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by Susan Bejeckian and Mary Rue


(Originally published in OPUS, fall 1978, #29 p.4 - 8)

Time, the ultimate machine of the present, brought much change and growth as well as hardship through four decades of Cal Poly University's history. With it came a nostalgic philosophical theme: "to strive for a productive application of knowledge with an emphasis on 'learn by doing'."

Cal Poly's roots are planted in the Voorhis School for Boys which was built in San Dimas in the late '20s. The Cal Poly we know today first originated in 1938 as the Cal Poly Voorhis Unit when the Voorhis family gave its campus land to Cal Poly. At that time it was the only campus joined by an unique two-part system with a polytechnic focus. Only after 28 years of sisterhood with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo did the Cal Poly Voorhis Unit become an independent state campus at Pomona.

Not only was the school unusual as a specialized two- part institution, but the buildings were constructed with a special architectural interest. Quinn [aerial view of landscape]Conard, agricultural engineering professor who came to Cal Poly in the fall of 1946, said, "There was a certain amount of interest in the buildings because the Voorhis like to have rather unusual architecture done."

For example, he said, in one of the dorms, if a person pushed against the bookcase, it would spin and another room would project into view. Also, in the secretary's office of the Administration Building, there was a closet which led to a hidden staircase; if someone took hold of one of the coathooks, the staircase appeared.

Beautifully nestled in the San Dimas Canyon, the 157 - acre campus was residentially surrounded by verdant hills and mountains in the summer, and overlooked the splendid view of snow-capped mountains in the winter. Recalling one fall season, Physical Plant Director Seldon Kempton who was a student at the time said, "One year oak trees shed acorns to curb-height of the streets and they had to be hauled off by the truckload."


During the first quarter of the Voorhis Unit in 1938, less than 100 male students registered for classes. Today, Cal Poly has a student enrollment of 15,000.

Agriculture was the largest department, having eight instructors to cover the four agriculture majors: agricultural inspection (the only college in the United States to offer such a course at that time); ornamental horticulture, fruit industries and crop production. Some classes in specialized, related subjects were also offered. These included aeronautics, air conditioning industries, dairy production, electrical industry, as well as meat and poultry husbandry.

Each quarter all students living on campus were required to pay a registration fee, which included a $15 lab and course fee, a $15 breakage deposit fee, a $10 student body membership card, and a $3 medical charge fee. Forty years later, students fees for 1978 were: a $48 tuition fee for seven units or more, A $3 instructionally related fee; $15 for a University Union fee; $15 for an Associated Students fee, and a $5 medical fee.


At that time, most people who attended Cal Poly on a full-time basis lived a simple life in one of the five small dormitories. These buildings were once used as homes for underprivileged boys. Each contained 10 to 12 different rooms with forty students crowded into each hall.

In honor of principal donors of the Voorhis family, the dorms were given names as "Aunt Nell's," "Uncle Charley's," Rose, Smith and Sunset. In addition, the dorms earned special recognition if they were lucky enough to house such honored persons as "Most Social," "Most Athletic," or "Most Talented" student of the year.



There were many roads to choose from in the home-like atmosphere of the dorms



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  [campus signpost]  
Dorm life during the early years of Cal Poly bears some resemblance to dorm life today, but notable differences exist, too. First of all, the cost. At that time, a student's living expenses for a full year totaled $427.50; $72 for a room; $297 for meals; $18 for laundry, and $40.50 for incidentals. Today, students pay $588 per quarter for room and board, or a total of $1,764 for the academic year.

Dorm living provided a great challenge and yet, the students had all the comforts of home. "It was interesting and a lot of fun," according to Seldon Kempton, who was an ornamental horticulture major and charter member of Sunset dorm. When the Voorhis Unit was established at San Dimas, representatives of each dorm were chosen to form the dormitory.


Members of a 1950 all-male dorm prove that fashion-consciousness was never absent from Cal Poly. Note the sexy pin-up, distinguished pipe smokers and snazzy socks.


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[members of a 1950 all-male dorm]

Members planned improvements and activities for their dorms, and decided how to solve everyday problems - much like the Inter-Hall Council in the dorms today.

Like most dorms, some limitations were placed on students. However, there was no head master and each dorm was free to do as its residents pleased. Since each dorm had its own dog, security checks were infrequent. Nonetheless, Kempton recalled several unusual pranks which took place. One evening in Aunt Nell's dorm, he said, "some students went out to see a show, and upon returning to their dorm, the entrance way to their room was laid with concrete cement and bricks from the floor to the ceiling."

"Snipe hunts," Conard remembered, were another prank frequently played by students in his classes. Students would pick on shy, quiet members of the dorm and ask them to go snipe hunting. If the student consented, he was taken into the surrounding hills and given a gunny sack to catch snipes with. Once thoroughly engrossed in his "hunting," the student was abandoned, somewhere in San Dimas Canyon.

Kempton also emphasized that the matter of girls on campus never caused so much protest as it did in the late '30s and early '40s. "It was a real rarity to see a girl on campus and students signed petitions against them coming." Not until 1960, were girls for the first time seen attending classes at Cal Poly Pomona. It was the last school in the CSUC system to adopt this coed policy. A year later in 1961, Cal Poly also changed its housing policy, and Encinitas dorm became the first coed dorm on Pomona campus.


Inspired by the philosophical theme of the school, "learn by doing," President Julian McPhee considered this the conceptual foundation of California State Polytechnic University. This philosophy, ideally expressed by the student worker, has molded Cal Poly into the school it is today. In those early years, Cal Poly employed no janitors or gardeners. The students maintained the entire campus themselves for as little as thirty cents an hour.

When the Cal Poly Voorhis Unit was established in 1938, classes emphasized more than book learning, said Howard Hawkins, former Voorhis professor. "We had seventy acres of citrus, and took care of them in connection with class work." Students also improved parts of the landscaping and cared for the shrubs and flowers. In this way, the school sought to correlate outside work with the students' major course of study.

Students also assisted with farming the peach, plum, and citrus orchards, as well as caring for the school's dairy herd, they were taught to operate various equipment such as tractors and welding machinery. One disadvantage to the student farm worker, Conard recalled, was that the land on campus was mainly hills and canyons. "Only a small portion was flatland," Conard said. He also recalled, "One time when a student was operating a tractor, the vehicle got too close to the edge of Puddingstone reservoir and the whole embankment gave way and the tractor fell in."

Students worked in the library, cafeteria, campus store, and dormitories, much as today. Kempton, who was a student resident in Sunset dorm after the war, described his job answering the pay telephone all evening. "It doesn't happen anymore, but during the winter months, the students in our dorm used to answer the pay telephone all hours of the morning for seventy-five cents" Kempton explained that because of car trouble, people would sometimes get stranded and call for help. "One evening the phone never stopped ringing and I stayed up all night."


Poly Vue, known as Cal Poly's open house, marked the biggest school event. In a 1938 yearbook, the students described Poly Vue as "the nucleus from which our hopes, plans, and fulfillment of the day's actions and displays developed..." Since Cal Poly San Luis Obispo had a traditional open house known as Poly Royal, when Cal Poly Voorhis Unit began classes in 1938, administration and students felt they should have an open house similar to that of its "mother" campus.

Modest in comparison to Poly Vue today, the first Poly Vue in 1939 included a few displays and an information booth patterned after an agricultural quarantine station. In addition, activities such as citrus judging competitions, plant and flower identifications, and organ recitals, as well as many sports and field events were organized.

Students and faculty alike were proud to be associated with Cal Poly. Ella York manager of the El Patio Bookstore since 1950, remembered everyone helping in the gala events of Poly Vue, including Executive Dean Cordener Gibson washing windows and putting up light fixtures for the occasion. Preparing for such a spectacular event took time and devoted effort.

After negotiations with W.K. Kellogg Foundation, President Julian McPhee, who was president of both Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Voorhis Unit, received 813 acres of land, a $4 million ranch and Arabian horse stock from the foundation. Thus, horse-shows became another annual event of Poly Vue.

Not until the mid '60s were homecoming activities separated from Poly Vue. According to Ron Simons, director of public affairs, a fall festival emerged which resembled Poly Vue but was directed more towards students and having fun. Frog-leaping races, soda-pop chugging and bon fires were a part of the festivities. The event was short-lived; Simons explained that "during the time of the Viet Nam war, it became not in vogue to have a good time."


The Voorhis School for Boys, later to become Cal Poly, reflected many architectural improvements and foreshadowed a spirit of growth and change.


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[arched outdoor hallway]



Extra-curricular activities also played an important part in a student's life. Student body activities, Conard commented, were well attended. In fact, students who were not involved were looked upon with disdain. Whether joining a club or just participating in a sport, every person involved himself in some sort of school function.

One of the first student body presidents after the war, Robert Winterbourne, said that the entire student body was present at the student affairs council meetings.

Another accomplishment got underway with the leadership of Harry Winroth, second student body president in 1939. An enlarged and lasting "P" was constructed in the hill east of the school. Five hundred gallons of white wash were applied to the "P." Freshmen and faculty members of the Block "P" club applied fresh paint to this 40 feet tall and 30 feet wide monument. Thereafter, painting the "P" became part of the initiation of incoming freshmen to the college. On the west side of the Administration Building today sits a similar construction of the initials "C P."


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