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.)
Emceeing at the 50th Orange Tie Gala
After what seems like months of saying goodbye, I’ve finally arrived at my final day on the job.
You’ve provided me with the most glorious sendoff imaginable, and, today, “Mr. OCC” takes down his shingle.
This is my concluding Orange Slices column. I’ve written 140 of them over the past five years: nearly 400,000 words…the equivalent of four novels or one Tom Garrison oceanography textbook! The Slices have been a labor of love for me, chronicling OCC’s history and many of its more remarkable and significant characters. In aggregate, the Slices help to tell the college’s extraordinary story. Hopefully, they’ll become a valuable fixture in Orange Coast College’s Archives.
Jim with grandchildren
Last summer my seven-year-old grandson, Ethan John, told his mom – my daughter, Jade – that he was bored.
“Why not go upstairs to your room and write a story,” she offered. He took her up on the suggestion. Two hours later he returned with not one but three stories, complete with elaborate illustrations.
The stories concerned the three most important men in Ethan’s life: his father, his grandfather and his opa (me). The first story, about his father, was titled, “A Firefighter.” Ethan’s dad is a member of the Wilson, NC, Fire Department. There, in red, black and yellow crayon, was his dad, bedecked in his turnout gear, standing in front of a fire engine. The second was about his grandfather, who’d been a tanker in the Belgian Army during the Cold War. It was titled, “A Tank Commander.” A handsome soldier could be seen poking his head from the turret of a large brown tank.
The third essay, that chronicled my life, was titled “A Ofes Man” (trans: “An Office Man”). Yep, there I was seated at my trusty Macintosh, wearing a blue shirt and orange tie. My story isn’t quite as glam as the first two, but I suppose it aptly characterizes what I’ve been doing for the past 37 years.
“A ofes man’s job is hard,” Ethan wrote in carefully crafted prose. “He has to be smart.” Hmmmmmm…guess I’ll take “smart” over “dashing” any day!
At my advanced age, I’ve discovered that children frequently offer profound observations. Last spring, my five-year-old granddaughter, Emma Grace, asked me a question not unlike those asked by children of their grandparents for eons.
“How old are you, Opa?” was her innocent query.
“62,” I replied.
“62?” she gasped in stunned disbelief. “Wow! And you’re not dead, yet?”
Her mother was aghast at the unguarded candor, but my wife Hedy and I roared with laughter.
During that same spring in North Carolina, Ethan John, confided, “Gee, I wish you were young, Opa.”
“But, if I were young I wouldn’t be Opa, would I?” was my response. “I’d just be another friend.” My grandson, who’d lost his “Poppie” (my father) the previous fall, was afraid that I was about to shuffle off to the same eternal destination. Death, to a seven-year-old, is arbitrary and frightening.
“Well, you don’t have to be real young,” he lobbied, “just be as young as my daddy!” Ethan’s daddy is 33! I was there half a lifetime ago.
One morning as I savored a brisk walk in the country air of my daughter’s rural Carolina home, I spotted Jade on the front porch with my (then) 10-month-old granddaughter, Eva Elizabeth, in her arms. My daughter manipulated Eva’s arm so as to simulate a wave in my direction.
I melted…then had a sudden flashback to a moment exactly 30 years earlier.
I was walking in the fresh dawn air of a Hawaiian beach and looking up at the balcony of our condo. There, at the railing, was the lovely Hedy holding 10-month-old Jade in her arms, maneuvering her arm in the same “waving” fashion.
Life’s tempo and progression is swift and cyclical. One moment you’re turning 30; the next you’re notifying CalPERS of your impending retirement.
All this Carolina stuff started the Ofes Man thinking. What am I doing in the seventh decade of my life? What should I be doing? It seems that I’ve always been associated with Orange Coast College. Not a bad thing. Jim Carnett’s personal identity, however, has largely been wrapped up in – and occasionally subsumed by – the OCC ethos. Maybe it’s time to retire and find out just who I am.
Not fully out the door yet, I’ve already decided that my wardrobe must change. My clothing will begin to reflect a heightened perspicaciousness…as well as expanded color palette. Earth tones: browns, tans, grays, greens and some deep reds will begin to creep into my daily attire. Lavender…ooooh, I think I like lavender! Pink? No, that’s over the top! But I’m ready for pastels and Hawaiian prints. Floral profusions; jungle birds and animals; vacation-destination T-shirts and polos. And, of course, Carolina-blue sweatshirts with “Tar Heels” emblazoned on the front and that distinctive, intertwined NC (which looks more like a CN), logo; and crimson hoodies celebrating the Wolfpack of NC State. (What about Duke? Nah! My grandson delights in referencing “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The Good: North Carolina. The Bad: NC State. The Ugly: Duke.)
I’m told there’s a world beyond orange and blue, and I’m going to investigate it.
Most of you know my story.
From 1942-45, my grandfather was an executive chef in the Officer’s Mess at the Santa Ana Army Air Base. My mother worked as secretary to the base mess officer. My dad was a Santa Ana Army Air Base cadet who graduated in 1942. He washed out of flight school in Texas because of an inner ear problem, and returned to SAAAB as a mess sergeant, ergo he met my mom. He asked her out on a date, and the rest is history.
OCC opened its doors on 243 acres of former Air Base property in 1948.
During the summers of 1957 and 1958, my brother and I often rode our bikes across town to go swimming in OCC’s spiffy new pool. On our way to and from the campus we’d cruise past relics of the old air base. Many barracks were still standing. We’d get off our bikes and play in the buildings. Seven years later I was bunking with my basic training company at Fort Ord, Calif., in a barracks that was the spitting image of the SAAAB leftovers. I felt strangely at home.
In June of 1958, my junior high school graduation was held in Pirate Stadium (now LeBard) on OCC’s campus. During the fall football seasons of 1960 and 1961 I was P.A. announcer for my high school’s (Costa Mesa High) games played in LeBard Stadium. In the summer of 1961 – the summer before my senior year in high school – I enrolled in my first Orange Coast College class. It was a four-unit drama class, and I had a role in the summer musical, “Li’l Abner.” (I received an “A,” and my perfect 4.0 college GPA was teetering with no direction to go but south.)
In June of 1962 my high school graduation was held in LeBard. In September of 1962 I became a full-fledged OCC student. In August of 1971 I was hired as Orange Coast College’s public information assistant. That job later morphed into public information director, community relations director, and senior director of community relations and marketing.
I’ve worked for the college for nearly 37 years and, counting my four years as an OCC student and as a student intern from Cal State Fullerton, I’ve been with the institution for more than 40.
Make no mistake; I bleed orange and blue.
When I first arrived here I gave little thought to an extended stay. Yet, I never seriously considered leaving. OCC became comfortable – all-embracing. Alas, however, the time has come for me to leave. St. Paul, late in his ministry, confided to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race.” I feel a little like that myself, though in no way do I equate my situation or status to that of the great first-century apostle. I have done my best – I have left it all on the field, as sweaty football players say – and it IS time. The decision was not easy, but externals beyond my control demanded notice.
Twenty months ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD). For the moment, it’s a disease without a cure. Parkinson’s is progressive and degenerative. Your best day is today. So, do now what you may not be able to do later…time is of the essence.
People with the disease progress at different rates. For the moment, I feel that I’m doing well. I have tremors of the hands which are not yet debilitating – though my handwriting is terrible, and my typing skills have plummeted from 90 wpm to about 30. I have a slight slurring of speech, though most people don’t seem to notice. I have some stiffness and bradykinesia, an exaggerated slowing of my movements. My cognitive skills seem fine.
But the disease has taught me an important lesson: life is fragile. Things can turn swiftly.
One of the worst things a PD patient can encounter on a regular basis, I’m told, is stress. Stress wears you down, and may even accelerate the deterioration process. Many PD patients elect to retire not long after diagnosis. They feel it’s important to extract themselves from a demanding situation and to begin to address health needs.
A woman in my Parkinson’s support group, Nancy, was diagnosed with the disease 10 years ago, at the age of 43. She now has dyskinesia so severely that, even on medication, she cannot control her body’s involuntary movements. She’s constantly writhing and jerking.
Nancy has difficulty speaking, and has developed the “mask” that is so common to Parkinsonism. You look into her face and she appears not to be there. Her beautiful crystal blue eyes gaze out from a taciturn facade. But, put your arm around her shoulder and her countenance lights up. She radiates an ethereal beauty. Strangely, she gives me hope, and I aspire to emulate her courage.
I’ve elected to retire to more effectively deal with my condition. But there’s much more to life than my illness, and I want to taste that as well.
My five grandchildren aren’t getting younger…they’re growing up. At this juncture they’re all below the age of nine, and I’m still a fairly important figure in their universe. Selfishly, I must not allow myself to bungle this fleeting opportunity.
During the recent holidays I walked the campus with Hedy. “I’m going to miss this place,” I admitted, with a lump in my throat. “It’s been such an important part of my life.” Truer words I’ve never uttered.
With apologies to The Bard and King Richard II, I ranted the following about the college at the 2006 Staff Breakfast, while bedecked in a silly pirate outfit: “And so, we proudly raise the Jolly Rodger…we happy band of Pirates…we citizens of this royal throne of kings...this sceptered pile…this other Eden, demi-paradise…this blessed plot of orange…this earth, this realm, this Consecrated Campus…this, OCC!”
Though spoken in jest, my debased Elizabethan cadence conveyed a striking truth. This “demi-paradise” is, indeed, special. Very special!
Orange Coast College meant a great deal to me as a student. In fact, it taught me how to be a student, and set the framework for my entire college experience. At Coast I had the best professors I encountered in higher education; professors like: Lloyd Mason Smith (biology), Charles Berger (English), Robert Kest (speech), Sheila Brazier (geography), Luke Scott (theatre), Jack Ford (theatre), Jerry Richards (psychology), John Jensen (political science), and Lee Bradley (psychology). They were, without question, the crème de la crème!
Jim with Presidents Robert Dees, David Grant, Margaret Gratton,
Bernard Luskin, and Gene Farrell
OCC has meant even more to me as a staff member. I was PR director for seven presidents (Dr. Robert B. Moore, Dr. Bernie Luskin, Dr. Donald R. Bronsard, David A. Grant, Margaret A. Gratton, Gene Farrell and Bob Dees) and two interims (Arthur Martinez and Jim McIlwain). Though they exhibited different styles and temperaments, I treasured my time spent with each.
As a senior communications major at Cal State Fullerton, I worked a 150-hour internship in OCC’s Public Information Office during the fall of 1970. I wrote press releases, shot photographs, designed brochures, and kept statistics and worked with the media at OCC football games. It was a fantastic experience, and Don Jacobs, OCC’s public information director at the time, was a wonderful mentor. He became my lifelong friend.
Based on the experience of that internship, I knew that I wanted to work for a community college.
I graduated from Fullerton in January of 1971, and worked for seven months for an Orange County PR and advertising agency. I was hired by Jacobs and president Bob Moore that summer. My first day on the job was Aug. 9, 1971. I was in heaven. I had no aspirations beyond OCC. As a new Coast employee, I desired only to prove myself worthy and do the best job possible. That goal never changed.
I was hired as a PIO assistant and sports information director. I became the public information officer and sports information director in the fall of 1972 when Jacobs went into the classroom on a full-time basis, teaching political science and communications.
I met my wife-to-be, Hedy Harte, in 1972. She was working as the campus’ telephone operator while completing her B.A. in psychology at Cal State Fullerton. We were married three years later.
My first office was in the old Administration Building, which had been the original battalion headquarters of the 1,336-acre Santa Ana Army Air Base. The building was located between the present setting of the Bursar’s Office and Fairview Road. My office happened to be the same suite that housed founding OCC president, Dr. Basil H. Peterson, from 1948-64. The office was located in the southeastern corner of the building and faced the faculty/staff parking lot and Fairview Road. Dr. Norm Watson occupied the office from 1964-69, until he moved to the new District Office on Adams, Ave. I worked at the same desk used by those two august men, and my bum warmed the same chair.
When Dr. Watson left, Moore, OCC’s president, declined to use the office. He preferred his space on the northwestern corner of the building, which afforded a better view of the campus. Jacobs took over the office in ’69, and I inherited it from him.
In 1975 the new Administration Building was completed, and I moved into the southeast corner (again!), which I occupied for 33 years. I am told that I’m the longest-tenured resident, ever, of OCC’s administration buildings.
I loved working for Bob Moore…everybody loved Bob! He was like a second father to me. He was kind and generous, and possessed a deep passion for Orange Coast College. He was perhaps the nicest person I’ve ever known. No CEO’s inflated ego. No pretensions. He allowed me to do my job. He trusted me, and I learned to trust myself and my instincts. I grew more under him than under any other person I’ve ever worked for. He was my boss for 11 years.
I relished working with head football coach, Dick Tucker. What a class act! Dick led OCC’s football fortunes for 24 seasons, winning two national championships and numerous conference titles. During my fourth year with the college – in the fall of 1975 – the Pirates went 11-0 and won the national title. I expected that to happen many more times before I retired. It never happened again. I learned a valuable lesson: appreciate an accomplishment for what it is and never diminish its significance by moving too quickly to the next challenge. Looking ahead and moving on are good things – and the qualities of an optimist – but savor the moment! The journey is to be enjoyed.
During my 15 seasons as SID I spent every Sunday (after church) during football season in my office updating stats, calling in reports to the conference office, voting in the state poll, writing the football news release for the week, and preparing the game program for the following Saturday. I always went to Dick’s office on Sunday afternoons during the season, where he’d be breaking down game films with his assistants. I’d get quotes from him for the press release, and frequently would record an interview to be distributed to local radio stations.
The post-game parties after home games were wonderful. The coaches, their wives, and a number of faculty and staff members would be there. Hedy and I even hosted several parties at our home. The highlight of the season was always the party at Doc Mason’s (the team physician for more than 40 years) home in Huntington Beach after the final game of the year. It was a scrumptious affair…fresh crab and shrimp on ice, Beluga caviar, a variety of dips and chips, and gourmet Mexican fare. At an appropriate moment in the evening Doc would sidle up to the piano, and everyone would gather round to sing the old favorites. I remember Bernie Luskin, the hardest working OCC president I ever knew, fall asleep one night in Doc’s recliner. We all let him snooze.
During the 1974 season I hosted a weekly 30-minute cable show about OCC’s football team. Dick was my weekly guest. He and I would meet for breakfast on Sunday morning, then go to the studio on Pacific Coast Highway to record the program. We’d show clips from Saturday’s game. The program was replayed several times during the week on a variety of cable systems. It was lots of fun. We were scheduled to do the program the following season – the year the Pirates won the national title – but the studio burned to the ground that summer and our plans were thwarted.
For 15 seasons I was public address announcer for all home men’s basketball games and tournaments. For 21 seasons I had the privilege of being the P.A. announcer for all OCC home football games. Over the years I’ve also announced bowl games, baseball games, track meets, women’s basketball games, crew races and wrestling matches.
My fondest athletic memories include the 1963 Junior Rose Bowl Game and national championship (I was a Coast student); the 1975 national football championship; the 1978-79 men’s state basketball crown; the 1980 state baseball title; and the 2003 women’s state basketball championship. In 1971 I traveled with the water polo team to an international tournament in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I remember the evening in 1989 when both OCC’s men’s and women’s soccer teams won state titles in the same stadium (at El Camino College). In the summer of 1972 I accompanied the Orange Coast crew to Syracuse to compete in the IRA National Championships. In 1973 I went with the oarsmen to England and Ireland to compete at the fabled Henley Royal Regatta and in several Irish races.
I remember being ejected from Peterson Gym while announcing an OCC wrestling match in the early 1970s…for publicly voicing my displeasure over a referee’s decision (I took OCC athletics way too seriously then!). I was thrown off the scorer’s table at San Diego Mesa in the early 1980s for needling a referee. You’d think I’d have learned!
During Margaret Gratton’s presidency, 1996-2002, she stretched me more than any other CEO I’ve ever worked for. And, though I was occasionally recalcitrant, I deeply appreciated her efforts. I became the campus emcee for a host of events: balls and galas, opening-day faculty meetings, hall of fame inductions, anniversary events, faculty breakfasts, Tuskegee Airmen luncheons, you name them. Though some people view me as an unmitigated extravert, that’s really not me. I tend toward shyness. I like being the “ubiquitous” PR guy, always in the background…skulking…planning…writing! Margaret forced – or should I say, “coaxed”? – me into growth, and I’m grateful for that.
Writing, by the way, has always been my first love. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to do lots of it in this position: speeches, reports, press releases, op-eds, feature stories, brochure and ad copy, radio and TV commercials, columns, scripts, letters, marketing plans, meeting minutes, position papers, letters to the editor, ad infinitum. It’s my humble opinion that everything in PR begins with the written word. I like putting words to paper (or at least feeding them into my Macintosh and watching them magically materialize on the screen). I’ve enjoyed a modicum of success. Over the years I’ve won five first-place Paragon national feature-writing awards, presented by the National Counsel of Marketing and Public Relations. I’ve also received nine first-place regional feature-writing awards, and 17 first-place state awards. For that, I’m grateful.
I’ve also made my share of gaffes and blunders. Like the headline I wrote for an OCC ad that appeared in the Times and Register: “Join Those Who’re Moving Ahead.” I was told by a number of earnest grammarians – and Coast staffers – that “who’re” is NOT a contraction for “who are.” Or the time that I was announcing an OCC crew race from a launch on North Lido Channel. The first 500 meters of the 2,000-meter race went swimmingly – er, smoothly! – but, at the 750-meter mark, our boat began to take on water. We slowed down perceptibly, began to founder, and, finally, sank. The racing boats disappeared down the course, and we were left to roll up our pant legs and paddle our mostly-submerged skiff to the dock.
Dangers have abounded. Like the day in the late 1970s or early ‘80s when the heavy shelf, bolted to the block wall above my desk, decided to fall directly upon my desk and chair, crushing my typewriter. Fortunately, I wasn’t in the office at the time. Had I been at my keyboard, I surely would have been seriously injured or worse.
Then there was that awful time in 1983 when I got seasick aboard the college’s yacht, Saudade, as we took state chancellor, Dr. Jerry Hayward, on a luncheon cruise off Newport Beach. It was our chance to brag about Orange Coast College’s many one-of-a-kind attributes.
I began feeling poorly within minutes of passing the bell buoy at the entrance to the harbor. Things got dramatically worse after President Bernie Luskin commenced serving lunch. Dave Grant, OCC’s future president, was our skipper, and a dozen other college and district administrators were on board.
Fearing that I was about to “lose it” publicly on deck and disgrace the college in the presence of chancellor Hayward, I stumbled below and found my way to the tiny head. It was hot and stuffy in the minuscule room, and the boat was rolling. I felt weak in the knees, and actually began to see spots. For the first time in my life I thought I was about to pass out. I threw up in the sink…and felt better. Unfortunately, the sink had some sort of flange covering the entrance to its drain. The flange was in the “locked” mode, preventing the sink from emptying. It was a bowl-full of angry ochre-colored liquid sporting a foul stench. I was horrified. What was I to do? The boat was a limited universe. My deed would soon become apparent to all on board. Things kept getting closer and stuffier, and I was approaching desperation. I needed fresh air.
I opened the door and sort of crab-crawled up the stairs to the deck. Spirited discussions were being carried out topside, and I was scarcely noticed. I spied Dave, at the tiller. I moved close and whispered in his ear: “Dave, I’m so sorry, but I’ve just ralphed in the sink in the bathroom below, and I couldn’t figure out how to empty it. I’m afraid it’s splashing all about.” Dave smiled a compassionate smile. Carnett wasn’t his first seasick passenger. “Don’t worry Jim,” he assured. “Sit down and take some deep breaths. I’ll take care of it.” I’ve never forgotten his extraordinary kindness.
Summer '93 Production of "South Pacific"
I went through a mild mid-life crisis in the early 1990s, reliving my old drama days of college. I allowed Alex Golson and John Ferzacca to talk me into auditioning for several theatrical productions. It seems that guys with the requisite gravitas to fill “old codger” roles were at a premium. I had the great pleasure of appearing in “meaty” roles in such Orange Coast productions as “South Pacific,” “A Few Good Men,” “Amadeus,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Failure to Zig Zag.”
Here are some colleagues that I’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with at Coast whom I’ll never forget: Jeannie Landgrave, OCC’s budget director in the early 1970s; Kay Stanberry, Dr. Moore’s incredible secretary from 1960-82; Fran Albers, director of maintenance and operations from 1948-80; Doris Osborn, mailroom clerk from 1969-85; Leon Skeie, physical education professor and athletic trainer since 1973; Lula Cobb, food service worker from 1968-2002; Randall “Speed” Vernon, athletic equipment manager from 1958-78; Clyde Reyes, special services assistant in the late 1960s and early ‘70s; Jerry Lenington, history of film instructor in the 1970s; Pat Hadden, community relations and library assistant – and staunch crew supporter – from 1969 through the mid-1990s; John Ferzacca, OCC’s enormously talented theater director and playwright, from 1970-03; George Mattias, football and tennis coach and P.E. instructor, from 1963-93; Tom Clancy, veterans’ affairs advisor in the early 1970s; Jim McIlwain, coach, division dean, vice president and utility infielder who could literally do anything on this campus – and did! – from 1965-2003; Tom Garrison, marine science professor extraordinaire since 1969; Alan Glanser, speech professor in the 1970s; Lee Lajeunesse, director, dean and head of College Services during two separate tenures, 1966-80 and 1991-2003 (he went sailing in-between); Tom Murphine, former tough-as-nails Daily Pilot editor and kindhearted and much-beloved advisor to the Coast Report from 1985-97; Dean Westgaard, dare-devil, PE coach and athletic trainer from 1966 until his death in 1982; Ray Hainline, ex-Marine and director of Reprographics from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s; Bill Payne, quirky ceramics professor from 1949-79; Richard Raub, superb Chorale and Chamber Singers director from 1970-93; Vern Wagner, PE instructor and head wrestling coach from the mid 1960s through the early 1980s; the two “Sharons” – Donoff and Jones – who – quite literally – ran this place from the early 1970s through the turn of the century; and Doug Bennett, OCC’s Foundation director since 1985 and arch Pirate drumbeater and loyalist. Doug and I exulted over many athletics victories, and licked our wounds following some tough losses.
And there are so many more names that deserve to be on that list! They’re the ones who’ve made – and make – Coast, COAST! They exemplify the “Coast Spirit.”
I now enter the most exciting and challenging phase of my life. I leave OCC with a host of wonderful memories and stories warehoused just a synapse-fire away. I’ll never forget this place, and I’ll never forget all of you.
I end this missive with a line from one of my favorite movies, the 1963 release, “Soldier in the Rain,” starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen.
Worldly wise and a smooth operator, MSgt. Maxwell Slaughter, played masterfully by Gleason, closes his every encounter with his protégé and friend, supply Sgt. Eustis Clay, played brilliantly by McQueen, with the following words: “Until that time, Eustis…until that time.”
Maxwell, unabashedly, feels that future reunions are to be eagerly anticipated. I’m with him.
Until that time, Coast…until that time!
Cheers…and God bless you all.