The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume VII, Number 2, Pages 30-40
Spring, 1982

Big Bend: The College and the Community 1962-1981

by Martin and Rita Seedorf

Martin Seedorf is Head of History and Political Science at Big Bend Community College. Rita Seedorf teaches history part-time in the College's evening and summer programs. Martin and Rita next taught history and education respectively at Eastern Washington University.

Big Bend Community College - Administration and Student Center Building

When Moses Lake was chosen for the site of the Big Bend Community College campus, it was a town of 10,000 people with a booming economy and a rosy future. Larson Air Force Base was flourishing with a military population of approximately 4,000 airmen, Titan missile silos were being built bringing thousands of workers into the area and Boeing was operating its flight test facility there employing about 500 people at its peak. Wanapum and Priest Rapids Dams were being constructed on the nearby Columbia River by the Grant County P.D.D., while the Columbia Basin Federal Irrigation Project was turning Moses lake into 'the primary farm service center of the area, The population of the town was expected to grow and like any town that has faced a decade-long population boom, Moses Lake was faced with a severe housing shortage. There was a surplus of potential college students in the area, some for vocational and some for academic transfer programs. The founding fathers and college boosters luckily could not see what the next ten years held in store for the economy of Moses Lake.

The idea for a junior college in the Columbia Basin originated from the State Department of Education. On December 14, 1954, two representatives of that department came to the area to discuss the possibility of forming a school. Subsequent meetings pointed to the advantages that locating the college in Moses Lake would bring to the school.

The man who acted decisively to bring the college to Moses Lake was Dr. Robert C. Smith, superintendent of the Moses Lake School District. Dr, Smith spearheaded the effort by initiating a bond issue of more than $1 million to pay the local share of the cost of a new campus. The bond issue passed and the college was authorized in 1961. Smith later moved on to become president of South Seattle Community College. In gratitude for his efforts, the dining hall at Big Bend College was named in his honor.

The college was named Big Bend as the result of a contest. The most logical title would have been Columbia Basin but that name had already been given to the college established at Pasco. Early settlers had given the name "Big Bend Country" to the five counties situated within the bend of the Columbia River. It was an appropriate name for the new school.

On January 9, 1962, Dr. Alfred M. Phillips from Sheridan Junior College in Wyoming was named as the first president. Several administrators followed him from Wyoming to help him organize the school. A number of teachers were taken from the ranks of the local high school and the college received its first student application. Almost instantly, the school was the receiver of some good and some bad news. The good news was that Big Bend got 300 instant students by replacing Central Washington State College in the contract to provide freshman and sophomore undergraduate education for airmen at Larson Air Force Base. The bad news was that the Boeing Company was phasing out its Moses Lake operation.

On September 12, the college officially opened even though it was still without a campus. Classes were held in the high school building and on the Air Force base. Because these buildings were in use during the day, classes began at 4 p.m. and ran until 10 p. m. The new college had six administrators, 23 full-time faculty, and 30 part-time faculty comprised mostly of teachers in the area and Air Force personnel and dependents.

During that first year, the campusless college received even more bad news as the U. S. Government decided that, the Titan Missile Project was obsolete and stopped all construction on nearby sites. Thousands of workers and their families soon left the area. The first half of the Columbia Basin Project was also nearing completion which brought yet another economic slowdown to the area.

The new school opened in the Fall of 1963 on a portion of its 144 acre campus. Designed by a local architect and costing $1.4 million, the school contained a covered courtyard with fountain, a gymnasium, classroom building, student union-library and an administration building.

College newspapers of the time depict a school full of spirit. Frequent dramatic productions were performed for various groups at the air base as well as at the college itself. Dances were well-attended and speakers included the renowned anthropologist Dr. Ashley Montagu.

The college was still settling into its shining new buildings when the news came that was to cause a decade-long slump in the economy of the area. The Defense Department announced in 1964 that it would close Larson Air Force Base in June of 1966. Immediately personnel and equipment began to be transferred to other bases.

President Phillips, realizing the disastrous effect that this move would have on the community and college, immediately began to take measures to resuscitate the area. As chairman of the Larson Action Committee, he went to Washington, D. C. to convince the authorities to turn the air base over to local use. The Port of Moses Lake was formed and immediately began to take action to entice new businesses to the area to pick up the slack created by the closing of the air base. The Department of Defense agreed in 1966 to turn the land over to the newly formed port district and to Big Bend Community College which was given three hangars and part of the cantonment area for a total of 159 acres at no charge.

Dr. Robert Mason, one of the original administrators of the college, was put in charge of the transition of the base properties to the college. Working out of an office on the air base, he coordinated with the military, the city, and the port.

After accepting the gift from the Air Force, Dr. Phillips resigned the BBCC presidency to start yet another unbuilt community college in Dallas, Texas.

Dr. Donald Morgan was hired to replace Phillips, He had previously been a dean at Clatsop Community College in Astoria, Oregon. In coming to Big Bend, Morgan found himself at the helm of a small college with large problems. BBCC's enrollment had declined by 15 percent as a result of the closure of the air base while staffing and expenses remained the same. In addition, the school had to decide what to do with part of an Air Force base and its many buildings which required maintenance.

As the Air Force vacated the hangars and runways of the air base, Big Bend College took advantage of the government's gift to move its new Aviation Division from the Moses Lake Municipal Airport. Formed in 1965, the aviation program offers a ground school and flight lab that prepares students to become private or commercial pilots. Also relocated on the base were the aviation mechanics and practical nursing programs. New programs also began in welding, electronics and automotive technology.

Located six miles from the main college, this new area became known as the "North Campus" with the original becoming the "South Campus."

The economic problems of the college were not solved during the two-year presidency of Dr. Morgan, but those years did see the leasing of some of the college buildings on the former air base to the Women's Job Corps Center and the establishment of the Japanese Agricultural Training Program. This latter program of international cooperation between the United States and Japan has brought future Japanese farmers to America each year. During this time in the program, they intern in various types of farming and take classes on campus to learn conversational English. This program, which proved financially beneficial to the college, has continued to the present day with more than 2,300 men from Japan completing the program since 1966.

Another major change came to the college in 1967 when the Washington State Legislature passed a law taking the Washington community colleges out of the hands of the local school districts and placing them under a State Board for Community College Education. The community of Moses Lake was not' pleased to lose control of the college for which citizens had indebted themselves in a bond issue and on which a considerable amount of money was still owed. This displeasure was felt by the new Community College District Number 18 for a number of years.

When Big Bend carne under state control in 1967, it also became eligible for $1 million in capital funds to build a vocational-technical building to adjoin the academic campus. Some members of the BBCC Board of Trustees preferred to use the million dollars on the North Campus; and this division in opinion resulted in a long delay in using the million dollars.

In 1968 Dr. Morgan resigned and the Big Bend leadership passed to Dr. Robert Wallenstien, Dean of Vocational-Technical Education at Spokane Community College. When Dr. Wallenstien took over the presidency of the college, he was faced with many of the problems that plagued his predecessor. The small college still had two campuses separated by six miles and low enrollment though it was now well above the pre-base closure level.

An advisory committee was formed to study the two-campus issue and come up with a recommendation. The committee advised the Board of Trustees in 1969 to vacate the South Campus and move the entire college operation to the North Campus. The Board of Trustees made the official decision to move the college to the North Campus on July 7, 1969. This decision caused further dissention in Moses Lake as well as among the college staff. Two years earlier the community had lost the title to the college and now Big Bend was preparing to abandon the campus on which the school district was still paying bonds. The school district filed suit in 1970 to recover the unpaid balance owed on the South Campus. This suit postponed the moving of Big Bend for five years.

All of these issues-low enrollment, desertion of the South Campus and tight budgets-were to cause ill feelings between faculty and administration as tension and insecurity set in. To sooth feelings and restore communication, an All-College Forum was established in mid-1972, Composed of representatives from the faculty, administration, staff, and students, the ACF was to meet at regular intervals to deal with the problems of the constituent groups. However, the only significant issue it dealt with was the question of its own purpose-was it a decision-making body or was it purely advisory? Failing to answer that question, it was finally inactivated in 1975. Its chief contribution during its three years in existence was providing a forum for venting frustrations.

By 1972 the college had begun to move out of its economic doldrums. The acquisition of the Pre-Discharge Education Program (PREP) in Europe that year gave the college a local source of revenue that was the envy of community colleges throughout the state. BBCC had won the European contract with the U.S. Government's armed services after nation-wide bidding. PREP was designed to educate armed forces personnel and allow them to receive high school diplomas. It was specifically designed for adult servicemen who had been alienated by traditional teaching methods and served members of the U. S. Army, Air Force, and Navy. In addition to offering the high school completion program, it also provided personal skill improvement courses for those intending to make the transition to college after leaving the armed forces. At its peak, this operation was carried on in nineteen sites in Germany, four in Greece and also in Italy, Holland, the Azores, and Turkey.

The European program, along with a group of new instructors who arrived in the early 1970s, helped to ease the tensions at the college and to revitalize the financial and enrollment situations.

By 1973 the Washington State Supreme Court had ruled that the BBCC South Campus was state property as a result of the Community College Act of 1967 and that monies from the sale of the South Campus belonged to the community college district. The South Campus was immediately put up for sale, without the adjacent lands, at a price of $1,500,000.

In 1975, with the campus still unsold, the college finally moved to the North Campus and old cantonment buildings were renovated to serve as classrooms, offices, dormitories, etc. As there was no physical education facility, the college continued to use the gymnasium at the South Campus. With the move to the North Campus, the $1 million in state capital funds along with profits from the PREP program were used to begin renovation. Relocating the college on the old air base presented many problems. Divisions such as Science and Humanities found themselves separated by many acres, students were challenged to find the bookstore which was sandwiched in the middle of one of the dormitories, and everyone felt a little like a G.I.

One of the first buildings to undergo remodeling was the base theatre, later named the Wallenstien Performing Arts Center. In 1974, the spring before the campus move was made, the theatre was hurriedly made ready for the first annual college musical which starred Leonard Nimoy as Fagan in "Oliver." Successive musicals each year have brought such personalities as Soupy Sales, Dick Gautier, Edie Adams, Bobby Van, Liz Torres, Howard Keel, and Joe Namath to the campus to work with a local cast on a popular musical. Wallenstien Center also serves today as a facility for the Community Concerts Association and the Columbia Basin Allied Arts.

In early 1977 Dr. Robert Wallenstien announced that he would resign as president of BBCC at the end of the 1977-78 school year and a search was begun for his successor. During the search he resigned early and in August of 1977, Vice-President Ted Roscher, one of the candidates for the presidency, was named Acting President in the interum.

During the fall of 1977 BBCC adopted the "four-two" academic week. This plan was the brainchild of Acting President Roscher, who had completed his Ed.D. dissertation at Washington State University on flexible scheduling in community colleges. His doctorate was based on Big Bend's earlier experiment with the four-day week. As a result of shortages caused by the Arab oil embargo in the Fall of 1973, the college had temporarily adopted a four-day week during 1974's Winter and Spring quarters. Classes were elongated from the usual 50 minutes to 65 minutes each, thereby enabling the same amount of material to be covered on a four day program. To this type of schedule the "two" day portion was added to create a vehicle for community-oriented offerings on Friday and Saturday. This schedule has been in operation to the present day and has proven most successful.

Early in 1978 Peter DeVries, President of Mendocino Community College in California, was selected from a field of 100 applicants as BBCC's fourth president. As he arrived and looked at the school he was about to take over, he recognized that BBCC had a talented faculty but marginal facilities and an "image" problem. It still looked much like the deserted Air Force base it had been. He found numerous buildings of assorted types scattered over 159 sagebrush-covered acres. He dubbed the architectural style "Air Force Modern" and immediately formed goals for consolidating the campus, giving it a face lift, and implementing a building program.

The new Advanced Tchnologies Education center (ATEC) is an example
of the modern facilities found at Big Bend Community College today (2008).

Courtesy of Big Bend Community College

Among his immediate goals he placed the construction of a gymnasium and activities complex, consolidation and landscaping of the campus, and renovating faculty offices and classrooms. He also planned to enlarge the programs in agriculture, women's athletics, computer science, and music and drama. Another of his goals was to increase the college's role in the community and to make BBCC the cultural center for the surrounding Moses Lake area.

He proposed to finance his building and improvement projects with part of the $4 million the college had earned while administering the European program. In addition, he planned to seek state funding and to use proceeds from the South Campus upon its sale.

Complicating DeVries' administration and its building program were the loss of the most profitable portion of the European program in 1979 and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980 which dumped four inches of volcanic ash on the campus.

At this writing the South Campus still sports a "For Sale" sign. Now deserted for six years, it has been considered for purchase by numerous churches, light industries, and government agencies. When the property is finally sold the proceeds will be divided between the college and the Moses Lake School District as a result of an agreement made in 1979. The college's portion will go toward the construction of a new classroom building to house the Social Science, Humanities, and Business divisions which are now separated by a considerable distance from the center of the campus. Social Sciences and Business are presently housed in former war operations buildings while Humanities is in the mess hall.

The opening of school in the Fall of 1981 brought into use the new gymnasium and activities facility as well as an enlarged administration and student center complete with book store. In addition, fascias have been added to a number of other buildings, giving an architectural unity to the campus.

As Big Bend Community College enters its twentieth year of operation, it displays the beginning of both an architectural unity and a new partnership with the communities it serves in the Columbia Basin.

The spacious new library is nearly three times the size of the old (2008).

Courtesy of Big Bend Community College


In addition to the authors' memories and files, the most useful source of information for the writing of this historical essay was informal personal interviews over the past nine years with persons connected with Big Bend Community College, including administrators, faculty and staff, students, and members of the community, The most useful published source was Dave Johnson's "BBCC is 12 Years Old," cited below, Other references are as follows:

Accreditation Report, Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools, October 25-27, 1972.

Big Bend Community College Scrapbook (in possession of Dr. Robert Mason).

City of Moses Lake, The Economic Prospects of the Moses Lake Area (Moses Lake, Wa., 1965).

Columbia Basin Daily Herald (Moses Lake, Wa.). 1961-1981.

Dave Johnson, "BBCC is 12 Years Old," Columbia Basin Daily Herald (Moses Lake, Wa.), April 26, 1974.

Interim Progress Reports for Extension of Accreditation, Big Bend Community College, November 1, 1974 and October 31, 1977.

Minutes and Summaries, Board of Trustees, Big Bend Community College.

"PREP" Program in Germany Report, Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools, August 19-23, 1974.

Report of Self-Study for Accreditation, Big Bend Community College, 1972.

Saga (Yearbooks at Big Bend Community College), 1962-1969.

Self-Evaluation Reports 1 and II. Big Bend Community College, March 8, 1965.

The Viking Voice (Big Bend Community College),1963-1971.

Tumbleweed Tech Times (Big Bend Community College), 1971-1975.

Tumbleweed Times (Big Bend Community College). 1975-81.

"Why a Junior College in Grant County," Grant County Journal (Ephrata, Wa.l, May 1961.