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.)
I don’t mean for this to sound boastful or arrogant.
Forty-five years ago this fall – in September of 1962 – I didn’t choose Orange Coast College. Orange Coast College chose me. And boy am I grateful!
Permit me to explain.
In June of 1962 I graduated from Costa Mesa High School. My academic career there had been, to put it mildly, lackluster. A happy-go-lucky kid who loved the social aspects of high school but didn’t care much for things academic, I arrived at Coast completely unfamiliar with the following: how to crack a textbook in study hall, after school or, when the pressure was on, during the dead of night; how to take coherent notes during a class lecture; how to volunteer for a student study group; or, how to prepare for an exam. And my high school grades reflected those glaring deficiencies.
As a result, my options, as I stood furrowing my brow in the CMHS parking lot the evening of my graduation ceremony, were, essentially…zero. I stood as much chance of becoming a legitimate college student as I did of throwing a rock from my location at Fairview and Arlington and hitting the Balboa Island Ferry.
I didn’t qualify for UCLA. My hardworking, blue-collar father didn’t earn enough money in a decade to send me to USC for a semester. UC Irvine didn’t exist. Orange State College was a tiny school in trailers in a Fullerton orange grove. San Diego State? Hah! Might as well set my sights on Bora Bora State.
There was, of course, Santa Ana College. I’d been there for a couple of high school journalism conferences. That was the problem. It reminded me of my high school.
Then, right across Fairview and Arlington, was that somewhat esoteric and, yes, slightly mysterious junior college with the exotic title. To me, the name conjured up idealized images of fragrant citrus groves descending to immaculate beaches splashed by waves ridden by bronzed surfers. The place was called Orange Coast College. If that name didn’t absolutely scream Southern California lifestyle, nothing did. Best of all, it WASN’T Costa Mesa College! I so did NOT want to attend a college with the name of my hometown in its title.
I’d been on campus to attend several athletic events and some plays and musicals during my high school days. I’d ridden my bike around the place, played on its athletic fields, and swam in its pool. It seemed like a comfortable, friendly place, and it featured a number of “new” buildings and an assortment of wooden, steel-gray World War II barracks thrown into the mix. But it all seemed to “work” aesthetically and architecturally.
During the summer following my junior year in high school, I worked with a guy named Angelo at a clothing store in downtown Costa Mesa (those were the days when CM actually had a downtown!). Angelo, a worldly OCC student, was outgoing and funny. I thought he was cool. He was 19; I was 16.
“It’s a happenin’ place,” Angelo confided when I asked for his take on the college. “You can pretty much go to class when you want. There’s no tuition…just books. And the chicks, man, they’re twitchin’.”
Well, that pretty much sealed the deal for me. Farewell Men and Women of Troy (I never had a shot at you, anyway). Hello Pirateville!
Looking back down that lengthy elevator shaft of 45 years, the fall of 1962 was both a heady and sublime time, at least for this callow Costa Mesa youth.
John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. Edith Piaf was holding court with fawning media reporters in a Trouville ballroom, and Mickey Mantle was hitting .321 for the World Champion New York Yankees. James Meredith became the first African-American student to register for classes at the University of Mississippi. Poet e.e. cummings died that fall at the outrageously ancient age of 67. The Beatles recorded “Love Me Do.” ABC launched its first color TV series, “The Jetsons.” “The Beverly Hillbillies” premiered on CBS. And, Joan Crawford guested on the first edition of Johnny Carson’s new television program, The Tonight Show.
Dr. Basil Peterson
Oh, and Jim Carnett enrolled at Orange Coast College, as OCC launched its 15th academic year. It all began on Monday, Sept. 10, 1962.
Founding president, Dr. Basil H. Peterson, called me out in his official message to the student body delivered on the second day of classes: “I challenge each student to conduct him or herself in accord with the high ideals of our nation, his or her church, his or her family and this college. Guided by such objectives, Orange Coast College will be a dynamite force for good.”
A dynamite force for good Orange Coast College has been, though I’m not certain as to the role Mr. Carnett has played in that pleasant state of affairs.
Ambitiously, I enrolled in 14.5 units that fall semester…’cause that’s what all my friends were doing.
I signed up for “Public Speaking” (Speech 1A), taught by Robert Kest; “Introduction to Psychology” (Psychology 1A), taught by Dr. Jerry Richards and first-year instructor, Dr. Jerry Sjule; “Introduction to Drama” (Theatre Arts 1), taught by John Ford; “Acting Fundamentals” (Theatre Arts 2A), taught by Lucian Scott; “Voice Training” (Music 7), taught by Walter Gleckler; “Theatre Lab” (Theatre Arts 29A), taught by John Ford; and “Weight Training” (P.E. 5M), taught by…well, I don’t remember who taught it.
Looking at that list of classes, you’re probably not too surprised to learn that I fancied myself a future Broadway star. Thirty-six months later the United States Army would grind my little Broadway dreams to powder. Those rose-colored glasses dangling from my nose that first day at Coast were irreparably shattered…but, actually, that turned out to be a good thing, for both myself and Broadway. If I told you that I flunked one of my first semester classes you’d no doubt not be shocked to learn that it was “Weight Training.” (I only wish I could remember the name of that pseudo-educator who spoiled my pristine transcript!) Yes, the P.E. Dept. gave me the only F I ever received in college. And to think how close I’ve been to those Coast Fizz-Edders for the past 36 years!
Water under the bridge, Carnett.
On the third day of fall ’62 classes, I attended the official convocation for the academic year, held in the Auditorium (Robert B. Moore Theatre). Surprisingly, everyone on campus seemed to be there.
ASB president, Tom Williamson, and District Board of Trustees president, Worth Keene, delivered brief remarks. Sadly, their inspirational words have long since been deposited in the dustbin of history along with billions of other well-intentioned “welcome to college” addresses. Dr. Peterson made a slightly pedantic presentation, titled “Therefore Get Wisdom.” I therefore got droopy, however, as the warm uncirculated September air settled over the crowd in the steaming Auditorium (those were the days before AC ductwork began to proliferate across the ridgeline of OCC’s buildings)! Spanish professor, Eustace Rojas, president of the Faculty Association, introduced OCC faculty members and administrators to the audience. Vice president of instruction, Dr. Jim Fitzgerald, served as emcee.
Seventeen-year-old Jimmie Carnett sat back in about Row 25 on the right side of the Auditorium. The convocation concluded with everyone standing and singing the Alma Mater.
On Saturday evening, Sept. 22, my old high school chum, Bob Mathews (who, like me, was now a dapper “college man”), and I drove to Chaffey College to watch OCC’s football team open the ’62 season. It was Dick Tucker’s debut as the Pirate head coach. The Bucs trounced the Panthers, 34-14, and Bob and I were stoked! Those were the days before “high-fives,” yet we were “high-fiving it” all the way home. I didn’t realize that that would be the first of more than 300 Pirate football games I would attend over the coming 45 years.
By the end of September, I was a member of OCC’s 500 Club. Every club member received a membership card with his or her name on the front and the Alma Mater printed on the back. Joining the organization was easy. All you had to do was be one of the first 500 students (almost 20 percent of the entire student body!) to show up at Coast’s first home football game wearing a white shirt. You were admitted to the game free of charge; got to sit on the Pirate Stadium (LeBard) 50-yardline; wave pom poms; and participate in the exciting halftime card stunts performance. Your membership card entitled you to attend free of charge every home game that season.
It was my first evening as a 500 Club member, and I went to the pre-game spaghetti-feed with several hundred other students in the Student Center. The Pirates mauled Southwestern College in the game afterward, 26-0.
By the way, I’ve just gotta say that we had the best song leader corps in the Eastern Conference that year: JoAnn Hart and Kerry McClellan from my old high school, Marlene Simpson, Abbie Oquist, Jewell Levy and Judy Reynolds. They were hot!
On Friday noon, Oct. 12, a pep rally was held on the steps of the Auditorium (Moore Theatre). The marching band accompanied cheerleaders, song leaders and Pirate Girls. Hundreds of students stood and gawked, and many even cheered…including yours truly. The object of our attention was San Bernardino Valley College, that week’s opponent. The Pirates beat the Indians Saturday night, 34-16.
I attended OCC’s homecoming game against Fullerton College on Saturday, Oct. 19. The Pirates won the game, 25-20, and upped their season record to 5-0.
That first semester on campus I landed a role in Saul Levitt’s riveting courtroom drama, “The Andersonville Trial.” Directed by popular and urbane OCC drama professor, John Ford (the girls loved him; the guys wanted to be just like him), the play ran Thursday through Saturday evenings, Oct. 25-27, in the Auditorium. The 1,200-seat facility was sold out for every performance (actually, tickets were free, but had to be secured in advance at the Student Bookstore).
Drama Club (Carnett in horn-rimmed glasses and white socks)
The play happened to coincide with a major world event, the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis was a serious Cold War confrontation between the U.S., the Soviet Union and Cuba. It’s regarded by many historians as the moment when the Cold War came its closest to escalating into nuclear war.
The crisis began on Oct. 14 when U.S. reconnaissance flights revealed Soviet missile installations in Cuba, 90 miles off the Florida coast. On Oct. 22 – three nights before our opening night – President Kennedy delivered a televised address to the nation announcing the discovery of the installations. I vividly recall sitting in front of my TV screen, completely mesmerized by the speech and by Kennedy’s stern countenance.
President Kennedy proclaimed that the United States would "...regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response." That was a phrase that was repeated often on campus during the ensuing days, “full retaliatory response.” We each mulled over what those rather ominous words might mean.
The President also put in place a naval blockade of some 180 U.S. Navy ships in order to prevent further Soviet shipments of military weapons into Cuba. Things were extraordinarily tense. All Student Center conversations during those days seemed to focus on a single topic: the events off Florida. Students – and professors – conducted highly animated discussions.
The tensions suddenly broke on Oct. 28 when the Soviet Union announced its intention to dismantle the Cuban installations, crate them up and transport them back to Eastern Europe. The Russian Bear had blinked!
Because “Andersonville Trial” was basically an all-male production, the cast and crew had lively discussions in the green room during the run of the show. Some expected us to be nuked at any moment, others talked about being drafted and placed on some remote battlefield – or in some Florida swamp – facing the Russians.
I asked an older cast member, a military veteran, about my future prospects. What should I do?
“You won’t be able to finish your college education, that’s for sure,” he predicted.
He was half right. I joined the Army 15 months later, but finished my education after my discharge in 1967. Many of the other guys in the cast served their country as well, and many were drafted.
“The Andersonville Trial” was my introduction to the Civil War. I remember reading Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” in high school, but that was in a literature class. I don’t ever remember listening to a single high school lecture concerning America’s greatest military, political and human tragedy.
In “The Andersonville Trial,” I played a Union soldier who’d been wounded and captured at the battle of Chickamauga in south-central Tennessee and northwestern Georgia. He was taken to the infamous Andersonville Prison, a fetid cesspool filled with the dead and dying, located some 50 miles east of Columbus, Ga. I “testified” during the play’s post-war trial of camp commander, Henry Wirz. Wirz was ultimately convicted and hanged for his war crimes.
Little did I know that just two years later, as a member of the U.S. Army, I would be stationed at Fort Benning, just outside Columbus. A couple of decades after that I would develop a deep passion for Civil War history, reading a hundred books or more on the subject and visiting battlefields (and reenactments) throughout Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. I would walk Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, drive Stonewall Jackson’s courageous and unparalleled flank march at Chancellorsville, and walk the length of the sunken road – Bloody Lane – at Antietam.
In the summer of 2005, I would visit the site of Andersonville Prison itself. On that solemn ground, with only the sound of birds and the soft breeze breaking the absolute silence, I would think back to Jack Ford’s words, “This is American history, folks.” Indeed it is. Thank you, OCC!
On Nov. 7, 1962, Orange Coast College’s football team beat Mt. San Antonio, 14-7, in the fog of Pirate Stadium, running their season record to 7-0. The following weekend OCC met unbeaten Santa Ana College at Santa Ana Bowl. The game was sold out, and I didn’t want to hang out in the Bowl parking lot with hundreds of other Coast fans without tickets, so I listened to the game on the radio at home.
“According to everything that’s been put into print and a few personal reports I’ve heard, the Dons are supposed to be the closest thing to an all-pro team playing in a high school league,” wrote John Cook, sports editor of OCC’s student newspaper, the week of the game.
Junior Rose Bowl-bound Santa Ana won the game, 34-12, but OCC acquitted itself well. The Pirates captured their last regular season game over Riverside, 29-14, and went on to punish Glendale College, 23-16, in the Orange Show Bowl Game to finish 9-1. OCC would go 10-0 the next season (1963) and be rewarded with a Junior Rose Bowl bid and a national championship.
At the close of the 1962 football season, Orange Coast College was awarded its third Eastern Conference Sportsmanship Trophy in five years. The trophy was bestowed upon the student body rooting section that displayed the best enthusiasm, sportsmanship, courtesy and lack of “rowdyism” in the conference. No surprise, the Pirates were No. 1…again!
During the opening week of OCC’s spring 1963 semester I auditioned for the spring play, James Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” directed by Lucian Scott. I managed to win the role of John, Wendy’s stodgy brother, and was able to fly all over the Darling-family household and through Never-Never-Land.
“(Flying) will be achieved by the use of a flying device contrived of sandbags that will equal the weight of the airborne character,” wrote the student newspaper in a story previewing the show. “Piano wire, looped through a pulley, will be attached to a harness the actor will wear, with the sandbags at the other end. The actor just has to jump and he will fly through the air with the greatest of ease.”
Well, it was slightly more complicated than that…but, that’s essentially correct. We had afternoon “flying lessons” for several weeks in preparation for the show. It was a blast! The kids who attended the production ooohed and aaahed as we flew over the stage and even out over the first few rows in the audience.
My first semester at Coast, in the fall of 1962, set the tempo for the remainder of my college career…and my life.
Dr. Jerry Richards taught me that life is what you make it – your future is in your own hands, no one else’s. He stressed becoming an active member of humankind, and, by the way, he taught me how to take acceptable lecture notes. Robert Kest taught me the value of intelligence and humor, and how to speak confidently before a group of people. He taught me how to organize and write a speech, and how to accept myself as a worthy human being.
Walt Gleckler taught me never to sell myself short – and to accept nothing less than the best I have to offer – and to unapologetically stand before an audience and belt a song. Jack Ford and Luke Scott taught me the value of forsaking personal ambition in order to work with others as a valued member of a team. Life is so much richer that way. Ford and Scott also taught me how to chew a little scenery! Luke told stories…the most wonderful stories. Jack Ford, a gifted teacher and humanitarian, was one of the major influences of my life. I keep in touch with him to this day.
And what about that no-name P.E. guy who gave me the F in weightlifting? If I could only remember who he was! He must be at least 80 by now. Bet I could take him!
After that magical semester – the fall of ’62 – I went on to earn my A.A. degree from Orange Coast College and a B.A. with honors at Cal State Fullerton. I scored a perfect 4.0 GPA while securing my M.A. at Pepperdine University.
And, after returning to campus as an employee in 1971, I have spent four glorious decades on this campus. It’s been a privilege…a gas!
But it all started with that initial semester in college, when I stepped out into the world for the very first time.
WE GET LETTERS….
What a treat it was to see that the subject of the May 24 Orange Slices column was Sarkis Baltaian (“OCC Music Alum Builds International Reputation,” Orange Slices, May 24). I’ve often thought about Sarkis and the many talented music students – particularly the piano scholarship winners – and have wondered how they are doing musically since they were OCC students. Thanks to your wonderful article, I now know what is going on with Sarkis. We can rightly be very proud of him.
In reading that Sarkis had played with the Beverly Hills Symphony, I was reminded about something I haven’t thought about in many years. I, too, played a Mozart concerto with the Beverly Hills Symphony – K. 488 in A major – on a 96-key Bosendorfer, one of the finest and most expensive pianos in the world.
It seems that Oscar Peterson (a Bosendorfer artist) was going to appear in a few days and had asked the Bosendorfer people to send over one of his favorite concert grands in readiness for his upcoming program. There the magnificent instrument stood, all freshly tuned and ready to go. How serendipitous and what a thrill!
OCC Professor of Music (1976-95)