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.)
When Sharon Donoff stepped onto Orange Coast College’s campus for the first time in 1971, she had absolutely no idea the impact the institution would have upon her life. Neither did she appreciate the influence that she’d bring to bear on the academy.
Coast & Donoff: it was a wonderful symbiosis that lasted nearly 30 years. Turning a twist on a Cold War phrase, it was Mutual Assured Production! Both the school and Donoff were profoundly changed and enhanced by the partnership.
“I was the luckiest person on earth,” she says as she reflects back over her distinguished Coast career. “I have nothing but positive memories. At times I was exhausted, but I looked forward to coming to campus every single day.
“It’s hard to find meaningful work in life. I feel blessed to have had 30 fantastic years at Coast.”
Donoff, who came to Coast in ‘71 and retired in December of 2000, moved steadily up the ladder during her 29½ years on staff.
She joined OCC’s faculty as a physical education instructor, and taught a host of different PE classes. She coached the badminton team. She established the college’s dry land skiing and backpacking programs. She participated in OCC ski tours to Italy, France, Austria, Switzerland and Canada, and led backpacking excursions to the high Sierra.
Sharon served as the college’s assistant dean of student services from 1973-75, and developed an on-campus Women’s Center. She also coordinated the Re-Entry Program for Women.
She was named associate dean of students in 1975, and served in that post for 11 years. She coordinated the Scholarship Program; was co-advisor to the Associated Students; and was student financial aid administrator. Sharon was named Orange Coast College’s dean of students in 1986 – and later became vice president of Student Services – and served in that capacity for 14 years.
For a brief two-month stint in 1988, she served as acting college president.
After retiring, she worked for a year as interim vice president of Student Services at Saddleback College. She was at Golden West College for two years, and served as acting president there for six months.
Sharon Donoff has to rank as one of the finest and most influential administrators in Orange Coast College history, but, had she listened to her high school social studies teacher, she might never have given college – let alone a career in higher education – a try.
Sharon was born in Oklahoma City, but her family moved to Long Beach when she was a youngster. She attended Long Beach Milliken High School.
“I had a positive high school experience, and was involved in student activities and a couple of clubs,” she recalls. “I was also involved in GAA (Girls’ Athletic Association) and played sports. But girls’ athletics in those days were nothing like they are today.”
Though she took accelerated classes in high school, Sharon was somewhat ambivalent about college.
“Neither of my parents had been to college. While they were wonderful and supportive parents, I didn’t receive much encouragement about continuing my education beyond high school. They also didn’t have the financial resources to send me to a university.”
During her senior year at Milliken, Sharon filled out a survey instrument in her social studies class.
“The survey was supposed to predict who would ‘make’ it in life, and who wouldn’t. The survey asked questions like the education level of your parents, and your economic situation. According to my results, I was not going to be a success. I was depressed by the results, and became self-conscious. My confidence was shattered.”
But a strong resolve slowly began to build deep within her.
Sharon graduated from high school and enrolled at Long Beach City College…and had the classic community college experience. She found her footing.
“I loved LBCC,” she says. “I had really fine instructors, and I became involved in student government and clubs. A librarian took me under her wing and provided me with excellent direction. She showed me how to get scholarships.
“Beverly O’Neill was in the Student Affairs Office. Bev was great, and I fell in love with student activities.”
O’Neill worked for many years as LBCC’s dean of Student Affairs, and later became college president and the mayor of Long Beach. She served as a role model for Donoff.
“I watched what she did as student affairs dean and I thought, ‘I’d love to do that.’”
But those who know Sharon know that she’s never one to dwell on the past. Her personality dictates that she immediately move aggressively into the future. Many would consider that trait a gift.
“I forgot about Bev and Long Beach for years, but I think, subconsciously, I carried the seed of that thought with me. At Coast, in the 1980s, I remember having an illuminating moment, ‘Hey, I’m doing exactly what Beverly and her staff did at Long Beach so long ago. How lucky I am!’”
Donoff graduated from Long Beach City and transferred to UC Davis as a math major.
“I’d thought about going to Long Beach State, and it would have been the natural move for me, but I knew nothing would change in my life if I did that. I would still be living at home with my parents. I knew that Davis would change me…and that thought was appealing.”
She was accepted at Davis late, and arrived on campus not knowing a soul.
“I ended up living in a dorm with a group of women who became my lifelong friends. They’re an incredible bunch and we still get together annually. I adore them.”
She quickly learned that her new friends possessed different lifestyles than she’d experienced.
“I wouldn’t say they were rich – though a couple were – but they were privileged. I remember going with my roommate to her parents’ home in San Rafael for Thanksgiving. I was amazed at what I saw. I didn’t know that people lived that way.”
Sharon changed her major from math to physical education.
“I’ve always been good with numbers. I actually probably should have been a business major. At Davis I was the only woman in many of my math classes. I had a bad experience with one of my math professors, and decided to switch to PE. Davis’ Physical Education Program is science-based, and fairly rigorous. I took anatomy and physiology, zoology, and kinesiology. I loved it.”
For one of her classes, she conducted an experiment on the impact of temperature on the body.
“It was a bit silly, but fun. I had four of my friends do a step test in three different environments. First they did the test outdoors in 70-degree temperatures. Next, I took them into an Ag Department greenhouse, where it was 120-degrees. Finally, we went into a refrigerator used by the Davis Viticulture Program and exercised in 20-degree temperatures.”
At the time of her Davis graduation, California was experiencing a crisis in education – a shortage of teachers existed statewide. Sharon was encouraged to enter a Davis pilot project that would allow her to simultaneously teach at a high school, get paid, and earn a teaching credential.
“It was an incredible opportunity for me. I had no money. I could live at the university, earn a credential and get paid a salary.”
She taught physical education for a year at Armijo High School in Fairfield. She was coach of the girl’s track team, and coached the cheerleaders.
“Everyone who teaches high school gets stuck at one time or another with the cheerleaders,” she says. “These girls were enthusiastic and cute, and ran all over me.”
The following year, Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High in Davis, a brand new school, hired her. She taught PE and math.
“I was able to come in and help establish the curriculum, policies and procedures for the school. I loved doing that…I think I’ve always been an administrator at heart.
“Half of my kids at Holmes were farm kids; the other half were the kids of Davis professors. I had some brilliant students. I taught a college-prep algebra class for eighth graders and had a wonderful time.”
The next year, she moved back to Southern California and was a counselor and teacher for two years at Trident Junior High in Anaheim. She was head of the Physical Education Department. She was also single and living in an apartment on the Balboa Peninsula. Life was good. She worked on her M.A. at Long Beach State.
“It was great living on the peninsula and running the PE Department. I loved working with junior high kids.”
During her first year, a new PE coach from Noblesville, Ind. joined the faculty. His name was Mick Donoff.
Mick Donoff (left), Barbara & George
Wright, and Sharon Donoff
“Mick was good friends with Bob Jones, who taught PE at Trident. Mick and Bob were known by the staff as the ‘Junior High Jockies.’ Bob’s wife, Sharon, taught physical education at Orange Coast College, and was a ‘baby dean’ in the Student Services Office. We all became good friends, and Mick and I got married the following summer.”
Sharon Jones told Sharon Donoff about a teaching position in OCC’s Physical Education Division. She encouraged her to apply.
“I was hired by the skin of my teeth,” Donoff says with a laugh. “I was interviewed first by athletic director, Wendell Pickens, then by Bob Moore (president) and Jim Fitzgerald (dean of instruction). I remember Bob asking me a question like, ‘How can you be innovative at Coast, and what can you bring to this institution that’s different?’”
Sharon aced the interviews and signed a contract for $12,139.
Donoff demonstrated her innovative skills from day one.
“I’d been at Coast less than a year when the state eliminated the physical education requirement for an A.A. degree. That was a big deal to the PE staff; they felt we were going to lose students. I remember saying in a meeting, somewhat naively, ‘We won’t lose students if we offer what they want to take.’”
Early on she had a clear understanding of marketing principles.
Mick and Sharon with two
Sharon introduced a new skiing class and it was a hit from the outset. Not long thereafter, she introduced a camping and backpacking class.
“I’ll never forget the first meeting of that class,” she says with a smile. “We had space for 30 students…150 showed up! I was amazed and overwhelmed. I ended up drawing 30 names out of a hat. Mick and I taught that class for years, and we’d take our students on weekend field trips. We’d do day hikes up to Tahquitz Peak near Idyllwild. We’d go backpacking at Mt. San Jacinto.”
Sharon taught PE at Coast for two years, then interviewed for a position in the Student Services Office.
“It changed my life,” she says.
Joe Kroll was OCC’s dean of students at the time, and Dave Grant was associate dean. Marty Pate, who’d been assistant dean on campus for a number of years, took a position at El Camino College. Sharon Jones was serving as an assistant dean, and Sharon Donoff applied for the other assistant dean position.
“I remember that I interviewed with Joe (Kroll), Jack Scott, the vice president of instruction, and president Bob Moore. My areas of responsibility were to be financial aid and scholarships, and the finance council. I was also given a directive to start a women’s center on campus.
“It was the era of Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement and Environmentalism. During the ‘70s a lot happened in Student Services. We originated the Children’s Center, Student Health Center, Women’s Center, Recycling Center, emergency loans for students, Legal Services, and awareness weeks.”
Sharon worked with the colorful Kroll for two years, until his untimely death in 1975.
“Joe Kroll was the epitome of the perfect dean of students for that era. The students loved him with a passion. He was fun, but he could also be firm. One of our student leaders told me many years later that Joe had changed his life.”
Kroll elicited great respect and loyalty from his staff.
“If you worked for Joe you also had to party with Joe…and that meant that the whole group partied together. There was always a sense of community with Joe. He made you feel like you belonged. On weekends we’d all do the game Saturday night and we’d go to Hamburger Hamlet on Sundays for ice cream. It was pretty amazing. There were no boundaries of separation with Joe. You worked together as a staff…and you socialized together.”
One summer, the Student Services group traveled throughout Europe together, along with Bob Moore and a number of other college staffers.
“We had a great time and Joe was amazing. It seemed like he had friends everywhere we went. One night in Italy we ate at a restaurant, and it turned out to be an evening devoted to Joe. The waiters loved him. All the diners gathered around him and laughed at his stories. He was invited into the kitchen to see how the food was prepared. It was like that everywhere he went.”
The trip ended badly, however.
“We were in Florence when a major strike took place. We were told to stay off the streets because the workers were marching and the situation was a powder keg. Everything was shut down.”
The group managed to get to Athens, but the timing was not good. Greece went to war with Turkey and the country closed down.
“We stayed on a small tugboat in Athens Harbor that reeked of diesel oil. We were there for a number of days, and Joe got very ill. He was perspiring profusely. All he did for two or three days was sit on the deck. He refused to go to a hospital. We were young. We didn’t really realize what was happening to him.”
It was later surmised that Joe had suffered a heart attack. A couple of years later he suffered a second attack. This time it was fatal.
“Working for Joe was great. He was a very affirming person and would always listen to you. Sharon (Jones) and I were tough on him, and I feel bad about that now. But we loved him dearly. He was an incredible person. When Joe died, it shook all of us.”
The two Sharons, Jones and Donoff
Donoff got her Women’s Center going, and became a committed ambassador for the women’s movement.
“Some people accused me of being a radical feminist. I was educating myself at the time, and was learning a great deal. My life changed dramatically during the period 1973-76.
“We began offering ‘Women’s Weeks’ on campus at that time, and continued to do so well into the ‘80s. We had feminist author, Erica Jong, on campus. We also had Caroline Bird, an author and leader of the feminist movement.”
Donoff still winces when she thinks about the Bird visit.
“She was a big-time author, and no one came to her lecture. It was terribly embarrassing. I apologized profusely to her, and she was very gracious. We had only about 150 people in the 1,200-seat OCC Auditorium. I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t bring someone to campus unless you have the faculty’s support.”
In the ‘70s, Sharon went on the speaking circuit with OCC counselor and English professor, Geraldine Cahill-Pickart. Sharon and Geri prepared a one-hour presentation on the status of women in our culture, and took it to classes and to service clubs throughout the community.
“I thought it was good…it was controversial and dynamic. We showed how women were conditioned from childhood to fit a certain mold. A lot of people hated our presentation. Some were rude to us, others walked out on us. After a couple of years I told Geri, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I was tired of the attacks.”
Donoff played a significant role in implementing Title IX on campus in the late ‘70s.
After Kroll died, Bob Moore promoted Dave Grant to dean of students. Sharon was named associate dean. Sharon Jones remained in the office, and Laird Hayes joined the team.
“We all worked hard, it was an exciting time. Our staff consisted of an incredible group of people with an incredible work ethic. We’d do big things, labor-intensive things – like bikathons, the Tribute Run, Coast Weeks, Awareness Weeks, Honors Night, and graduation – back to back to back! We’d get so exhausted! We had great chemistry – though, like most families, we’d occasionally get mad at each other – and we had lots of fun.”
Sharon became dean of students in 1986 when OCC president, Donald R. Bronsard, banished Dave Grant to the Sailing Center. Simply put, Bronsard and Grant didn’t like one another. Bronsard was victorious in the battle, but Grant won the war. Three years later he replaced Bronsard as president. But that’s a story chronicled in an earlier Orange Slices column.
“I loved working with Bronsard,” Sharon says. “He could be difficult, but he wasn’t intentionally trying to be intractable…that was just his nature. Before he came to the college we were always an inward-looking institution. He taught us to look at the world around us and learn from others. We realized that there are others who have good ideas that we can learn from.
“Bronsard taught me a lot. I wouldn’t be the person I’ve become without him.”
A big reorganization took place after Grant assumed the presidency in 1989.
“I inherited Counseling, and Admissions and Records, and my responsibilities changed drastically,” she recalls. “Sunday nights were turned over to my Franklin Planner as I mapped out the upcoming week, matching activities to goals and objectives.
“Accountability Models, Program Review and Outcome Measures were de rigueur in conversations.”
She also earned a new title along the way, vice president of student services.
Grant retired in 1995, and Donoff applied for the OCC presidency in early 1996. Many on staff felt that she was eminently qualified and was Grant's logical successor. Those staffers were stunned when she wasn’t awarded the position. Instead, Margaret Gratton, from Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., was selected.
“I was devastated when I got the news,” Donoff says candidly. “I cried a lot. I loved OCC, why didn’t I get the job? I couldn’t understand the decision.”
Fortunately, Sharon had a previously scheduled two-month leave of absence that she took in the summer of 1996.
Sharon and Mick on a
“Mick and I went to the Arctic Circle in Canada. We spent lots of time in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I had time to sort things out. I realized that the reason I didn’t get the presidency was because you don’t stay at a place as long as I stayed here – coming up through the ranks and making all the mistakes that I made – and become president.
“I wanted to be a president, but the only way that could happen was for me to move outside to another institution.”
She had an epiphany one day as she basked in the Prince Edward Island sunshine.
“I knew that it wouldn’t be fair for me to hold Margaret accountable for the fact that I didn’t get the job. It wasn’t her fault…she had nothing to do with it. I knew what I had to do.”
When Sharon returned to campus, she made an appointment to talk with Gratton.
“I went in, shut the door, and told her that I had applied for the presidency and was unhappy that I didn’t get it, but I wasn’t going to hold her responsible for that. I told her I was committed to building a solid working relationship with her. We had a good conversation.
“To this day I have a special fondness for Margaret. I hold her in high regard.”
Donoff then spoke to her staff members who, in their loyalty, were distressed that she hadn’t been selected president.
“I told them that I was moving on, and I expected them to move on as well.”
Donoff shocked the campus four years later – in December of 2000 – when she announced her retirement. She was only 58.
“As I look back on it, I retired too soon. But, at the time I desperately needed a break. I'd been VP of student services for 14 years. I was tired. Instead of solving problems, as I was used to doing, it seemed like issues were boomeranging back on me. I thought it was time to let go. I needed to consider other options.
“When the board of trustees offered a golden handshake, I felt it was an omen. I took the handshake and left.”
A huge farewell banquet was held in her honor in the Student Center. Hundreds attended, and she received many accolades, tributes and gifts.
“The evening, for me, was emotional and personally gratifying.”
Donoff slept for two months after bidding a farewell to Coast.
“I was exhausted.”
And then she began to look around for things to occupy her time. She became editor of ijournal.us, an online publication developed by the chief student services officers at California community colleges.
“I loved that job. I’d never before seen myself as a writer, but I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. I loved the people I met and worked with. I stayed on the job for five years.”
She worked as an interim vice president in the Saddleback College Student Services Office for a year. She did the same thing at Golden West College for two years, and even spent a six-month stint as GWC’s interim college president. Some Coast colleagues accused her of going over to the dark side.
“I loved those assignments. They were reaffirming. It was good to see that my skills transferred and that I could be successful in an environment other than OCC.”
Sharon Jones, Sharon Donoff and Pat Anthony
Now, more than six years after her Orange Coast College retirement, she continues to have great affection for the place.
“It’s an amazing institution, there’s no question about it. I miss Coast. I miss the challenges, and the people, and the intellectual stimulation.”
Surprisingly, she felt she had to distance herself from the college for the first few years of retirement.
“I had to stay away for a while,” she says. “I can’t fully explain why, but that’s what I had to do. I went to two other campuses for a while.
"Now, I’m ready to play. I can come back periodically and feel good about it.”
Sharon has perhaps contributed more to this college than any other person who never served as president. She was presidential material, but when that opportunity was taken away she refused to sulk. She rolled up her sleeves…and worked all the harder. That’s the Donoff way.
And, throughout her three decades here, there was one constant.
“While the issues changed over the years, the culture of the campus remained consistent – a place that valued students, provided a rich learning environment, and supported extraordinary college-life activities,” she says with pride brimming in her voice. “There existed an atmosphere of vitality that was both challenging and energizing.”
Donoff played an enormous role in establishing, sustaining and enriching that culture.
No one – let me repeat that, NO ONE! – has impacted Coast like Sharon Donoff. She’s amazing. And you can quote me on that!
WE GET LETTERS….
Dear OCC Foundation:
In the fall of 1945 I was 18 years old; World War II had finally ended. I was fortunate to attend two dances at the Santa Ana Army Air Base Service Club; we were escorted there by bus, courtesy of the Santa Ana USO.
In the previous two years I had attended USO dances at the Santa Ana YMCA, where soldiers in preflight training at SAAAB – and, a little later, Marines from El Toro and other bases – came to dance on Saturday nights, before shipping out to their new assignments. Many of those assignments would involve combat in either Europe or the Pacific. My mother thought they looked “so young,” but I thought they all looked quite mature and handsome.
However, the men I met at the SAAAB dances seemed much more mature and quite intense. I assumed that many had only returned from overseas a short time before.
On both sides of the Service Club stage were the astonishing “Gremlins” murals, painted by Sgt. John E. Otterson, a professional artist who had been with Fox and Universal studios in Hollywood prior to the war.
“The Gremlins” and their Air Force soldiers remain some of my most vivid memories of those exceptional times. I am thrilled that they have been beautifully restored and are being displayed at Orange Coast College, on permanent loan from the Costa Mesa Historical Society. Now these brilliant murals definitely need a permanent home where they can be displayed and admired.
They have a definite place in our country’s history. They are unique in the world.
Barbara Armstrong Phillips