Glimpses: The Early Years of Finger Lakes Community College

Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) in Hopewell near Canandaigua, recently marked its 40th anniversary as a post secondary educational institution offering programs in the liberal arts and sciences, career related programs, and personal enrichment experiences. I had the good fortune to spend 33 years at this student-centered environment as a history instructor, meeting with students in a variety of learning environments ranging from the traditional classroom to off-campus and foreign travel.

Like most individuals, I’m prone to engage in selective and subjective memories that range over the totality of my professional life. Acknowledging that fact, it is the early years, 1970 through ’75, at what was then Community College of the Finger Lakes (CCFL) that I recall as very special. Along with numerous individuals, I was part of an experience that cannot be repeated. Collectively, we created an institution of higher education that continues to mature and grow in its mission to provide quality programs of instruction for people in the Finger Lakes region and beyond.

Storefront college years
My day as an instructor in history began with a walk to Canandaigua’s South Main Street “campus.” It was 1970. My office consisted of a desk, located among a dozen or so others, in a large, undecorated room in the rear of what until recently had been a retail store selling household appliances. Named for owner Warren Hook, we simply referred to it as the Hook Office Building. Makeshift bookshelves lining pale colored walls, second hand desks, and a scattering of filing cabinets served faculty from across several humanities and social sciences disciplines. Here, we met with students, evaluated student papers, prepared for classes, and spoke with one another on a daily basis.

In the front portion of Hook Building two secretaries, Gladys Paxton and Marge Simmons, ably served faculty, together with Andrew Harkness Sr., a remarkable individual who performed the post of “college printer” as well as audio-visual specialist. One college administrator, John Clarkson, our Division Chair, occupied a small walled cubicle in the center of the building. Hook Building, certainly not a traditional setting, was my/our welcoming collegiate home base.

General education courses including English, history, psychology, mathematics, as well as those in the visual arts and natural sciences, were located in classrooms scattered along South Main Street. For students and college staff, opportunities to shop, dine, do our banking and go to the post office were easily managed. Only after moving the campus 3 miles onto Lincoln Hill, in the Town of Hopewell, with a glimpsing, distant and partial view of Canandaigua Lake, did many of us really come to fully appreciate some of the conveniences our storefront existence provided.

Throughout these downtown years all history students attended three very different classroom locations. U.S. history classes were held in the Perego Building, two blocks north of the Hook Office, up the slight incline of South Main Street, and past the small college bookstore. A flight of wooden steps took students and faculty to one of three classrooms above the J.C. Penney store. A single bathroom at the top of the stairs served all students and faculty. Windows in the two forward classrooms, when opened, allowed busy Main Street traffic sounds to compete with lectures, occasional visual aids and student interactions.

Nearly a dozen other instructors had offices behind the classrooms, at the rear of Perego. Mostly male, teachers of mathematics, biology, and natural resource conservation/horticulture, seemed to me to share an esprit de corps different from the more heterogeneous faculty I knew in Hook. Having a coffee and sandwich at the Goodie Shop on the corner, or a hamburger “with everything” (if one’s stomach was amply lined with cast iron) at the Green Front on Niagara Street, were less common occurrences for us.

Other teaching venues were in the Sommers Building and two portable classrooms. Sommers had been at one time the location of an automobile showroom. Unless you were crossing Canandaigua’s four lane wide Main Street at a traffic signal, not conveniently near to Hook Building, the walk to Sommers from the west side of the avenue had to be managed with a bit of daring and assured swiftness.

The front portion of the building doubled as a lounge and counseling center. Three times during the academic year it also served as the college’s course registration site, efficiently presided over by Grove Nagel, director of records. The four classrooms here were up-to-date and quiet, in contrast to those in Perego. Three portable buildings (we dared not refer to them as trailers) were located in a large parking area off the west side of South Main Street between Bristol and Antis Streets. One functioned as the Student Activities Center, while the other two were classrooms.

While the center of my rich and fulfilling life as a history educator occupied a few downtown Canandaigua blocks and one large parking lot, other faculty, staff, and colleagues were dispersed elsewhere. Physics, chemistry, and biology lab classes were held in a building just south of the Hook Building, while art classes and a studio were located at 34 South Main, one door north of Perego. Meanwhile, students majoring in criminal justice, nursing, and several business and secretarial degree programs were attending classes in Building 7 at the sprawling Veterans’ Administration Hospital more than a mile from downtown.

Initially, the college library (Alice Fedder, director) and admissions (John Meuser, director) were in renovated homes on Parrish Street. Apart from the three division chairs, all the administrators, including College President Roy I. Satre, Dean Charles Meder and Chief Finance Officer Richard Wilkins, occupied offices in the Cook House.

Defining moments for CCFL
Teaching in a student-centered world was, however, coupled with a serious concern. Would the relatively new national trend, what teaching colleague Jack Bricker dubbed “democracy’s community colleges,” actually become a reality for Finger Lakes?

Necessary steps had already been taken. A campus site had been secured after Ontario County, college sponsor, purchased 235 acres on Lincoln Hill for $178,000 in July, 1969. The college board of trustees, in turn, approved an $11 million campus plan in January, 1971. A month later, however, the Ontario County Board of Supervisors deleted a large sum from that figure by eliminating a multipurpose auditorium. As for having a swimming pool, forget about it. The Canandaigua YMCA would suffice.

Then, in the midst of discussions over the nature and funding of a new campus, President Satre resigned to assume a position at Rochester Institute of Technology that June. Dr. Meder, appointed interim president, was later confirmed and inaugurated in a low-key ceremony held at Sonnenberg Gardens, itself a new start-up institution.

Nonetheless, that autumn, despite the college trustees having adopted the Nixon administration’s recommended federal wage-price freezes, the faculty was fairly upbeat. Everyone was hopeful; yet always looming was the unanswered question of whether Ontario County legislators would vote to approve a total capital construction package of $11 million. College plans included a greenhouse to support the horticulture program, a gymnasium for physical education classes and interscholastic competition, and, a scaled down multi-purpose room. Legislative approval would require the state’s Dormitory Authority and the citizens of Ontario County to share equally the cost through the sale of long-term bonds.

Unfortunately, relations between the Ontario County Board of Supervisors and the college trustees were not going well. Geneva supervisor William F. McGowan, chair of the education committee, and trustee chair Raymond Probst, provided leadership for each board.

In addition to new campus discussions, relations between the two governing boards were further strained over the college’s fiscal operation under so-called “Plan A” that assigned day-to-day economic decision-making to the trustees. A switch to Plan C, argued for favorably by many county supervisors after a poor audit of the college’s expenditures, would enable the county to better monitor and perform their stewardship function. Faculty, administrators and trustees obviously hoped that a switch would not occur.

New campus vote
As 1971 became 1972, college staff strived to remain hopeful and professional. At times we seriously wondered if CCFL would survive as a viable institution. Faculty wages remained frozen. Vigorous public discussion continued. “Can Ontario County afford to build a new $11 million campus for CCFL?” Local media reported facts and opinions for several weeks prior to a historic supervisor vote. Letters to the editor in many regional newspapers argued both sides of the question. We anticipated that a very close supervisor vote would occur.

November 13, 1972 became one of the most dramatic days in the seven-year, sometimes crisis ridden, history of Finger Lakes. Each of the 21 county supervisors cast a weighted vote, based on the number of citizens residing in the supervisor’s district (a legislative practice that continues today). A total of 3,999 “weighted” votes meant passage would require 2,666 votes if every legislator was in attendance and voting, since a two-thirds approval was necessary.

That evening, amid tense waiting outside, and standing room only for spectators in the supervisors’ meeting room at the Ontario County Court House, 20 of the 21 county legislators were on hand. In a preliminary vote an amendment offered by Town of Seneca supervisor John Hicks and Town of Gorham supervisor Robert Watkins to eliminate the smaller multipurpose room was passed, a savings of $208,000.

The full campus construction vote occurred with 14 supervisors voting “yes.” The total weighted vote to build on Lincoln Hill was 2,828 in favor and 1,058 opposed. With the enactment of Board Resolution 318 on November 13, 1972, there would be no turning back for Community College of the Finger Lakes. Nearly 20 years later CCFL changed its name to Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC).

Creating an oral archive
Belatedly, in 2000, after the deaths of John Meuser, director of admissions, and colleague Bruce Bridgmen, I took steps to create an oral archive to recollect and preserve the memories of participating CCFL faculty, staff, trustees and county supervisors who shared in the process of creation, 1965-1975. Forty-three individuals participated in a videotape recorded session, usually lasting an hour or more.

At this writing, only John C. Britting of Phelps, a member of the original board of trustees, is alive and able to share memories of the trials and triumphs of that first decade. Fortunately, I interviewed former president Charles Meder, trustee Collins Carpenter, library director Alice Fedder, and my colleague and friend Prof. Jack Bricker, all of whom have since died.

Still relevant today
The goals and philosophy that molded Community College of the Finger Lakes, defining its mission and vision during those start-up years, have endured. Chartered in 1965, CCFL became a public, open-access institution committed to its students as they define, develop, and realize their educational goals and potentials.

When the first credit course semester opened in January 1968, the total enrollment was 85 fulltime and 125 part-time students. Tuition was a modest $10 per credit hour or $120 for a fulltime course load, that is 12 or more credit hours. In September 1975, enrollment at the new campus totaled 1,159 full-time and approximately 1,200 part-time students. Tuition, while still inexpensive, increased to $25 per credit hour, or $300 a semester. Visit the college website, www.flcc.edu, to learn why FLCC sincerely believes it “is the right place to start.”

For myself, those early years resonate. The first graduation ceremony I attended on June 6, 1971, was a stifling hot day. The college’s third commencement, it occurred in Geneva’s Smith Opera House. The oppressive heat was amplified by the wearing of the traditional medieval regalia of cap and gown. Attending that ceremony, I was unaware that I was just one of many individuals fortunate enough to have been part of a new venture that can only be accomplished once, creation of a new public community college.


by Henry Maus, Professor Emeritus
Henry Maus served as a Professor of History at FLCC from 1970-2003. He spends his time in retirement volunteering for various community activities, traveling, biking and grandparenting.