40 years ago Central Arizona College’s roots took hold at the base of Signal Peak Mountain

PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. – Forty years ago Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon and the New York Mets were shocking the professional sports world by becoming one of the youngest expansion franchises to win a championship.

But in Pinal County something more prophetic was growing out of the desert landscape near the base of Signal Peak Mountain – Central Arizona College.

In the fall of 1969 the seeds of higher education had taken root and the doors of CAC were flung open to provide college credits and job training to county residents.

Those seeds were actually planted on July 1, 1961, when the Arizona Legislature passed a bill permitting counties with the necessary assessed valuation and potential numbers of students to form junior college districts.

Senator E. Blodwin Thode from Casa Grande introduced the measure and on Dec. 17, 1961, Pinal County voted in favor - 1701 to 814 - to organize a junior college district.

As outlined in the bill, County Superintendent of Schools Mary C. O’Brien appointed five citizens to make up the original Pinal County Junior College District Governing Board.

Charter appointees included Claude C. Compton of Casa Grande; C. Leroy Hoyt of Kearny; Paul Pearce of Eloy; Dr. Leslie A. Wakefield of Florence; and Dr. G. H. Walker of Coolidge.

Lee BeDillon of Casa Grande was appointed by Governor Paul Fannin to serve as the first Pinal County representative on the Arizona State Board of Directors for Junior Colleges.

The organizational meeting of this historic and newly-created board was held on Jan. 16, 1962, in the Pinal County Board of Supervisors’ meeting room at the Pinal County Courthouse in Florence. The Honorable T.J. Mahoney, superior court judge, administered the oath of office.

Walker was elected to serve as the first board president and Pearce was picked as the first secretary.

The new district held its first election for board members later that same year on Oct. 2. Walker, Wakefield, Compton and Pearce were joined by Dr. James T. O’Neil of Casa Grande as the first publicly elected governing board for the district.

For the first six years of the board’s existence, the members worked diligently to find a suitable location for the campus while simultaneously preparing for a bond election to actually build the Signal Peak Campus.

On June 1, 1967, Dr. Don P. Pence arrived in Coolidge to assume the task of developing Central Arizona College. Bettie Clemans was selected as the president’s secretary, furniture and supplies were bought and the new president set out to find assistant educators to build a college.

Pence, who was the founding president of Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Ore., was a music teacher before moving into educational administration. He received a doctorate from Oregon State University in 1960. Today, CAC’s beautiful theater is named in his honor.

The governing board first authorized Pence to hire William “Bill” Hudson as his chief assistant and dean of students. Hudson also had worked at COCC and agreed to come aboard in September.

Other key employees who aided in the development of the college included Homer Koliba, the dean of business affairs; Guy Acuff, director of developmental education; and Dale Gibson, director of vocational-technical education.

After retiring in the late 1970s, Koliba – now a resident in the city of Maricopa – has returned to CAC to serve as the chair of CAC’s 40th Anniversary Committee.

Also brought on board was William L. Flores, who was hired to assist administrative personnel in organizing curriculum for technical-vocational and adult education.
In 1968, Dr. Ronald F. Schoen of Casa Grande was elected president of the Central Arizona College Foundation, an organization designed to help raise funds for the institution. The presidential board of the organization also consisted of first vice-president Ivor G. Pickering of Kearny; second vice-president Robert Bean of Coolidge; and secretary-treasurer Mona Collerette of Casa Grande.

In keeping with the history and diversity of the region, the governing board determined that a modern Spanish-Indian motif would utilize in the construction of the college buildings.

With 400 acres of land available on desert terrain at the base of Signal Peak Mountain, such a building plan was plausible. The governing board also expressed its desire to preserve the natural beauty of the desert mountain setting and to protect the native flora and cacti indigenous to the area.

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held at Signal Peak on Nov. 8, 1968, with Dr. John Lombardi, president of Los Angeles Junior College, serving as the master of ceremonies.

Nearly a year later when CAC opened its doors, The Arizona Republic described the Signal Peak Campus as resembling an Arizona guest ranch with an informal atmosphere that provided a unique setting for the pursuit of knowledge.
Approximately 1,000 full- and part-time students registered for classes at the new Signal Peak Campus. In fact, the dorms were barely finished when the governing board approved construction of additional housing.

A flood of applicants required students to bunk three in a room, so CAC reduced monthly rent from $35 to $25 for the inconvenience. Additional dorm units were completed by September 1970.

The college started with nine buildings but on Oct. 8 realized growth was inevitable when enrollment figures revealed 2,070 students were taking classes - far beyond expectations.

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Central Arizona College - District Office 8470 N. Overfield Road, Coolidge, AZ 85128 Phone: 800-237-9814