Some students find history to be boring, just dry facts and figures one has to know to pass a course, only to forget it all as soon as exams are over.
Others just do not care. After all, is FDR or Winston Churchill going to pay their bills?
Still other individuals like Gordon Alexandre love it. And yes, history does pay his bills.
“It wasn’t until my late 30s that I decided I wanted to teach and I ended up making a living at something I love,” said Alexandre, 58, who has been sharing his passion with students at the college for more than 20 years as a professor of history.
But he did not always have an intimate knowledgeable of the subject, in fact, growing up in Sherman Oaks during the 1950s in what he called “a lily-white” middle-class neighborhood, he “didn’t know much about anything.”
This was mainly because, Alexandre said, “we never suffered from poverty and I never thought about a job [or] a career.” His parents made a comfortable living as the owners of a successful photography studio.
“Being Jewish, I actually never had to deal with anti-Semitism,” he said, “even though it existed in the 1950s.”
The closest Alexandre ever came to childhood trauma was when he was told friends of his grandparents were killed in the Holocaust during World War II.
He would go shopping with his mom Dorothy and play baseball and golf with his dad Jerome, eventually playing both sports on high school teams.
A “good Jewish boy,” Alexandre attended Hebrew school, earned decent grades and never got into trouble, growing up in a loving home that was host to many barbeques for his little league team and his four sisters’ girl scout troops.
Believing his lifestyle was the norm, he did not question a whole lot.
Then in 1965, one year after Alexandre started his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara, later transferring to UCLA, bombs started to drop abroad as the United States went to war with Vietnam.
And the young man, who had only read about the world’s history in the 12th grade, became a part of it. He became Gordy Alexandre.
Gordy was the 20-year-old history major who was deemed an “undesirable” draftee because he had been arrested three times for protesting the war, and he had his parent’s full support while doing it.
He was not a pacifist. Rather he was a solider for social justice, and his ripped jeans, long hair and bushy side burns were standard issue.
“Many of us dressed in a oppositional fashion to identify ourselves as not participating with what the majority was doing at the time,” said Alexandre. “So it became our uniform in a way.”
He also managed to earn good grades by cramming whenever he was not taking a stand against the conflict in Southeast Asia or in support of civil rights and gender equality.
Unbeknownst to him, a young Steve White, currently the vice president of instructional services and Alexandre’s golfing buddy, also actively protested the war as a college student in the Midwest.
The Vietnam War, Alexandre said, started when the United States government became convinced that the Soviet Union was plotting to take over the world via the spread of communism.
Therefore, when Vietnamese communists won their independence from France in 1954, the U.S. saw nationalization as a threat that had to be contained.
From this conflict, Alexandre learned to see things from the other perspective. What was really going on, he said, was that the Vietnamese were again fighting for their independence from foreign occupation, from America.
And he also discovered what he believed in peace, justice, fairness and equality.
After graduating from college, he worked for Alcoa Aluminum in Los Angeles from 1972 to 1975, becoming very active in the United Auto Workers Union. When a strike failed, a disillusioned Alexandre went back to college to get his master’s degree from Cal State L.A.
He started teaching full-time at Glendale College in 1984.
Through the UAW experience, Alexandre gained a deep respect for the working man’s role in American history, and also acquired negotiating skills. These would later help him as chief negotiator for the Glendale College Teacher’s Guild, a position he has held on and off since 1988.
Currently, he and his negotiating team are trying to convince the GCC district to help part-time teachers pay for health care. In the past, both parties would split the bill evenly, but because less money is coming in from Sacramento, part-timers now pay 85 percent.
As a professor, “he’s very animated, has lots of stories and anecdotes about history…he has a style that gets student involved,” said White.
These tales usually tie in Alexandre’s own history, which is an open book during lectures.
He wears a wig of long hair to explain the counter culture of the 1960s, touches on his divorce from a previous marriage and tells the story of Daniel Gutierrez, a former student who ended up majoring in history after taking seven of his classes.
Gutierrez later went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.
What students may not know is that Alexandre does not like to fly, he never completed his doctoral dissertation and one of his dreams is to own a blues night club.
Moreover, “he’s a very kind, generous and sweet guy,” said Caryl St. Ama, an art professor at GCC and Alexandre’s wife. “I think a lot of people don’t see that side of him in negotiations or even in the classroom.”
In two years, he will step down as chief negotiator for the faculty guild and then plans to devote more time to being the advisor to the Social Justice Coalition, a consortium of student activist groups on campus.
“I think your responsibility here goes beyond the classroom,” said Alexandre, “so being an advisor … and participating in the union makes me a well-rounded professor.”
Whatever he embarks on next will be history in the making.