By Vanessa Gonzalez
“She’s a tall, strong blonde.” This was the first image of an ideal Pitzer student. Now, as much as we all love our fellow blonde women, we see much more than just that when we look around campus. Pitzer has come a long way for what they look for in a student, and we are the result. A lot of us don’t know how or why our school began. I am proud to say that the creation of Pitzer was a bit weird.
Russel K. Pitzer is the founder of Pitzer. With an endowment of $1.2 million, Pitzer began construction. In charge he put our first president, John Atherton, who really gave Pitzer the character that it has today. Atherton began with an idea of creating a college that was unlike the rest of the other Claremont Colleges. He came from Claremont McKenna College (then known as Claremont’s Men’s College) as president Dean of the Faculty, to become the President of Pitzer. I spoke to one of the first faculty who worked with Atherton, and got an insight into what he was like. Dr. Al Schwarts worked at Pitzer as the first sociology professor from 1965 to 1996. I asked him about his interview, curious as to how his career began and he replied,
“I remember my interview like it was yesterday. I was interviewed in New York City by John Atherton who was then the president of Pitzer College (1964). It was during a blizzard …I was in New York at the same time as the president, so I couldn’t get out of the interview. John Atherton was an amazingly persuasive man. In the middle of our conversation he gets a call, and to this day I don’t know if it was a real call or not and says, “Well if it’s that warm, put the air conditioning on or go to the beach.” Suddenly I had this image of the warm beaches of Southern California, that was very helpful in making up my mind. I’d never been to Southern California, so I thought I would try it out for a while.”
The settings for interviews were always very odd and yet welcoming when it came to Atherton. In Schwarts’ case, Atherton did everything on his bed, in a hotel, in New York. They both sat on the bed for the interview because there was only one chair. From our beginning, Atherton created an atmosphere of “this is unique, but unique in a good way” (the definition of us who go to Pitzer now).
In it’s first years as a college, Pitzer was a women’s college. Schwartz told me, “the students would differentiate in between Scripps and Pitzer by saying that Scripps was a girl’s college and Pitzer was a women’s college.” Our first graduates were among the bravest women. Their bravery came from the fact that they were taking the risk to go to a college that had no past. No companies, no businesses would know of the college when they saw their diplomas. I was honored to be included in an interview where a first graduate was telling us about her experiences. There were a lot of differences from then to now. The most outrageous being that Pitzer was not very vegetarian friendly! Students would have to cook their own food if they were vegetarians. Although Pitzer was then a girls college, the dormitories never really were. Maggie, from the class of 1968 told us “my freshman year there were men in my hall because Harvey Mudd had an overflow.” Pitzer had men living on campus before it was considered to be co-ed!
A Times article from 1964 describes Pitzer as an “experiment.” They tried out experiments that these days we would not approve of. Pitzer’s first two buildings were a “dormitory and a combination administration classroom building, which [were] wired for closed-circuit television and tape recordings designed to transmit lectures, panel discussions and dramatic productions right into the girl’s room.” Now that there, is some dedication.
Pitzer was founded on a basis of hard working people, odd interviews, brave women, and a few experiments. A Pitzer College bulletin named “The Genesis” describes our first President as a “poet.” A quote that stood out to me read: “I think it’s a great thing to have a poet as a president. I just suppose a major advantage, however fabled it may seem to say so, is that a poet is essentially a mean of vision and imagination.” It’s true that when the majority of us imagined our college experience, we imagined it to be a lot like Pitzer. Along with the world we have changed as well, and I am proud to say that it is for the better.
Happy Birthday Pitzer, our home and school, you look great for fifty years old.