965-84.
“When I first arrived at Coast, Ron was assigned to me by Chuck to be my big brother. He taught me the ropes. He was an amazing man, and we became like real brothers. Ron and I were involved in lots of projects together.”
Jeff labels Donoff “the most amazing person you’ll ever know.”
“She’s a Level-Five Leader on the good-to-great leader scale…and that’s the top rung. With Sharon it’s not about her. It’s never about her. It’s about a core set of values that Sharon has, and how she lives with them. She always asks the same questions: ‘What can we do today to help students?’ and ‘Which decision is in the best interest of students?’”
Jeff has been actively involved with Friends of the Library for many years…continuing into retirement.
“Last year we needed to develop a strategic plan for the Friends. Who better to come in and lead us in that effort than Sharon? Sharon worked with us in formulating a plan.”
Perhaps Jeff’s closest friend at Coast over the years was dean of library and media services, Donald Ackley.
“I first met Donald in 1971 when he was a media librarian,” Jeff says. “He, Gary Bodkins, Chris McCabe, Olney Stewart, Mike Shanley, Rob Davis, Lee Lajeunesse and I worked together. You had to love Donald. He was interested in everything. He was genuine.
“Don always got his work done quickly and expertly…then he’d go birding. For a year we carpooled together to work. He was always ready to go home at 5 p.m., but I was always about 45 minutes late. My interruption rate was probably 10 times an hour. He had to sit around waiting for me every day. Finally, I told him I wasn’t being fair to him, so we stopped carpooling.”
Ackley died in 2003 at the age of 58 after a valiant battle with cancer. The loss was tough on his wife, Claudia Jackson, and on Jeff.
“Donald and I went to Mac World every year and traveled a lot together. We went to trade shows, movies and had dinner together. He was a great friend.”
In the late 1980s, Dimsdale joined the Kiwanis. OCC administrator, Jim Garmon, got him involved. Jeff eventually became president of the Costa Mesa Kiwanis.
“I was active with the Kiwanis while I worked at Coast, but have become more so since retiring.”
He served as lieutenant governor of the Southern Orange County Division in 2005-06, and is currently a member of the governor’s cabinet, and is advisor on service leadership programs.
“We have 6,000 Orange County students involved in leadership development,” he says with pride. “We’re the largest non-academic leadership program in the world.”
Because of Jeff’s connection, much of that Orange County leadership training takes place on OCC’s campus.
“We recently had 700 students on campus for a Saturday leadership skills event,” he says. “Because of Kiwanis, OCC has thousands of on-campus contacts with high school students every year.”
Dimsdale and Donoff both retired in December of 2000.
“A lot of institutional memory – almost 70 years worth – went away when we left,” he says. Jeff agreed to remain for the spring semester of 2001 to ease the transition and to coordinate Honors Night one final time. Jeff left in June of 2001.
“I loved coming to work here,” he says. “There was never a day that I didn’t want to get up and go to the campus. I always came to work with a long to-do list and, because of interruptions, rarely got through the entire list.
“Orange Coast College has the best students and the most incredible, remarkable and amazing group of professionals anywhere. I enjoyed every single moment I spent at Coast.”
Dr. Jeffrey M. Dimsdale is one of a multitude of special, unique and exceptional individuals who’ve made Orange Coast College the distinctive place that it is today.
He’s illustrative of the fact that Coasters are NOT – thank heavens! – all alike. We’re NOT clones of one other! Dimsdale is unique like Garrison is unique like Harmer is unique like Skeie is unique like Monahan is unique…ad infinitum.
What we all really do well…is we learn to work together. That’s the heart, crux and nub of the matter. We each bring our unique skill-set to the table and, together, we make OCC the BEST darned community college anywhere!
Yup. I’m a simple man with simple answers, but to my mind…that’s what makes this place great!
WE GET LETTERS…
Dear Diane (Colvin):
I just wanted to thank you again for my family’s and my marvelous day (Nov. 9) at OCC. It was a joy to get to meet you, and I can’t thank you enough for all you did to allow me the opportunity to share a little about space exploration with the OCC community, and to meet more of the OCC staff and students at the reception afterwards. As I hope you know, Clay and I have been impressed with OCC for several years now. It was icing on the cake for us to learn that the Foundation paid for the buses to bring in the local elementary school students! I also wish you could have heard the conversation with my parents later that day. What they loved most is how genuinely happy, enthusiastic, nice, and intelligent OCC staff and students are.
May I bother you to please pass along my thanks to everyone involved, including Mr. (Doug) Bennett, the theater tech team (thank goodness for their expertise!), the culinary arts students, and others I wasn’t able to thank in person. I would also appreciate your passing along my thanks to the elementary school students. Their teachers, principals, and parents deserve to be very proud of them.
NASA’s First Educator Astronaut