By Jim Carnett
(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 36th 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.)
Dr. Jerrel Richards
His name was Dr. Jerrel Thurston Richards, and, no, he wasn’t that rich guy on “Gilligan’s Island.”
He was an Orange Coast College pioneer, professor, counselor, administrator and dean for 26 years, from 1958-84.
His looks and demeanor matched his daunting name. A clothing model as a young man, he was handsome, witty, sophisticated and a bona fide intellectual. He spoke three languages.
Jerry lived on Lido Isle with his wife and two children, and was ardently involved in community organizations. One of the reasons that OCC president, Basil H, Peterson, hired him in 1958 was because of his many contacts in the community. Peterson wanted OCC to be directly involved with its many constituencies.
But, forgive me for speaking of Jerry in the past tense. Though long retired from Coast, he still takes considerable pride in the place, and is a member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Getting back to Richards’ community involvement, over the years he’s been president of a wide variety of organizations, a member of a host of boards, and a volunteer with a multitude of agencies. Though he hasn’t kept precise count, he estimates that he’s been a member of at least 43 different boards and organizations, and president of 15 or 16.
The Lido Isle Renaissance Man has served as president of the Newport-Balboa Rotary, the Newport Beach Fine Arts Commission, the Orange County Performing Arts Center Auxiliary, the Orange County Protocol Foundation, the Sister City Association of Newport Beach and the Orange County Arts Showcase, to name but a few.
Born in Los Angeles, Jerry was raised in Pasadena and Newport.
“We spent weekends and vacations on Balboa Island and the Balboa Peninsula,” he says. “In 1936, when I was nine, Newport had a population of 2,000 people. I remember that there were only three expensive restaurants, and no clothing stores. We did our shopping at Buffum’s in Long Beach.
“I loved Newport, but a lot of people didn’t. There wasn’t much to do, though the old Rendezvous Ballroom used to attract lots of kids during Bal Week (Easter break). The complaint of the cadets stationed at the Santa Ana Army Air Base from 1942-45 was that there was nothing to do here.”
Though he couldn’t know it in 1936, Jerry’s future was directly tied to Lido Isle…as well as to a patch of ground on the nearly empty mesa above Newport, derisively referred to as “Goat Hill.” While he was growing up, Lido was little more than a desert island, and that mesa patch was covered by tumbleweeds and bean fields.
“We’d often play on Lido. There were just a few homes, and acres and acres of sand. It was populated by frogs, lizards and wild bougainvillea.”
As a young adult he dabbled in real estate and did well by buying up more than 30 properties on Lido and the surrounding Newport Beach community.
“I never talked much about that, but I did well. I bought lots, turned them into acreages and then into houses.”
As a teenager, he spent most of World War II in Riverside.
“My father was general manager of Pacific Telephone for Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties during the war,” he says. “He was in charge of civil defense for the Riverside area, and we had seven telephones in our home.”
Jerry was 14 when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, and 18 when the Japanese surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945. He joined the Army Air Corps right after high school and spent a year as part of the American occupation force in Tokyo.
He returned home and attended Riverside City College. He completed his B.A. degree in Spanish and Latin American Affairs at Occidental College. He attended Oxy with his sweetheart from elementary school, Barbara Belding. Belding was the product of a family that owned the largest advertising agency in the world. Jerry and Barbara were married in 1951 and, early on, had a home on Lido Isle and, in fact, founded the Lido Isle Players shortly after their wedding. They were inseparable for 24 years until her death from cancer at the age of 45 in 1975.
“I began to speak Spanish in junior high school and loved Mexican culture and California history,” Jerry says. “Barbara had similar interests. We spent our entire junior year in college in Mexico City, studying at the University of the Americas. We became engaged there.”
Jerry completed a credential at the University of Redlands, and an M.A. in counseling, guidance and administration at Cal State Long Beach. He later earned his doctorate in administration of higher education at UCLA.
Early in their marriage, Jerry and Barbara spent significant time in Spain and Mexico. They both studied for a year in England. Wearing his counseling “hat,” Jerry delivered a lecture series on the impact of the Battle of Britain on British youth.
“We loved England. The years there after the war were stimulating and exciting.”
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Jerry and Barbara had an impressive list of neighbors on suddenly chic Lido Isle.
“Dick Powell and June Allyson lived next door to us,” Jerry says. “Rock Hudson lived three doors down in a house he bought from Eleanor Powell. Ray Milland, Broderick Crawford and Eve Arden all lived on Lido. Nannette Fabares lived next door to us for a while. I remember seeing Jayne Wyman and Lana Turner in Richard’s Market. You’d frequently see stars in casual dress with no makeup and wearing sunglasses. They loved their anonymity.”
In the 1960s, the Lido Isle Players produced Dore Schary’s play about the Roosevelts, titled “Sunrise at Campobello.”
“Barbara invited James Roosevelt – Franklyn and Eleanor’s son – and his wife to dinner one night before curtain. James was Democratic Congressman from Newport Beach. It was a wonderful evening, and he gave every actor in the play a monogrammed FDR handkerchief.”
The Richards were also acquainted with another famous Newport resident, John Wayne.
“I remember seeing John Wayne at a reception in the early ‘70s. He’d heard that Barbara had been diagnosed with cancer. He came over to her and said, ‘Barbara, you’re going beat the Big C.’ She was touched by his encouragement. Several years later he died of the same disease.”
Jerry taught Spanish at Whittier High School from 1951-58. One of his students was Bernie Luskin who, years later, became Richards’ boss as OCC’s president.
“Bernie was in my Spanish class,” Jerry recalls. “He was very smart, and had a winning personality, but was not the most serious student. He looked like a young John Travolta. He wore a black leather jacket with the collar turned up and lots of grease in his hair. After high school, he spent time in the Navy, then settled down and was an outstanding college student.
“He’s 10 years younger than I, but we became fast friends.”
Jerry and Bernie worked on their doctorates together at UCLA, and were both named Kellogg Fellows. The Kellogg Foundation placed them on a list of 100 names of projected community college leaders.
“About 60 percent of those people ended up becoming community college presidents.”
Richards was a finalist for presidencies at Saddleback and Cypress colleges. In 1958, a decade after OCC opened its doors to its first students, he was hired by president Basil H. Peterson as a counselor and large group lecturer.
“I was a high school vice principal before I moved to Coast,” Richards says. “Norm Watson, who was Peterson’s vice president, saw me onstage in a Lido Isle Players’ production that included his wife and daughter in the cast. He told me after one of the performances that OCC was planning to do some large-lecture classes. They didn’t yet have a lecture hall, but planned to conduct the classes in the 1,200-seat campus Auditorium. He told me he wanted to introduce me to Dr. Peterson.”
Peterson hired the charismatic 31-year-old Richards, who became an instant pioneer in large group instruction.
“I gave Psychology IA lectures for years to 600 students at a time in the Auditorium…without benefit of a microphone or amplification of any sort. It was very exciting. I had ample opportunity to use my stage voice.”
Richards had no course assistants to support him.
“I hired OCC drama student, David Emmes, to be my course assistant one year and handle audio-visual for me. David performed the role of Hamlet in the Coast production of Shakespeare’s play, and was wonderful. I remember telling him one day before a class, ‘David, you must act. You were born to be an actor.’ David looked me in the eye, shook his head and said, ‘I’m going to be a director.’
“David knew exactly the path he wanted to take, and today is the founding producing artistic director of South Coast Repertory.”
Later, when OCC’s 370-seat Forum opened, Jerry lectured there. I took his psych class in 1962…and, believe me, he was dynamic! During his years of large group lecturing he may have done permanent damage to his voice, however.
“Several years ago my voice gave out, and became extremely raspy,” he says today. “I went to Julie Andrews’ doctor, the top man on the West Coast, who told me, ‘You’ve worn out your voice. It’s not unusual.’ But, later, it was determined that I actually had cancer of the larynx, though I’d never smoked a cigarette in my life.”
Several weeks ago he underwent a successful laryngectomy, and his larynx was removed. He’s doing just fine.
“I feel a bit like a baseball pitcher whose arm has gone dead and who can no longer throw the ball. It’s frustrating, but the surgery saved my life and I’m learning to talk with a mechanical device.”
When Richards arrived on campus in 1958, very few “permanent” buildings had been constructed. Except for the Technology Building, Library, Student Center and Auditorium, the campus was made up primarily of wooden World War II-vintage barracks buildings left over from the Santa Ana Army Air Base.
“It wasn’t a terribly impressive campus,” he recalls. “I worked for a time in the old administration building, which had served as the base’s battalion headquarters, and later in the Counseling Building, which was a wooden barracks.
“During my first year on staff, theatre professor, Lucian Scott, brought distinguished British actor, Sir John Gielgud, to campus to deliver a lecture in the Auditorium (now Robert B. Moore Theatre).
“After the lecture, Sir John walked out on the front steps of the Auditorium, surveyed the campus and said, ‘From whence cometh all this desolation?’ He was used to Oxford and Cambridge. I tried to explain to him that we were in the midst of converting an airbase into a college.”
Despite the way the campus looked, Richards was hugely impressed by the quality of its administration, faculty and staff.
“Dr. Peterson had a special talent for bringing the best and brightest to OCC. He brought people like Dr. Giles Brown (dean of the Social Sciences Division), Mary McChesney (professor of Spanish), Bob Moore (dean of instruction and, later, president) and Dudley Boyce (business professor and, later, president of Golden West College). He created a dynamism and chemistry that was unrivaled at any other community college.”
During the 1962-63 and 63-64 academic years, Richards became Peterson’s administrative intern.
“I followed him around and did everything he asked me to do…which was considerable. Basil was formal, exacting, almost biblical. His height (at 6-5) made him seem imperious, and he didn’t exude warmth, but he was a prince! He loved this college. I learned a great deal during those two years.”
While serving at the pleasure of the president, Jerry worked on a $40-million bond measure that the college attempted to pass in order to put up new facilities.
“We knew the election was going to be close, and it was absolutely imperative that we pass the bond and carry out capital improvements on campus,” Jerry says. “If the election failed, this college would be in deep trouble.”
At the time of the election, Richards was serving as president of the Newport-Balboa Rotary Club.
“We had a meeting on a Tuesday evening…the evening of the election. The guys had played in a golf tournament that day and were a bit unruly. I started fining them. I fined seven of my Republican friends and told them that they could pay me $50 each, or go out at that very moment and cast their vote.
“The ballot measure passed by seven votes!”
Jerry remembers an embarrassing moment while serving Peterson.
“He was a devout Mormon,” Richards says with a chuckle. “That meant he didn’t smoke, drink or swear. No one had ever seen him do an unkind thing. One day, he and I attended a meeting of influential leaders in Newport Beach. After the meeting, I drove him back to campus, and we paused at a stoplight. He was telling me a story about the outrageous behavior of a student who’d stormed into his office a few days earlier.
“‘He did this to me, Jerry,’ Basil said incredulously, and he mimicked the action by giving me ‘the finger.’ At just that moment, he looked over at the car next to us at the stoplight and it contained four or five prominent Orange County leaders who had attended the meeting. They were all looking at him with astonishment on their faces. Dr. Peterson was so embarrassed, he wanted to crawl under his seat.”
OCC’s 21-0 victory over Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in the 1963 Junior Rose Bowl was a watershed moment for the college, Richards says.
“The game was on national television and it really put Orange Coast College on the map. 44,000 of us went to the game, and the Coast fans were thrilled. Peterson was very proud. It was a major achievement.”
Jerry worked a couple of years with another OCC legend, Dr. Thomas Blakely, dean of the Evening College. Richards was associate dean.
“I actually enjoyed working for Tom. He was no-nonsense and tough as nails, but he ran an excellent program and was extraordinarily successful.”
In the early 1970s, Jerry took a two-year leave of absence and served as a vice chancellor at UC Riverside.
“I loved it. I worked as a liaison for the University of California with community colleges. I visited community college campuses up and down the state. My job was to facilitate the transfer process. Frequently, community college people would say to me, ‘You’re the first UC administrator we’ve ever met.”
Jerry returned to OCC’s campus when his wife began to suffer the effects of cancer.
“It first developed in her lung, then went to her breast, her leg and her hip. She fought it heroically for years. When she died, James Roosevelt gave the eulogy. He said she was an amazing woman with wonderful, eclectic tastes. He was right.
“She was a linguist, musician, financier and community leader. She was very active with OCC’s Faculty Wives.”
Jerry was left to raise his two children, Jay, 16 at the time, and Heather Ann, 14.
“It was tough, but I got through it because of people like Bernie Luskin, and OCC counselors, Bob Hoeppner and Monta Harvey. They were extremely supportive. Also, the morning that Barbara died, Pat Moore and Gwenda Watson, the wives of OCC president, Bob Moore, and Coast District chancellor, Norm Watson, were on my doorstep.”
When Jerry returned from UC Riverside, he served as associate dean of OCC’s Counseling, Guidance and Psychology Division. Later he was named dean of Counseling, Psychology and Special Services.
Over the years, Jerry took in many performance activities on campus. He’s been a strong patron of the arts in Orange County for decades.
“For years we did an annual summer musical and I loved attending those performances. They were the highlight of every summer. The community turned out in great numbers. I remember, in the early 1960s, watching Diane Hall play the lead in OCC’s production of ‘The Sound of Music.’ I thought to myself, ‘This young woman is extraordinary, she’s going places.’ She of course later became the motion picture actress, Diane Keaton.”
The low point of Jerry’s career – next to Barbara’s illness – occurred in 1984.
“It was a terrible, terrible time for me,” he says, the pain evident on his face. “One morning I was called to a special meeting at Golden West College. We were told that the district was going to lay off 114 staff members because of budget difficulties. I looked at the list posted on the wall. Approximately 40 OCC people were on that list, and 15 were from my staff. It was my responsibility to go back to the campus and tell my people they were going to be fired.
“I tried to sell the idea of keeping the counselors and letting them teach in their minor subject areas. I tried to save them, but no one bought my suggestion.”
As Jerry spoke to his staff, one by one, he was met with anger, hostility and tears.
“There were terrible wounds created that day that have never healed. I remember one person saying to me, ‘We’ve been friends for years and now you’ve stabbed me in the back!’ Some people stopped talking to me and haven’t spoken since. They never understood that I didn’t put their names on that sheet of paper. I was trying to save them, but I had no control over the situation. Still, I received the blame.
“As an administrator, it was my duty to uphold administration. I had to be the counselors’ counselor.”
Jerry’s old friend, Bernie Luskin, was OCC’s president at the time. A new board of trustees was elected and took office.
“Bernie knew I was suffering and was very supportive. After a while, however, I decided to retire. I could see that the situation wasn’t going to improve. As it turned out, virtually all of the people who were laid off were eventually hired back.”
In the summer of 1984 Richards submitted his retirement letter. He was 57. With his investments he could afford to retire, but psychologically he wasn’t ready.
“I retired much too early, but friendships had been broken, never to be repaired. I had no other choice.”
Jerry Richards became one of the biggest casualties of the horrific 1984 Coast District layoffs.
“Over the past 20-odd years, my life has been mostly wrapped up with Chapman University,” he says. “When I took my leave from Coast to work at UC Riverside, Chapman asked me to come over to serve as dean of the faculty. I wasn’t ready to leave OCC at that time, however.
“Since my retirement, I’ve been a governor of Chapman, and president of a number of boards. One year we raised $250 million for the university.”
Jerry has been a “friend of” OCC, Chapman and UCLA. He’s served as president of Town & Gown at Chapman and UC Riverside.
But his special love for Orange Coast College has never waned. He remains active with the OCC Foundation.
“It’s the most remarkable community college in the world, and probably the most human institution I’ve ever worked with. The college has not lost sight of the student. You’ll never see an opulent administration building on campus. Resources go into the classroom. Students always come first.”
It’s people like Jerrel Thurston Richards who made Orange Coast College the distinctive and dynamic institution it is today. The value of his many contributions to the Coast culture are beyond calculation!