North Side: Community College of Allegheny County
The Way We Were
From The Communicator, September/October 1985.
It hardly seems possible to them that almost twenty years have passed since they began teaching at CCAC [Community College of Allegheny County], and yet each has been here since Day One: Pat Dolan, English professor at Allegheny; Betty Jane Longdon, English professor at Boyce; and Don Taylor, history professor at South.
They began here in the mid-60s, members of a small fraternity of
risk-takers who were challenged by a new concept in
education. There were
no guarantees at that time--for students as well as faculty--that the
College would ever be accredited.
Their first offices were in trailers or, as in the case with Allegheny Campus, in what used to be the servants' quarters of an old mansion. Their classrooms were in high schools and stores and even churches.
Many of their students were not considered college material--at least that's what the other colleges thought, not the community college. Today the College's Open Door Policy is taken for granted (that college board scores and other entrance examinations were not required for admission to CCAC), but in 1965 the idea was radical.
They were part of a young faculty which was idealistic and excited about "this new idea," the community college concept.
Dolan, Longdon and Taylor were interviewed for The
Communicator individually, and yet when they recalled the College's
early years, each one spoke of a similar enthusiasm and the same
idealism. All three used the word "camaraderie" to describe the closeness
of the faculty, and all three mentioned a feeling of nostalgia after
discussing the original students and first college facilities.
But this is not a sentimental journey down memory lane taken by a retiring Mr. Chips or Miss Dove. All three educators are still youthful and enthusiastic. They do share a common pride in what has been accomplished by the College in the past, but they also express an optimism in its future.
No one's eyes glazed over, and no one used the phrase "the good old days." It was simply: that was the way it was then, and this is the way it is now.
And what a thrill it must have been to begin at the beginning.
Longdon: The idea of a community college was all very new and exciting to me. I had been teaching in the city high schools, and I was ready for a new challenge. I had just received a three-year permanent certificate, and I decided to put it aside as insurance and see what would happen.
I thought we could write a new book on a new form of education. It's unbelievable when I think about it now, but we even wrote our own text book the first year. We had the feeling that we could try everything, and I think that spirit is still with us.
Dolan: One of the first members of the Board of Trustees was
Lou Sattele who lived in my neighborhood, but we were never ones to
exchange pleasantries other than hello. I was so thrilled with CCAC and
so enthusiastic about it that I wrote him a letter at Christmas--and I
would never do it now--and said that what he was doing was a great thing.
I can remember Mr. Sattele being so thrilled that I would take the time
to write him that he engaged me in long conversations about the community
college whenever we met socially or in a restaurant. Other people were a
little overwhelmed that this man who didn't usually talk too much was so
The first members of the Board of Trustees were just as hopeful as we were, and yet they realized that this was new for everybody. We were all going to have to work together, and we did. I still think the Board of Trustees is made up of people who are exemplary and who give so much of themselves. The board members who are now dead have been succeeded by those who have the same aspirations.
Taylor: I was one of the first four who were hired at South. When we started out at West Mifflin South High School, it was strictly a night shift, Monday through Thursday from 4-10 p.m.
About a year or so after that, we rented an old Market Street building which had been built during the Civil War period. It had been condemned in the 20s, and mind you this would have been '68 or '69. We rented it for a dollar a year. Those were the days when the conservative taxpayers were saying that we were spending too much money on education. We certainly didn't have much in the way of a Taj Mahal.
Our president, Roy de Marrais, was really an inventive fellow. He was both a builder figuratively and literally. He got out his coveralls, and with some of the faculty and some of the students he painted the Market Street building a rather ugly green. They dug out the foundation, made a grotto, put lights in and created a student union. It had atmosphere even though it really was underground. Anything 'underground' was big in the 60s, and it got a big write-up in The Pittsburgh Press. I'm sure no student union will ever look quite as much like a cave.
Dolan: We had to fight for everything in those days, and one
of the things we had to fight for was keeping truck traffic off Ridge
Avenue. We taught in West Hall, and since there was no air-conditioning
the windows were kept open. Every time a truck passed, we would have to
stop talking. Since there was a lot of truck traffic, we decided that the
best way to alleviate the problem was to have the students protest.
Everything else had failed. Some of us said to our students that if they
sat on Ridge Avenue the trucks wouldn't be able to pass.
Soon the students were sitting in the middle of Ridge Avenue, trucks were backed up, and a phone call goes out to the police saying there's a riot up at that new college. Up come the police with riot gear, sticks and dogs, and our poor students were hauled off in the paddy wagons. We were aghast because we were the instigators, and there we were up in Jones Hall looking out of our office windows. Some of us had to ante up some bucks to get them out, but that was the way that we progressed in those early days.
Longdon: I rather enjoyed the students of the late 60s because I liked their questioning, curious spirit. If they wanted to sit on the floor that was fine with me as long as their brains still worked. Ideas were flowing in the classroom, and everyone had something to say.
Dolan: From the early to the mid-70s it was a period of
revolution. It involved the racial revolution, the sexual revolution and
just plain revolution. Everything was at sixes and sevens. The campus
vice president was hanged in effigy, students would not keep quiet in the
classrooms, and the faculty were rebels also.
There was a great deal of tension in the classrooms. It was very popular to be outrageous, to talk back to faculty members, to be obstreperous in the classroom, to demonstrate. It was not an easy time because our sympathies were with the students, and yet we did have certain educational goals to achieve. You still had to teach your classes and defuse some very angry people.
Taylor: We had 12 different buildings, and one was the
Veterans of Foreign War. The VFW decided that they'd have a demonstration
in support of the campaign in Vietnam, and the students were determined
to demonstrate against the war. We were located on a corner of Market and
Walnut, and the two processions met at the corner, both carrying American
flags. I thought that when they met it would be the end of the community
college then and there, but instead of a fight they had a discussion.
We didn't have a lot of student unrest at South. Most of our students were glad to be in school. Since they were into the work ethic, this was a job and they didn't have time to demonstrate in the street. Unrest was something we read about in the newspapers. On the other hand, we had faculty members who participated in the peach marches such as the civil rights march with Martin Luther King.
Dolan: In the mid-70s we entered a period of depression. There was apathy in the classrooms. The caliber of the students seemed to hit rock bottom. There was also antagonism between administration and faculty which was very, very serious. A lot of people burned out or became disenchanted and dropped out.
We were trying to handle unmanageable classroom sizes and trying to achieve unrealistic goals; so we did lose a lot of our initial enthusiasm and a lot of our pride in the caliber of the students we were turning out.
I'd call the last couple of years a renewed optimism--perhaps a skeptical optimism. The return of the older students, the influx of the international students, and the accommodation of handicapped students--which we weren't able to achieve in the past--have all been positive factors.
Longdon: One of the highlights of my career was to teach an
English Composition I
class for women who were returning to college. The women were highly
motivated--they'd do three times the work you asked for.
Then in the past two years we had the addition of men who had been in the mills for over 17 years, and they really taught the younger students a lot. Perhaps they were unprepared for college, but they were highly motivated and good students.
Dolan: The infusion of the displaced workers has resulted in an improvement in the caliber of education here. We now have more stringent policies, improved testing and more cooperation among administration, students and faculty members.
Longdon: The community college movement is a phenomenon, and the growth of CCAC has been meteoric. It's been exciting.
Maybe our closeness in the early days kept some of us close over the years at Boyce Campus. DiSibio was here early on teaching criminal justice, and I'm pleased to see him heading Boyce Campus now because he's quite a humanitarian and a supporter of the arts. I like that continuity.
Taylor: Long ago Roy de Marrais told us that one day we'd have a bigger campus and a better facility, but it won't be better in terms of camaraderie. At South there is a nostalgia for the shoestring operation, for the striving we went through and for the closeness we had then.
Longdon: There are many friendships here with colleagues. Hank
Thorsen, who was our expert in science fiction, died over a year ago, and
his death was a personal loss for many of us.
We've grown, but the early connections still exist. We still take the chance to interact, and that's very positive.
Dolan: The thing that cements Allegheny Campus together is a feeling of pride. Those of us who have been here since its beginning have been made proud by Middle States, the recognition of our faculty as people who are excellent in their fields, and the success of our students. We no longer have to apologize for not teaching in a university.
Taylor: When I go into retirement or when my life's last
chapter is closed, I think that being in on the founding of an
educational institution will be the thing that I am most proud of. I've
been involved with its impact on thousands of lives, people who thought
that college wasn't for them.
What have you done if you've coached the New York Yankees when they already had their Murderer's Row? But to take a team that wasn't supposed to do as well, and organize them, and work with them, and see them win, that's satisfaction. The greatest satisfaction for a teacher is to find that diamond in the rough, that student who has the potential but doesn't know he has it. We can open vistas for our students and then sit back and watch them grow. And that's what we do. We do that.