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Forty years of service at COC

COC’s last original faculty member retires

Posted: August 5, 2009 9:34 p.m.
Updated: August 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Professor Tom Lawrence retired from College of the Canyons in June after 40 years of teaching. He is the last original faculty member to leave the school. Professor Tom Lawrence retired from College of the Canyons in June after 40 years of teaching. He is the last original faculty member to leave the school.
Professor Tom Lawrence retired from College of the Canyons in June after 40 years of teaching. He is the last original faculty member to leave the school.

It was 1969. Classes at College of the Canyons had just begun, and Tom Lawrence had just graduated with a master’s in physics from San Diego State University.

A flyer posted at the university caught his eye. On a whim, the then-24-year-old applied for a position at the brand-new community college.

“I couldn’t imagine coming out here,” Lawrence, now 64, recalled while sitting in an on-campus lab equipped with a telescope and computers.

“I thought I was going to stay in San Diego.”

Becoming a teacher wasn’t his main goal in school, either.

Lawrence hoped his studies would lead him into a career as an aerospace engineer, although working as a teaching assistant had piqued his interest.

A call from College of the Canyons in September 1969 settled the matter.

In one motion by the original five college trustees, Lawrence joined nearly 20 teachers who became the founding faculty for a community college that would grow to serve 25,000 students annually.

“I’m very proud of Tom,” said Bruce Fortine, a COC trustee who served on the college’s original Board of Trustees 40 years ago.

Last June, Lawrence officially retired, although he stayed to teach summer school this year. He is the last original full-time faculty member to leave College of the Canyons.

He hopes to relax and travel with his wife of 35 years, with whom he lives in Bakersfield.

“I’m the type of person who doesn’t plan. I like to let life happen,” he said.

The growth of a college and career

Lawrence remembers when classes made up of just seven or eight students were held in the evenings at Hart High School in Newhall, well before the COC Valencia campus opened.

The first graduating class had more instructors than students.

Soon after, the college would move to modular buildings located south of the football field. Then construction began on permanent, structures, most of which are still there.

Due to low enrollment in physics classes, Lawrence began teaching math, then astronomy and meteorology.

Once — when nobody else was available to teach it — Lawrence picked up an auto mechanics class.

He estimates he’s taught at least 25 different subjects over his 40-year career at College of the Canyons.

Lawrence has seen COC change from a small college that was expected to serve 8,000 students into 25,000-student school with two campuses and a resource for the entire Santa Clarita Valley.

“They couldn’t tell the difference between high school and College of the Canyons,” Lawrence said of his first batch of students.

Now students view the college as a place to get a jump-start on their four-year degrees, he said.

A passion for teaching
Lawrence’s curiosity for knowledge followed him from his days in elementary school, where he volunteered to give reports to his classmates.

“I can answer my own questions,” he said. “I’m interested in how the world works.”

Teaching allows him to witness the moment a student finally grasps a concept.

“I get as much as I give,” Lawrence said, “maybe more.”

Lawrence’s teaching style turned classes like astronomy into favorites among students.

“Tom is the kind of teacher where everyone wants to take his class,” Fortine said.

Lawrence is able to connect to his students, which is especially important when teaching physics and math.

“He’s probably not one of the easiest teachers,” Fortine said. “He makes you work. But when you get done, you have a whole new world out there.”

Faculty as family
Jan Keller, who worked at College of the Canyons for 34 years before retiring in 2003, remembers being hired alongside Lawrence 40 years ago.

Keller said he remembers bonding with his colleagues to become a College of the Canyons family.

When Keller eventually became director of learning resources for the community college, he joined the evaluation committee to assess his peers.

“That was a lot of fun because I had the opportunity to go into people’s classrooms,” he said.

Going into Lawrence’s classroom for observation was “always a treat,” Keller recalled.

“Tom is a very introverted person,’ he said, “and so to see him in a classroom in this extroverted persona was great.”


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