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Happy Birthday, campus!

October 5, 2004

Photo (circa 1939) of SF State President Alexander C. Roberts standing at the current location of SF State before construction of the campus beganIn the fall of 1954 San Francisco State held its first semester of classes at a brand new campus at 19th and Holloway. Known back then as San Francisco State College, the official campus dedication took place on Oct. 16, 1954, in Cox Stadium.

During the gala week that preceded the dedication, the campus was decorated with murals created by students in Professor Emeritus John Guttmann's art class. There were musical performances and a production of Shakespeare's "Richard III." Thanks to the efforts of Professor Emerita Ruth Witt-Diamant, who founded the Poetry Center at State that same year, poet W.H. Auden read at the dedication ceremony.

What was campus like in 1954? There were 6,500 students enrolled that fall. "Everybody knew each other," recalls Professor Emeritus Frank Sheehan. "Students stayed on campus. It felt like a family." He has warm memories of Kampus Kapers, the annual variety show.

Students dining in the Redwood Room, a snack bar in the student union named for its dark red paneling, could purchase a slice of pie for 20 cents and a cup of coffee for a dime.

The school bulletin discouraged "leisure dress" in the classroom and reminded students that "jeans are for dirty jobs only." Morley Segal, a visiting professor of political science at the time, recalls that on Tuesdays the campus was blue with students in ROTC uniforms. Two of these students demonstrated a great deal of potential in class: John Burton, who is now state senator, and Willie Brown, who went on to become the city's mayor.

A lot has changed during the past 50 years, says Norma Siani, the University's director of special events. She would know -- she's been here for every one of them. Siani began her career at State as a student and part-time secretary for the school's Student Health Service. She recalls that the building she worked in was quite small -- especially the doorway. "If anyone needed to come out on a gurney, we had to open a window," she says.

According to Siani, sororities were active. There were pep rallies and homecoming dances. Students were proud of their football team under Coach Verducci. The school had a fabulous band directed by Professor Emeritus Edwin Kruth. And parking was a breeze. "Everybody just parked in the middle of campus. Back then it was just a big sand dune," she says.

Technological advancements have made life on campus easier for everyone, she says, recalling the "long, long lines" as she and other staff members registered students for classes in the gym over the course of several days. (Each staff member "did a little bit of everything," she explains.)

The move to 19th and Holloway was the third for San Francisco State. In 1899 the first campus was established on Powell between Clay and Sacramento streets. With a student body of just 31, the San Francisco State Normal School, as it was first called, provided training for aspiring teachers. In 1906, after the school was destroyed by earthquake and fire, a second campus was established at Waller and Buchanan streets.

According to Sheehan, several other areas were considered before San Francisco State found its permanent home. The Marina district was rejected, he says, due to its proximity to the young men stationed at The Presidio. "It was decided they were too close to the young women at State," he says with a smile.

In 1939 President Alexander C. Roberts persuaded the state to purchase 54 acres near Lake Merced for the new campus. (In 1947 the campus would receive 60 more acres thanks to President Leonard and a group of students who fought for the land at City Hall.)

Dorothy Kuhn-Tarkington, a member of the Class of 1944, was among the group of students and faculty who hopped on M street cars to attend the official groundbreaking. "The band of fog was so thick and dense," she recalls. "We were freezing cold, but it didn't matter. We were all excited ... The school band played, and the yell leaders gave the crowd much spirit."

Construction was halted at the start of World War II and more than 15 years passed before the Lake Merced campus finally opened its doors. In 1954, President Leonard would speak for generations to come when he declared, "We have at long last found our permanent home."

Alumni and friends of SF State gathered last week to celebrate the campus' 50th anniversary at the 50s Decade Reunion. Hosted by the Alumni Association, the event brought more than 100 attendees to the Irish Cultural Center. Many alumni were excited to reconnect with Polly Glyer, a well-known professor emerita of recreation and leisure studies. Alumnus Bill Mason of the Class of 1954 brought a TV and VCR and played a videotape of campus footage from the 50s. Two more alumni who studied at State in the 50s provided entertainment: emcee Carter B. Smith and Dick Vartanian of the Dick Vartanian Trio.

-- Adrianne Bee


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Last modified October 5, 2004 by University Communications