At first, it was a bean field. The land where Southwestern College now stands was known in 1917 as the Schutte ranch. The brothers Paul, Ed, and Hugo raised lima beans on the dry San Miguel Mesa. No one else lived for miles around. Occasionally a wagon came past the ranch on the dusty Otay Lakes Road from Cockatoo Grove. Or cattle would wander over from the Otay Ranch looking for water in the pond on the north edge of the farm. Coyotes sometimes came out of the canyons searching for chickens and rabbits. A sudden noise would flush hundreds of quail into the sky.
Joe Rindone thought it was an unlikely place for a college. As head of the Sweetwater High School District in 1960, it was his idea to start a junior college in the South Bay. The population of the area had reached 50,000 and was entitled to have one of its own rather than send kids to San Diego or Oceanside or San Marcos. In California, it was the high school districts that started junior colleges, so the job fell to Rindone when a committee was formed by the Chula Vista and National City Chambers of Commerce in Jan. 1959. From his early days as a substitute teacher, before he became principal of Southwest Junior and Chula Vista High School, Rindone knew that people had wanted a college here for a long time. In 1887, Frank Kimball set aside 40 acres in Chula Vista for a college, but it was never built. Now was the time to get the job done.
The college proposal was put to the voters, and passed 22,215 to 4,631 on Nov. 8, 1960, the same day JFK was elected president. A $6 million bond issue was approved by voters in 1961 to build the college (the Grossmont bond issue was not approved, delaying that junior college for another year). William N. Kepley, Jr., was brought down from LA to serve as president for the first year of what was then called the "Sweetwater Junior College." Chet DeVore was appointed assistant to the president, and because he had been principal of Chula Vista High School, arranged for college classes to begin on the high school campus Sept. 11, 1961. The 1,212 students took over the high school buildings from 3-10 pm, after the high school kids went home.
Rindone still did not have a place to build the college. He looked at 19 sites around the South Bay and finally settled on 164 acres on Telegraph Canyon Road near Chula Vista. But some of this property was owned by United Enterprises of the Otay Ranch and it refused to sell. On Aug. 12, 1961, Chula Vista annexed 707 acres around the Otay Lakes Road to allow the Bollenbacker and Kelton developers to build a subdivision called Otay Gardens. Rindone struck a deal with the developers to buy 158 acres of the Otay Gardens tract for $860,228 to be used for the college. It was a good deal. The developers were putting in sewers and water and utilities and paving the road, all of which the college would get for free.
The first graduating class of what was now called Southwestern College received their Associate of Arts degrees at the high school gym on June 10, 1962. A second year of classes began in September at the high school. While plans were being drawn for the new college, Bollenbacker and Kelton began construction of 600 homes in what was now called Southwestern College Estates. In Jan. 1963, Elementary School Superintendent Burton Tiffany purchased a 10-acre site on the north edge of this subdivision for a school that would open in 1975, named in his honor. The long-awaited groundbreaking for the college took place on a rainy Thursday afternoon, Feb. 14, 1963. Chet DeVore unveiled a scale-model of the future campus designed by architect George Foster. Otis Pemberton from the Chamber of Commerce predicted that the college would become the "cultural center of the South Bay."
It would take a year and a half to build. In the meantime, classes for a third year began at the high school September 1963. The first Artist Lecture series was held in the high school gym, financed by 5-cent community service tax. It featured the actor Hans Conreid, the Saturday Review editor John Ciardi, and the Music Man composer Meredith Wilson. James Merrill staged the first of his many successful annual Jazz Festivals. Even before the college was built, it was proving Pemberton's promise of becoming a cultural center.
The furniture arrived in July and the college was ready to open Sept. 14, 1964, with 3000 students. The newspaper proclaimed, "gone were the afternoon and night classes at Chula Vista High School. In their place: a brand spanking new complex of classroom and administration buildings." The new registration program was the first in the county to use computers. Cards were keypunched on campus and carried to the Rohr Company for processing. DeVore announced that all the classrooms were completed, with the locker and shower building to be ready in two weeks, the library by Oct. 15, the gym and Student Union with a cafeteria by November. The football field was sodded, but the Apaches would play home football games at the high school until next year.
Campus architect George Foster was the district architect since 1937 and designed every high school and junior high school in the district since that time. He submitted 17 plans for the college over a two-year period from Feb. 21, 1960 to Jan. 18, 1962. Foster organized the 158-acre campus around the central 40 acres with nine major building complexes. The science complex included a separate building to store both live and dead animals used in laboratories. The administration complex has 4 buildings at the front of the campus. The Liberal Arts complex has two of the largest classroom buildings, with 16 of the 57 classrooms on the campus. Many of the 27 buildings had exterior walls decorated with rock from the Imperial Valley.
The official dedication of the college took place in the new gymnasium Dec. 6, 1964. The folding bleachers were filled along one wall that were designed to hold 1400 home fans and 700 visitors for Apache basketball games. Music was provided by James Merrill and the college band with the chorus and concert choir directed by Joseph Wagner. Dr. Robert Swenson, president of the Junior College Association, was the dedication speaker, said this is the 68th junior college in the state. Rindone said, "But this is only the beginning. The college will become the educational and cultural center of the entire South Bay area."
Immediately after the dedication, the college "was rocked by the first political battle" in its short history, when the Student Council voted 11-7 to send a letter of endorsement to the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. Those opposed to the letter submitted petitions that resulted in the first student referendum. The vote was 428-198 to rescind the Student Council decision. The issue was taken up by state Sen. Jack Schrade, local leader of the new county Republican "Third Force" of ultra-conservative GOP volunteer clubs and Goldwater followers. Schrade said he would introduce legislation to expel all 800 students of the Free Speech movement in Berkeley and their professors.
It would happen again. The college was a lightning rod for political and cultural conflicts of the day. In March 1964, Wadie Deddeh gave the students in his political science class at the college the Alabama voter literacy test. All 126 students flunked it, including Deddeh. The story was picked up by national wire services and gave the college its first national publicity. After this, high school students who came to campus for Senior Day were all given Deddeh's test, as were many other visitors. In May, the student art gallery caused criticism when it exhibited nudes by the outside artist William Copley. The VFW also objected to the "toilet seat" artist Dan Longuexuiel who exhibited a painting of George Washington holding Little Orphan Annie on one knee and a Bible on the other, inside a toilet seat bordered by red and white and blue; the stripes representing the flag were vertical rather than horizontal.
Despite an occasional controversy, the college grew steadily and enjoyed wide support in the South Bay. Chet DeVore was named Chula Vista's "Man of the Year" in 1965. More homes and subdivisions were built around the campus, and the district built Bonita Vista Junior and Bonita Vista High schools on Otay Lakes Road in 1965. The City Council in 1965 approved a shopping center across the street from the high school over the objections of the planning commission that wanted to keep this area residential. Bob McAllister convinced the Council that the shopping center would be good for the development of H Street. The enrollment steadily increased, from 4025 in 1966 to 4710 in 1967. A nursing program was added and a new planetarium built by 1967. After an editorial campaign by the Athapascan student newspaper calling for the separation of the college board of trustees from the high school board, Chet DeVore agreed and recommended the separation, and the trustees were separated July 1, 1967. Lowell Blankfort wrote an editorial in the Star-News that "the high school administration has done well by the junior college. A good and devoted parent, it guided the college through its first three years. But, as Southwestern grew and matured, the parent-child relationship was beginning to turn from one of mutual devotion to one of mutual resentment. When the child demanded attention, papa was sometime too busy with other projects."
As the college's first decade came to a close in 1969, the campus was one of Chula Vista's prize trophies. Councilman Frank Scott persuaded the city council that it would be a good idea to create a formal garden at the college that would become a tourist attraction for the city. The garden proved to be too expensive for the city, and the college didn't need it. It was expanding on its own, starting a marine technology program and the innovative Arena theater in-the-round, adding $1 million in new buildings including a pool and tennis courts. With the improvement of Otay Lakes Road and Telegraph Canyon Road, the spread of housing around the campus, the start of a Mormon church across the street, the two shopping centers and planned elementary school, the college had become integrated into the life of the community.
It was a bean field no longer.