Pioneers set UC Merced on path to reality

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comOctober 23, 2012 

Twenty-four years ago, Bob Carpenter was summoned to meet with Rep. Tony Coelho to discuss locating a University of California campus in Merced.

The congressman had heard the university was serious about building its 10th campus and wanted local leaders to work as hard as they could to see what Merced could do.

It would mark the beginning of a massive effort to bring the campus to the community. Thursday, UC Merced celebrates the 10th anniversary of its founding, marking the groundbreaking ceremony that turned the dream into reality.

Carpenter and the late Merced County Supervisor Wyatt B. "Dub" Davenport met with the congressman and formed the nucleus of the UC Merced Committee. He said he knew people "who did things in the community" and they were solicited to join a group that ultimately numbered about 20 people.

There was little opposition from Merced and the county to building the university here, Carpenter said.

As time went on, the group grew more and more optimistic about Merced's chances, despite heavy political competition from the Visalia, Fresno and Madera areas.

"We started out hopeful and felt pretty comfortable," Carpenter said. "Castle AFB had been identified for closure in 1992 and people knew this was important. We had done our homework and felt comfortable we would prevail."

Initially, 85 California communities were in the running for the campus before the list was narrowed down to the San Joaquin Valley, Carpenter said. Davenport, Coroner Ken Riggs, Merced College administrator Jim Edmonson and county schools Trustee Bettylou George, all now deceased, were early advocates for the university.

Widely regarded as the father of UC Merced, Carpenter said he isn't as deeply involved in university affairs as he used to be but still works on short-term projects when asked.

A bright future

Now that UC Merced is firmly entrenched, the 70-year-old Carpenter said the university's future is bright, and he thinks the campus will continue to be here for a couple hundred years. He said it is quite an economic driver not only for Merced but for the whole San Joaquin Valley.

"I think it's incredible," Carpenter said. "It will be a giant plus for the community for a long time. We felt like we had a good site and kept promoting it everywhere you could think of. There will be more and more jobs and cultural things."

Carpenter said the Merced County Farm Bureau was initially apprehensive about a university here but farm group representatives ultimately came full circle and made a presentation to the UC Board of Regents.

Ben Duran, retired Merced College president and superintendent, said locating the university in the area was a major struggle, with many agencies and environmental groups not wanting that to happen.

"It wasn't a slam-dunk by any measure. Ultimately, it was the collective efforts of a whole lot of people in the local community that did it," Duran said. "Other universities preferred that the money be spent at their campuses. We were up primarily against Fresno, Madera and Stanislaus counties."

Duran hopes UC Merced finds its niche in areas of research that will make it unique. UC Merced is maturing as its founders envisioned, but he expected it would be a little larger at this point.

Jim Cunningham served on the UC Merced Committee and led the group for its last four or five years before ground was broken for the campus. He said support from the community for UC Merced was outstanding.

'A fun battle'

"We were pretty sure Merced had the best site," Cunningham said. "It was a fun battle with Fresno and Madera, and it got pretty exciting at that point."

Cunningham, a former trustee with the Merced County Board of Education, Le Grand Union High School District and Merced College, also is excited about what's ahead for UC Merced.

As it grows and develops, Cunningham said the hard part will be building enough facilities to accommodate a large number of students. He concedes the university's growth won't happen overnight.

As a 3-year-old, Dulcemaria Anaya's parents took her to a 1992 parade in downtown Merced welcoming the university. Her parents told her later that several men marching in the parade pointed to her, saying, "look at that future UC Merced student."

From that moment on, Anaya and her parents wanted her to be part of the university.

Now 23 and a programming coordinator at UC Merced, Anaya said she worked hard in high school to get good grades so she could get accepted to the university.

Anaya saw the 2005 opening of the campus and the inauguration of Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey. Two years later, she was accepted at UC Merced, saying that was one of the best days for her and her family.

She graduated from UC Merced in 2011 with a major in world history and a minor in Spanish. While at UC Merced, she was an orientation leader for three years and a teaching assistant with the freshman success course. She got her master's degree in education in August 2011 from UCLA and came back to work here.

"I love UC Merced," Anaya said. "It has made a big difference in my life." She now has a brother and a sister attending the university.

Anaya said there is a lot of potential for growth at UC Merced.

"It's a great place for everyone. There are opportunities not just for Merced but all over California. The faculty and staff are all very supportive of students," Anaya said.

Jim Erickson of Riverside was the vice chancellor for university relations for UC Merced's first four years. Now retired and acting as a consultant to university presidents, Erickson said Carpenter played a monumental role in the campus's founding.

Erickson marvels at the support received from area communities for UC Merced but said getting it established here was a battle.

Obstacles surmounted

He credits Tomlinson-Keasey for her vision and surmounting many obstacles, including environmental issues surrounding fairy shrimp. Erickson said UC Merced officials had to work carefully with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to resolve environmental issues.

"I am pleased with the recent progress and impressed with the new vision of Chancellor Dorothy Leland," Erickson said.

Erickson said one of his main tasks was fund raising and establishing 14 endowed chairs at the university, adding that the key to the future is sustaining donor support.

Katie Unruh marks 13 years with the university next month. She was the executive assistant to Tomlinson-Keasey and was in the chancellor's office for eight years. She has been the associate director for administration for more than five years.

"You had to have vision and perseverance but it paid off," Unruh said. "It's definitely something to be very proud of. It's been the opportunity of a lifetime for someone like me."

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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