John Davitt Reflects on 21-Year Presidency

El Vaquero News Editor

Late afternoon sunlight streams into the office window, illuminating the lined face of a man sitting at his desk and reflecting off the many awards and family photos framed on the shelves. Distinguished in glasses and a tailored suit, the man gazes pensively out at the students milling around Plaza Vaquero. This illustrious figure is John Davitt, the well-loved, now retiring superintendent/president of GCC.

With 21 years of leadership, 73-year-old Davitt holds the record for the longest tenure of any community college president in California. He has received numerous honors and awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Glendale Chamber of Commerce and the Presidential Leadership Award from the California Community Colleges Foundation.

“He’s dedicated so much of his life to the college,” said Davitt’s son Mike. “He’s made it his own. He’s had a very accomplished career and he’s done some remarkable things.”

Under Davitt’s leadership, the campus grew dramatically. Several buildings, including such as San Rafael, San Gabriel, the Child Development Center and the Garfield Campus, were erected. The school’s inclusive management system, which allows all segments of the college community to be involved in committees that make decisions on important issues on campus, became a model for other campuses.

Davitt received his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of San Francisco in 1954 and a master’s degree in secondary education from the same school in 1958. He also received a doctorate in community college administration from USC.

Before coming to GCC in 1968, Davitt had been a first lieutenant in the United States Army, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt Junior High School in San Francisco, a counselor at Merritt College in Oakland and an assistant professor at Cal State L.A.

“I was hired as the vice president of student services in 1968,” Davitt said. “It was the first time all student services were put under one person.” Davitt was responsible for guidance and counseling, admissions and records, student activities and other student services.

“My first goal [upon beginning work at the college] was to make sure that services had the maximum funding possible, and that students had adequate resources,” Davitt said.

Following this, he was named vice president for instructional services in 1981. During the three years he held the position, he worked hard to “make sure that students had the broadest instructional programs the college could offer.”

Davitt was named superintendent of the community college district and president of the college in July 1985. His first priority as president was to achieve “excellence in all programs” at the school.

Dramatic changes took place under his governance. Numerous programs and course offerings, including culinary arts, media arts, the science academy and the scholars’ program were added to the college’s educational roster. Enrollment soared up to 25,000 from only 10,000 at the beginning of Davitt’s term.

“We also greatly expanded financial aid and services for disabled students,” Davitt said. “There was a host of things that were added [to the college system]. These are just a few.”

Jean Lecuyer, a physics professor who has been teaching at GCC for 28 years and was president of the Academic Senate when Davitt became president, said that he and the rest of the presidential selection committee at that time “made a good selection” with Davitt.

“He’s been a very good president,” Lecuyer said. “The school has had a great governance system under him. He was very respectful of faculty input, and he had a vision for the college.”

According to Lecuyer, Davitt always saw the college as “very strong academically.” “He always wanted to offer more sophisticated, and not just run-of-the-mill, courses. He called it a ‘lobster neuberg,’ which is a fancy dish. He wanted to offer more for the students.”

But one of the things that Davitt is most proud of is the changes made to the campus’ physical structure. With him at the helm, the college’s trademark Spanish mission style architecture was conceived. The gyms, student center, library and most of the older buildings like the auditorium were remodeled in addition to the many buildings that were constructed.

“We now have a beautiful campus,” he said proudly. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t have lawns or flowers and only had a few buildings.”
Child Development professor Melita Baumann-Riddle, who has worked at GCC for 25 years, echoes this statement. “When I first saw this campus, I thought, ‘Ooh, it’s not very pretty,'” she said. “It only had a couple of run-down buildings. A lot of the buildings we have now were put up under [Davitt].”

“Some 20 years ago, the campus was not attractive,” said mathematics professor Steve Marsden. “What was here then were bungalows. Now the campus looks so different, and it’s so beautiful that students even treat it better.”

Davitt believes that the way a college looks on the outside reflects its educational effectiveness on the inside. “We placed an emphasis on the architecture-because hopefully it says this is a campus that cares and that real education is going on inside as well,” he said.

At the college’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2003, the administration building was renamed the John A. Davitt Administration building, one of the many honors Davitt has received.

Another strength of the college, according to Davitt, is “the atmosphere on campus, which is like a family. There’s a strong sense of community here,” he said. “I know the faculty so well, and the same goes for the classified staff.”

Baumann-Riddle agreed with this and attributed it to Davitt’s leadership. “He always listens to the ideas of the faculty,” she said.

“The faculty is sad to see him go,” said Marsden. “During his term as president, the college has thrived. [Before Davitt] the faculty was fighting with the [previous] president and administration. With [Davitt], negotiations have gone very smoothly, people who work here feel appreciated, and morale is high.”

Marsden believes that Davitt is a “people person” and “easy to work with.” “One of his strengths is that he’s so supportive of the staff and faculty and the programs they want to develop.”

The faculty will also remember Davitt for his sense of humor. “If someone made a joke, he could follow it up quickly,” said Lecuyer.
Davitt said that a huge part of his success is due to the support of the college faculty and staff. “I am proud of the quality of the faculty and staff here. I had a lot of help from them, and I had an excellent administration and a lot of support from the board of trustees.”

The superintendent/president has also had three secretaries in 21 years, and he added that they were “the real key to my success.”
Pat Skerry, his secretary for 14 years now, said that Davitt is “a great boss.” “He’s spoiled me,” she said with a fond smile. “[Working for him] has been a ride they don’t have at Disneyland. It’s really, truly been an awesome experience.” Skerry added that her boss’s retirement has also played a role in her decision to retire in December.

And speaking of rides, students will most likely remember Davitt for his Harley Davidson motorcycle. “I’ve been riding my Harley for 20 years now,” he said, gesturing to a miniature model of his bike sitting on the shelf behind his desk.

Davitt will also be remembered for being very supportive of students and student activities, according to ASGCC Vice President of Administration Thomas Dryden, who has worked with the superintendent/president on the board of trustees.

“Through Dr. Davitt’s continued support of students, he has inspired all of us to reach for our goals,” Dryden said.
Despite having overwhelming responsibilities as superintendent/president, Davitt enjoys close ties with his family, and makes it a point to spend time with Gael, his wife of over 50 years now, four children and 11 grandchildren.

“[My family] has been a big support,” he said. He added that although the Davitts weren’t prepared to move to Southern California from Oakland, where they had lived until 1968, they adjusted willingly and were very supportive of his career.
Mike Davitt said that the entire family “couldn’t be more proud” and that the grandchildren are especially fond of their grandfather.

“Now that he’s retiring, we’re hoping we can get him to babysit,” said the younger Davitt jokingly.

Although Davitt has battled Parkinson’s disease for several years now, health problems have not interfered with his job.

“He’s continued to be supportive of the entire campus,” Marsden said. “Now, as he goes into retirement, he can concentrate more on his health.”

When asked about plans for his retirement years, the older Davitt said he honestly doesn’t know yet. “I’ll probably do some consulting work and spend more time with community activities,” he said. “I’ll also spend more time with my grandkids.”

He serves on the Board of the Glendale Symphony and of the Regents of Holy Family High School, and as a trustee of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, to name a few. He also volunteers regularly at the Good Shepherd Center for Abused Families.

Davitt said that after he leaves GCC, he hopes to see “continued support for a strong institution.” “I hope to see the college staff work in a collaborative fashion, and to strengthen community ties.”

Most of all, the retiring superintendent/president hopes that the beauty of the campus and the quality of its education will be maintained. “I am concerned that we will always be a caring college,” said Davitt. “I think we’ve contributed to the betterment of the community, and we will hopefully continue to do that.”