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Donald Gerth, longest-serving Sac State president, remembered for significant accomplishments in higher education

Donald R. Gerth, whose leadership at Sacramento State spanned nearly two decades, left a legacy that resonates throughout the CSU system. (Sacramento State file)

The Sacramento State community and beyond is remembering Donald Rogers Gerth, Sacramento State’s longest-serving president, for his long commitment to and significant accomplishments in higher education.

Gerth, who died Dec. 6, 2021, at age 93, spent 45 years in educational leadership and teaching, mostly on CSU campuses. He made his most-lasting impact at Sacramento State, where he was president from 1984 through 2003. He also was president of CSU Dominguez Hills for eight years.

Donald Gerth
Beverly and Donald Gerth. (Sacramento State file)

His passing is being felt at Sac State and in the Sacramento region, the CSU, and beyond.

“With the loving support of his wife, Bev, who actively served alongside him, President Emeritus Gerth transformed Sacramento State,” said Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen, who announced Gerth's passing in a mesage to the campus.

“He loved Sacramento State and the CSU. His impact on our campus and the system as a whole is unquantifiable. It was my honor to call him a friend, and I will miss his wise counsel. We have lost a hero and a giant of a man.”

Though his longest leadership tenure was at Sac State, Gerth’s influence and impact on CSU was significant and unmistakable.

“Few individuals are as inextricably tied to the CSU – and have so wonderfully lived out the university’s highest ideals – as Donald R. Gerth,” CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro said. “He deeply loved the CSU, as reflected in his definitive work, The People’s University: A History of the California State University.

“Don’s was a life well-lived, and his positive impact on Cal State faculty, staff and alumni has and will continue to span generations.”

In 2018, Sac State renamed its archives the Donald and Beverly Gerth Special Collections and University Archives in recognition of the couple’s longtime service to the University and the CSU.

Gerth on campus
Donald Gerth was an active part of life at Sacramento State even after he retired as its president in 2003. (Sacramento State file)

A gift of $300,000 from the Gerths allowed University Library staff to modernize the archives and make them more accessible.

“He loved being on campus, basking in author talks and attending as many scholarly presentations and celebrations as his and Bev’s calendar would allow,” said Amy Kautzman, University Library dean. “His good cheer, amazing memory, and storytelling will be missed by all.

“I was lucky enough to be considered a friend, and I’ll be forever thankful for that gift.”

Before coming to Sac State, Gerth served as president of CSU Dominguez Hills, where the archives also bear the couple’s names.

Sac State honored Beverly Gerth in 2019 with the President’s Medal for Distinguished Service in recognition of her role in her husband’s presidential legacy and for her collaboration on The People’s University.

When Debra S. Farar began her duties as a CSU trustee, her first campus visit was to Sac State, in 2000, in the later stages of Gerth’s presidency. Farar called him “a true and inspirational leader, admired and respected by all at the CSU.”

After Gerth retired in 2003, he and Beverly continued to attend campus events, most recently the Community Engagement Center’s 25th anniversary celebration in October.

Gerth’s specific contributions to Sac State and the greater Sacramento region crossed into many realms. Under his leadership, enrollment grew from 22,000 to 28,000 students, including a doubling of the number of Asian and Latinx students.

Among his other accomplishments:

  • Oversaw more than $100 million in public and private funding that added 1.2 million square feet of structures on campus and to modernize existing buildings.
  • Led Sac State’s fundraising efforts, including the University’s 50th anniversary campaign in 1997, which netted $54 million.
  • Created the School of the Arts and the Center for Public Policy Dispute Resolution.
  • Created the Center for California Studies.
  • Initiated academic initiatives to create a master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration, the first master’s degree in Software Engineering at a public university in California, and a joint doctoral program, with UC Santa Barbara, in Public History.
  • Added classes during high-demand hours and offered free internet to students.
  • Advocated for the California Master Plan for Higher Education, which created a system of access for all students.
  • Named Sacramentan of the Year by the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce in 2000.
  • Worked with the Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization (SACTO) to develop programs to study and stimulate the region’s economy.
  • Served on the boards of SACTO, the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and the United Way, and was a founding member of the Northern California World Trade Center.

Nelsen noted the breadth and depth of Gerth’s accomplishments.

“Under his leadership, Sacramento State grew in every way,” he said, “serving a larger and more diverse student body, modernizing and expanding campus infrastructure, and establishing critical programs like the Center for California Studies, which helped to establish Sac State as the Capital’s University.”

Gerth green and gold
From left, Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen, Beverly Gerth, Donald Gerth, and Jody Nelsen celebrate during the 2019 Green and Gold dinner. (Sacramento State file)

That view is held beyond academic borders. California Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, who served as a Sacramento County Supervisor from 1994 through 2010, said Gerth “led the campus to become a centerpiece of Sacramento.”

“As president of Sac State, Don had an unrelenting passion to establish the University as the highest quality academic institution,” Dickinson said. “Beverly and Don worked as a dynamic team to improve the campus in every way – from the physical facilities to faculty quality to the student experience.”

Gerth was born Dec. 4, 1928, in Chicago. As a teenager, he sold shoes and worked in a steel mill and as an insurance-rating clerk.

Timeline of Donald Gerth's life and accomplishmentsHe dropped out of high school at 16 and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he would earn three degrees, including a doctorate in Political Science in 1963.

Gerth enlisted in the Air Force in 1952, during the Korean War, serving in intelligence and finance capacities. While stationed in the Philippines, he was in charge of payroll finances and known to troops as “The Bagman.”

He met Beverly Jean Hollman while stationed at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Illinois and proposed a month later. They married in 1955.

In an interview she gave when her husband retired from Sac State, Bev recalled how much she loved to dance, but that Don “wasn’t the greatest dancer.” However, by the time they settled in at what was then San Francisco State College in 1958, the couple often joined the dean of students, dancing the cha-cha and rhumba to music from a basement jukebox on campus. The trio referred to themselves as “the Stumblebums.”

His San Francisco State post was as professor of Government and an associate dean. After Gerth earned his doctorate, the CSU Chancellor’s Office recruited him in 1963 to serve as associate dean of Institutional Relations and Student Affairs.

The following year, Gerth was named professor of Political Science and dean of students at Chico State, before being promoted to vice president for Academic Affairs in 1970. While at Chico State, he co-authored An Invisible Giant: The California State Colleges.

In 1976, Gerth was appointed president of CSU Dominguez Hills, where he also was a professor of Political Science.

Eight years later, in November 1983, he was appointed Sac State’s 10th president, taking office July 1, 1984.

Upon his retirement in 2003, Gerth recalled that one of his notable accomplishments was establishing stable relations between faculty and the University’s administrators. He was proudest, he said, of Sac State students’ achievements.

For Commencement during his first two years at Sacramento State, he hand-signed every diploma.

“Then I came to the conclusion that that wouldn’t work,” he said.

In addition to his honor as Sacramentan of the Year, Gerth also was named Exemplary Leader by the American Leadership Forum.

The Art & Business Council of Sacramento and Sac Metro Chamber in 2001 jointly recognized Gerth for his outstanding contributions to the arts.

Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra was a Sac State student, working part time as a janitor on campus, when he met Donald and Bev Gerth.

“They would come to all of the campus functions and stay until the very end, when the janitors would come in to clean up. He always said hello and was very kind,” said Guerra, who was elected president of Associated Students Inc. (ASI) for a term coinciding with Gerth’s final year as president.

“By the time I was ASI president,” Guerra said, “I had developed a good relationship with him. We understood each other, and I enjoyed his stories. In his day, he was considered radical, because he hired the first African American faculty when he was at Chico State.”

Guerra recently received a letter from Gerth who, in shaky but determined handwriting, offered support for the politician’s upcoming California Senate run. Guerra recalled that when he first ran for city council in 2015, Gerth sent postcards to every resident of District 6 – with a photo of the two then-presidents – encouraging neighbors living near Sac State to vote for Guerra.

“I believe that was the linchpin to me being able to win the election,” Guerra said.

A celebration of life is scheduled for 1-4:30 p.m. March 20 in the University Union Ballroom. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the President Emeritus Donald R. Gerth Memorial Scholarship fund.

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About Dixie Reid

Dixie Reid has been a writer for Sac State since 2012 after decades as a newspaper reporter. A Texas native with the accent to prove it, Dixie is crazy about “dear friends, big dogs, good books, great food, day trips, baking cookies, California sunshine (and fog), and kind people.”

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