Rose Float Builder Travels Down Memory Lane with Students

By Melanie Johnson

A couple of times a year, Bill Jacobson (’61, animal husbandry) opens his Paso Robles ranch to students involved with Rose Float.

The committee chairs from Cal Poly Pomona and San Luis Obispo hold an annual retreat on Jacobson’s 411-acre property in winter. At the end of spring quarter, a larger retreat for all of the Rose Float team members takes place to give the students an opportunity to meet and bond before several months of hard work to bring the annual parade entry to life.

They pitch tents on the property and swim in the ponds, coming inside for meetings and to use the restrooms and kitchen. It’s a chance for Jacobson, who loves to cook, to give the students tips in the kitchen and an opportunity to keep close ties to a program that meant so much to him when he was a student.

“The thing I really like the most is watching the kids progress from when they are freshmen deciding to join the float group and haven’t even gotten a handle on school yet to seeing them over the next three or four years getting their education and working their summer jobs,” he says. “They go from department heads to float chair. It’s wonderful to watch these kids progress.”

Progress also applies to Cal Poly Pomona. Jacobson, who grew up in Burbank and Glendale, went to a very different university than the one these students attend.

In the late 1950s, Cal Poly Pomona was on the Voorhis campus in San Dimas and was all male. 

“It was like a frat house,” he says. “It wasn’t a big campus. Everybody in agriculture knew each other. We were really a very close group.”

He got involved in Rose Float on a lark. He was walking on campus when he found a friend welding a part of the float. Jacobson decided to help and by the following year, 1958, he was named co-chair of the Rose Float program. 

In his first year at the helm, Cal Poly Pomona earned a prize for its “St. George and the Dragon” float. It featured a dragon that could turn its neck back and forth. The students sprayed an oil on the float’s carburetor to create the dragon’s smoke. An alumnus with a plant business in Hawaii sent the purple leaves to give the dragon its color. 

Jacobson built floats from 1958 to 1960 with a crew of three to five students. The San Luis Obispo campus was not involved at that time. 

For the 2018 float, “Dreams Take Flight,” the Rose Float team consisted of 28 students from the Pomona campus and 29 from San Luis Obispo. The float construction also received help from dozens of student volunteers. 

After graduating from Cal Poly Pomona in 1961, Jacobson, an aspiring rancher, headed to graduate school in Florida, but he returned to Southern California to work in the family construction business after his dad became ill.

Jacobson did get a slice of that rancher’s life, though. After working in the family business for a while, he moved to Australia and spent a year at a cattle ranch as a jackaroo, the country’s version of a rancher. 

In 1971, he went into the commercial real estate business and got involved with horse breeding. He bought the Paso Robles property in 1977. It was raw land in the coastal foothills, and Jacobson had to clear it, drill wells, and build infrastructure before he started constructing buildings on the property in 1987.

He is down to earth and he wants others to enjoy the ranch.

The property features two barns with living quarters. He keeps a few cattle, mainly to keep the grass down.

“About 10 to 30 wild turkeys are walking around the place,” he says. “Mountain lions and bears come through.”

Jacobson's Paso Robles Ranch.

About six or seven years ago, alumnus Ron Simons (’64, agronomy; ’68, food marketing), who is known as Mr. Cal Poly Pomona, asked Jacobson to consider hosting the Rose Float retreats on his ranch.

Janetta McDowell, Cal Poly Pomona’s Rose Float director, says that Jacobson has welcomed the students with open arms, whether it’s 15 or 80 people. He’s the type of person who puts others first, she says. 

“Because he was involved in Rose Float while he was here, he shares his experiences,” says McDowell, a 1997 liberal studies alumna. “He is down to earth and he wants others to enjoy the ranch.”

Jacobson says he enjoys being with the students.

“I spend a lot of time talking with them,” he says. “I like to share my success, not bragging, but telling them things that might help them.”

The students involved appreciate Jacobson’s generosity and openness.

“He’s such a kind man,” says Jerica Hurtado, Rose Float president and a second-year MBA student. “He likes to tell us stories about when he was on Rose Float. We bring our own food supplies, but he likes to cook. He’ll make chili, ribs, whatever he happens to have on hand.”

Jon De Leon, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering who served as the 2018 design chair, says that Jacobson always makes the students feel welcome. 

“It’s indescribable,” he says. “I have never seen such generosity before. The first time I went there, I was like, ‘Wow. This man actually is letting 60-plus people into his beloved area’. He has so much patience and trust with all of us.”

Students from both campuses bond during a retreat at Jacobson's ranch over Memorial Day weekend.