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About Sac State: History

Our Story Since 1947: From Rented Rooms to Regional Powerhouse

Sacramento State College was on the move after spending its first five years in rented quarters at Sacramento Junior College on Freeport Boulevard.

On Feb. 9, 1953, President Guy West led a parade of 150 gaily decorated vehicles – loaded down with students, faculty, staff, textbooks, and furniture – through downtown and eastward to the permanent campus site between the Union Pacific railroad tracks and American River. The day's cheer was "Go East with West!"

The State of California had paid $1,650 to $1,800 per acre for the 300-acre White & Terry Tract – with its vast hops fields and peach orchard – to build a campus for Sacramento State College. Long before that, and for thousands of years, the Nisenan Maidu had occupied a village called Kadema (for which the Department of Art's building is named) on the site.

Somewhere along the parade route on that February day, Gov. Earl Warren abandoned his chauffeured limousine and climbed into President West's car.

When the rowdy caravan arrived, the band of Hornets and California's governor saw several new campus buildings, including what are now called Sacramento, Lassen, and Douglass halls (all outfitted with furniture built by inmates at San Quentin State Prison), the Food Service Building, three small science buildings, and a greenhouse beside the river levee. Mostly they saw 300 acres of bare dirt.

Lawn sprinklers wouldn't be installed for several months and, without grass, the campus was either a dustbowl or a mucky mess, depending on the weather.

"The campus was a sea of mud in the first winter. Some faculty wore boots to work and changed shoes before going to class. Faculty, staff, and students had to park in unfinished parking lots, and their cars often got stuck in the mud," George S. Craft wrote in California State University Sacramento: The First 40 Years, 1947-1987. "One student in the first weeks apparently lost his way one evening on the poorly marked roads. Early arrivals on campus the next morning confronted the sight of his car up to its hubcaps in the mud in the middle of the unfinished main quadrangle."

Like so many others that winter, the student's car had to be "winched out by a tow truck."

Growing pains, a growing forest, and jackrabbits

Sac State, which would become a full-fledged university in 1972, went through growing pains during its first year at 6000 J St. Termites were a terrible problem, as was the prison-made furniture. So many chairs fell apart that administrators returned them to San Quentin for repairs. And then there were the jackrabbits.

Grounds crews started planting 3,000 trees and shrubs in fall 1953, with President West spading dirt for the first sapling. A marauding band of native jackrabbits would eat the tender saplings almost as soon as they were put into the ground.

"To solve the problem," Craft wrote, "college authorities invited faculty and staff to take part in jackrabbit hunts. The college provided the ammunition, but it asked the volunteer hunters to bring their own shotguns. Having served their purpose, the hunts ended late in the fall semester. The plants began to take root, and already by the spring of 1954, the site of the college resembled a true college campus."

Today, Sac State's beautiful urban forest boasts more than 3,500 trees that shade the main campus, University Arboretum and Alumni Grove. The most common of the 400 species are coast redwoods and Zelkova elms, which, along with some 20 species of oak and pine, are scattered across 170 landscaped acres. The widest range of diverse plantings are in University Arboretum and the Sokiku Nakatani Tea Room's garden, in front of the University Library.

In 2012, the Arbor Day Foundation designated Sacramento State a Tree Campus USA, making it just the sixth California university to be so honored.

State Sen. Earl Desmond fathered the 1947 legislation that established Sacramento State College. He was so determined that Sacramento have an accredited four-year college that he persuaded the Senate finance committee to withhold funding for the University of California until he had a commitment.

Eleven of Desmond's children and grandchildren would graduate from Sacramento State, and hundreds of students over the years have lived in the campus residence hall that bears his name.

Sacramento Junior College (now Sacramento City College) had "rooms to rent," because its enrollment hadn't returned to pre-World War II levels. So, the brand-new Sacramento State College moved into its temporary quarters in September 1947.

Sacramento State College offered just 44 classes to 235 students in its inaugural semester. The first to enroll was education major David Morse, who went on to have a long career as a high school teacher and counselor. He also served as the Alumni Association's first president. Morse's grandson Grant Morse enrolled at Sac State as a freshman in fall 2014.

Guy West, a dean at Chico State College, had been persuaded by his friend Aubrey Douglass, California's associate superintendent of education under Gov. Warren (and the namesake of Sac State's Douglass Hall) to leave Chico and its proximity to great fly-fishing, and take the helm of Sacramento's fledgling four-year college. West would serve as Sac State's president until his retirement in 1965.

West returned to the campus in 1967 for the dedication of the Golden Gate Bridge replica built spanning the American River by the men who developed Campus Commons – and named for him. The developers donated the bike-and-pedestrian suspension bridge to the City of Sacramento and, in 2014, the City spent $3.2 million project to restore and repaint the iconic Guy West Bridge.

Key Dates

1947 Sacramento State College opens with classes at Sacramento Junior College

1953 Sac State moves to its permanent site at 6000 J St.

1967 The Guy West Bridge, named for Sac State's first president, is dedicated

1972 Sac State becomes a full-fledged university

2003 Alexander Gonzalez is appointed Sac State's president

2012 Sac State earns the Tree Campus USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation

2014 Fall enrollment reaches 29,000 with the largest freshman class ever: 3,700 students

2015 Groundbreaking for the first building in the new campus Master Plan: a residence hall overlooking the American River

2015 Alexander Gonzalez retires; Robert S. Nelsen will become Sac State's eighth permanent president

More students, more buildings, and a new name

Sacramento State College's enrollment grew 47 percent following the end of the Korean War, with hundreds of former soldiers attending school on the GI Bill. Enrollment reached 4,200 by 1961. By the mid-1950s, additional campus buildings were completed, housing such disciplines as social sciences, life sciences, business, and education. The south gym and Draper, Foley, and Jenkins residence halls were open by 1959. The north gym opened in 1962, and what is now called Sequoia Hall first was occupied in 1967.

The school officially became California State University, Sacramento – now better known as Sacramento State and Sac State – in 1972, when enrollment totaled 18,202. Three years later, enrollment exceeded 20,000 for the first time. In fall 2014, Sacramento State boasted an enrollment of 29,000 and the largest freshman class in its history: 3,700 students.

The University's first celebrity student was Lorna Anderson, Miss California 1957. By the time she entered Sacramento State College that year as a freshman, she had won crowns as Miss Sacramento and Maid of California. The "honey-haired Lorna," as she was known by admirers, was third runner-up at the 1958 Miss America pageant. She graduated in 1960 with a bachelor's degree in education.

One of Sac State's most distinguished graduates is the world-renowned painter Wayne Thiebaud, who earned his undergraduate (1951) and master's (1953) degrees in art before becoming a longtime art teacher at UC Davis. Sac State later awarded him an honorary doctorate in fine art.

Thiebaud recalled the early days of Sacramento State College when he was an undergraduate:

"We were on the grounds of the city college, and I was able to teach and go to school," Thiebaud said in a 2007 interview with Sac State Magazine. "The faculty were very generous – Robert Else, James McMenamin, Paul Beckman, Tarmo Pasto. They even let me help teach a little bit. Sac State offered me the wonderful opportunity to go to school, even after I had graduated, and take classes in literature, philosophy, anthropology, and music. It helped me to develop intellectually and be constantly challenged."

In 2007, anonymous donors gave Sacramento State a collection of 150 works on paper representing Thiebaud's printmaking between 1948 and 2004. The Wayne Thiebaud Collection of Prints is housed in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives – and is available for loan under the Sacramento State banner. In 2014, the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University displayed 85 prints and drawings from the collection.

Sacramento State boasts more than 200,000 proud alumni. The Made at Sac State campaign, launched in 2012, celebrates the University's impact and success through the inspirational stories of its graduates, including biotechnology entrepreneur Cate Dyer (StemExpress), video game entrepreneur Mark Otero (who sold KlickNation for $35 million), award-winning filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), Sleep Train Mattress Centers founder Dale Carlsen, operatic baritone Eugene Villanueva, former Sacramento County district attorney Jan Scully and Sacramento Bee publisher Cheryl Dell.

Read their stories and learn more about Made at Sac State at – Dixie Reid

The Alexander Gonzalez Era, 2003-2015

Sacramento State had 10 presidents, permanent or acting, before the 2003 arrival of Alexander Gonzalez, who came to Sacramento from CSU San Marcos, where he had served as president since 1997. Gonzalez made a major imprint on the University, both on the campus and in the region, before handing the reins to Dr. Robert S. Nelsen on June 30, 2015.

In 2004, Gonzalez launched his bold Destination 2010 initiative, focusing on excellent academic and student programs, a welcoming campus, a dynamic physical environment, and strong community support. Among its results were the creation of a General Education Honors Program, an Educational Leadership Doctorate, additional modernized classrooms and The WELL, a state-of-the-art recreation and wellness center.

A new, greatly expanded and modern Hornet Bookstore opened in 2007. The following year, the suite-style American River Courtyard residence hall opened, increasing the number of students living on campus to 1,600.

The WELL and the American River Courtyard were built with sustainability in mind and are certified LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Gonzalez' 2012 initiative, "Redefine the Possible," was dedicated to transforming Sacramento State into a university for the 21st century, with an emphasis on progress, innovation, and the marshaling of intellectual resources. Sacramento State now offers an Executive Master's in Business Administration (EMBA) degree and has established the Guardian Scholars Program, an initiative that supports foster youth in college.

In 2007, Sac State purchased the former California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) building on Folsom Boulevard south of the main campus. It's now the home of the School of Nursing and the doctoral program in the Department of Physical Therapy. Plans are to relocate the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology to the building in the near future, transforming Folsom Hall into the College of Health and Human Services' Center for Health Profession, Policy and Planning Professionals. These programs, together with others, will serve as a central location for the many clinical services offered to the public by the University.

Sacramento State held its inaugural Green and Gold Gala fundraising event in 2005 and, by 2014, had received $160 million in gifts, including $2 million from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation for the Hornet athletics field house, which opened in 2008.

In 2013, Sacramento State unveiled its cutting-edge molecular biology lab, CIMERA (Center for Interdisciplinary Molecular Biology Education, Research and Advancement), in Sequoia Hall.

Sacramento State prides itself on strong campus-community and campus-to-campus partnerships. For example, the Department of Biological Sciences' Professional Science Master's (PSM) degree program is a collaboration with the UC Davis Stem Cell Program to prepare graduates for careers as stem-cell professionals. And in 2011, the University and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) signed a memorandum of understanding that formalized their commitment to a Smart Grid/Smart Energy Initiative.

The University partnered in 2013 with the Sacramento City Unified School District and Sacramento City College on the Sacramento Pathways to Success initiative, which gives Sacramento-area students and their families a clear, simple road to college and career success. In 2014, Sacramento State, the Elk Grove Unified School District and Cosumnes River College created Sacramento Regional Pathways to Success: An Elk Grove Partnership for College to Career. The goal of this initiative is to provide opportunities in career and technical education, and to help students from the Elk Grove area south of Sacramento more easily transition to, and succeed in, college.

The University is widely recognized for community engagement and service to the region. It has been selected for the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll and is one of only 121 institutions in the nation to receive the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification.

With both the strong Strategic Plan and visionary Master Plan in place, Gonzalez left Sacramento State poised for an even brighter future, ever mindful that the University's success is measured by the success of its students and alumni.

President Alexander Gonzalez on campus

Key Milestones

2004 Launches the Destination 2010 initiative

2005 Hosts the inaugural Green and Gold Gala fundraiser; the University would receive more than $164 million in gifts by 2015

2008 Awards the first Doctorate in Educational Leadership

2010 Opens The WELL, the University's recreation and wellness center

2011 Establishes the President's Committee to Build Campus Unity

2012 Launches the Redefine the Possible initiative

2013 Chairs the March of Dimes' regional March for Babies

2014 Presents the University's new Strategic Plan to the campus community

Take the Next Step

Now that you know something about Sacramento State, we would love for you to visit and learn more about attending this outstanding university. Sac State has so much to offer beyond a beautiful, tree-filled campus in the heart of California's capital: a national-class education that prepares students for careers and success. Come see us . . . and be us!