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MHCC: 50 years on

50 years from its modest origins, Mt. Hood Community College grooms thousands for success in life, work -


CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Two students relax with their Volkswagon Beetle in front of the trailers where classes were held at Mt. Hood Community College in the first few years. The car was painted for a trip to jump frogs at California's Calaveras County Fair. Alas, the MHCC frogs were in no condition to compete when the 'team' arrived in California.  
The first students at Mt. Hood Community college took their classes in a few trailers scattered around the old Multnomah County Fairgrounds near downtown Gresham where East Hill Church now sits. There were no athletic facilities, so students took gym class by going to the local roller rink or bowling alley.

When the new college welcomed its first students on Sept. 19, 1966, Gresham was considered a rural outpost with a population of about 6,000. Few could imagine that 50 years later Gresham would be Oregon’s fourth largest city and the tiny community college would be the substantial educational combine it is today.

OUTLOOK PHOTO - Cliff Denney, a chemistry professor and early administrator at Mt. Hood Community College, credits the college's first president Earl Klapstein with pushing the college ahead through sheer will. “It was mostly strawberry fields out there,” said Cliff Denney, a chemistry instructor and early administrator at the college.

Mt. Hood Community College now hands out hundreds of degrees and certificates every year, training students for high-demand jobs in such diverse fields as funeral services, cyber security and nursing. Hundreds more students move on to four-year colleges, with their first two years completed at low cost at Mt. Hood.

Many others come to MHCC to take a few classes to gain work-related skills such as QuickBooks or follow a personal interest like photography. The college works with local school districts so students can get a head start on their college educations while they are still in high school. The Aquatics Center, theatre, art shows, community classes and planetarium make Mt. Hood a bustling community hub. The Small Business Development Center works with local entrepreneurs to help them launch and build their businesses.

But the college’s origins — physically, at least, were less than modest.

Students took classes in trailers and a smattering of downtown buildings. A former restaurant building on the old Multnomah County Fairgrounds served as a makeshift student union.

After two years at the fairgrounds, the college moved to its current 212-acre site at Stark Street and Kane Drive. The trailers were relocated and a few more added.

Nothing was easy, as Denney, who worked at the college from 1968 to 1973, recalled.

“Before they could put the trailers down, they had to pave under them,” he said. “It rained like crazy, and they couldn’t pave. It was an absolute lake out there.”

So the college just pulled the trailers on to the property, started classes and waited for the ground to dry.

“We literally started classes in trailers on trailers,” Denney said. “Everything was temporary.”

Denney said faculty was being hired quickly, the first building was going up and students flocked to the new school.

“We went from nothing to huge in just two years.”

Denney also was responsible for expanding the school by setting up some of the college’s satellite centers such as the Maywood Campus at 101st Street and Prescott. Some things never change. As early as the late 1960s, parking was a big problem at the new campus.

FILE PHOTO - When the campus moved to its new spot on Stark Street, few buildings were up. To ease crowding, MHCC put up a 30 by 60 foot tent to serve as a student center. They installed a floor, lights and heaters to make the space welcoming for students. 
Welding past to present

Leonard Kirk was in the first class of 86 students that started in 1966 and graduated in 1968. The college launched him on a distinguished career in the aeronautics industry. “My Mt. Hood story is important to my whole life story,” he said.

He already had a pilot’s license in 1966 when he started at MHCC, having taken his first solo flight at age 16.

“I was broke and working and thought, ‘I’ll take a chance on Mt. Hood if they’ll take a chance on me.’”

OUTLOOK PHOTO - Leonard KirkHe said Mt. Hood was priced right for him because, “I needed a place where I could go to school and still pay my bills.” He finished his education at Portland State University.

Kirk was a bush pilot north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska for more than five years. His degree in business administration from Mt. Hood, he noted, “paid big dividends later when I was in airline management.” He worked at several airlines and became a researcher and professor at the University of Alaska.

Mt. Hood was important for Kirk in other ways too. Although Kirk was confident about flying, he said, “I had difficulty expressing myself in front of people, until I took a public speaking class at Mt. Hood. I gave a speech on how radio navigation works on an airplane. It was well received, and I gave that speech many, many more times as a professor.”

The Gresham resident said he gained important perspective and confidence at MHCC. “I knew I could pursue my education and be successful.”

Kirk also credits tough research paper requirements in his MHCC English class with giving him a good foundation for his later career in research. “It gave me a solid background on how to do research and put materials together.”

OUTLOOK PHOTO - Steven MeyerSteven Meyer, another 1968 MHCC graduate, has fond memories of those early years. He was on the six-member committee to come up with the colors, team name and mascot for the school.

“Four of us on the committee were Catholic,” he recalled. “I think that’s how we came up with the Saints.”

The colors red and black were chosen with a St. Bernard as a mascot to fit with the Mt. Hood and Saints names.

Meyer is part of the long tradition of the college training people for family wage jobs. He took horticulture and owned and worked farms and also got a degree in metallurgy. He used his welding skills to build machinery for the logging industry, and later, fabricating box cars. His welding classes were taught in a downtown Gresham building and the horticulture classes in a trailer.

“You couldn’t have found a better welding teacher than Mr. Price,” Meyer said. “I still use those welding skills to this day. My son just had me weld the tailpipe on his car.”

The college has become a family tradition. Meyer’s brother played baseball for the college, his daughter attended MHCC and his grandson studies fisheries technology at the college.

“If it hadn’t been for Mt. Hood Community College, I would have been a farmer,” he said. “It changed my life in that way.”

FILE PHOTO - An aerial view of the new campus under construction at Stark Street and Kane Drive in 1968. 
Mission fulfillment

Perhaps nobody’s lives were more changed by the college than Charles “Mick” Estes and his wife, Sharon. Among the school’s first students, they met at the college and married in 1970. “My dad joked that he was sending his daughters to college to get their ‘Mrs. degree,’” she said.

OUTLOOK PHOTO - Sharon and Charles 'Mick' Estes Mick majored in middle management and worked throughout his career in management positions with companies such as J.K. Gill, the office supply company. Sharon got her associate’s degree in general studies, but took a long break to be a stay-at-home mom. She went back to MHCC in 1981, then to University of Portland and Oregon Health & Science University and subsequently worked for 25 years in clinical laboratory science.

The Gresham residents met in the student union. It was in the first permanent building on the “new” campus, which also housed the library, bookstore and other functions.

Mick laughs about another MHCC memory. He was inadvertently left off the graduation program, and when all the students had crossed the stage, he was left standing there alone. The administrators quickly realized the oversight and called him to walk across the stage. He got a letter of apology from the college, which he still has with his other keepsakes.

The pioneering Mt. Hood students marvel at the simpler times — and lives — back then. Sharon recalled their first date. They browsed at Pier 1 import store.

“He bought me two cans with an oyster in each that was guaranteed to have a pearl. Forty years later I had a necklace made out of those pearls.” A big night out for students was to go to the old Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour on 122nd Avenue or to a dance at the student union.

“Gresham was so small then,” Mick recalled.

Leonard Kirk remembered that, “When I was there, we had no idea that it would become what it has. All I was thinking was that I just want to get a better job.”

All those interviewed fervently believe that community colleges and Mt. Hood in particular are more important than ever in the academic and economic life of a community and the people who live there.

Mt. Hood, Kirk noted, “should be a place where people can go to get the skills they need to go out and earn a living wage and provide earnings for their family and future. And I do think they are fulfilling that mission,” he said.

“It’s an extremely valuable asset to the community."