Educator, mentor, emeritus, philanthropist, legacy creator, life changer. All of these apply to Mary Jo Lass, professor emerita from the College of Education and member of the CSULB Legacy Society.
From the time she was in junior high school, Lass has been aware of education’s ripple effect and how that effect leads to surprises, challenges, great rewards and changed lives. “I was working on the junior high school yearbook and our teacher was Esther Ericson Dalby,” she recalled. “Each one of us thought that we were her favorite student—she was just that good. She demanded excellence in journalism. You better have your facts straight, you better have your grammar straight and you better have your punctuation straight. And, heaven protect you if you used a cliché like this one,” chuckled Lass.
Dalby counseled Lass about her career choices. Lass loved journalism, but she also was strongly leaning toward teaching. “Remember, this was 1945-46, and journalism was not that open to women,” said Lass. “There were some women, but they were rare.
“Esther said, ‘It’s a rough field, and you can do it; yet at the same time, you’ll have to fight your way in.’ She talked with me in depth about being a teacher and said, ‘Think about pursuing that, too.’”
Lass chose teaching, and she and Dalby remained lifelong friends. Always grateful for her mentor’s honesty, Lass carried on with lessons learned from Dalby, especially when students asked her about teaching careers. Lass talked with students about what they wanted to do with their lives and how they wanted to approach working with others. “And, I told them, honestly, what teaching is like...it is not all fun and games. Sometimes it’s very difficult.
“We talked about the challenges of working with students and parents who have terrible problems and need help, or who may be hostile. I asked students how the profession fits in with what they saw as their life’s mission,” she added. “The key is you must be honest with students. Some of the best of us will quit.”
There were Friday afternoons, early in Lass’ career, when she told herself she was never coming back to the elementary school where she taught 49 first- and second-grade students. “I remember my first year, the third week, thinking I would quit. Then, I thought, ‘If you make it to December, you can resign with honor.’ Then, I thought, ‘If you can make it to Easter, you can resign with honor.’ Well, I made it to the end of the year.”
By 1951, Lass was working on a master’s degree at Long Beach State and then joined the College of Education faculty in fall 1966. “I have seen tremendous growth on the campus,” she recalled. “I remember the famous dirt parking lots that turned to mud when it rained, and cars would slide down the hill! There were no crosswalks. Near the area where the student union is now, we used temporary barracks from the Army. They were pretty primitive. You felt like you were a pioneer!”
Despite the tough navigating on rainy days, Lass has fond memories of the campus, especially the superb teachers she had as a student and the wonderful colleagues she had as a professor. “I think I’m really fortunate to have watched the College of Education evolve into one of the top colleges in the U.S.,” commented Lass. “We were fortunate to have great people who were chairs and deans. I cannot say enough about (College of Education Deans) Marquita (Grenot-Scheyer), Jean (Houck), John (Nelson) and John (Sikula). They pretty much cleared the way for innovation in teaching and working with students. I was really lucky.”
Over her numerous years at Cal State Long Beach, Lass’ influence, innovation and honesty were shared with thousands of students who went on to become educators. Today, she continues to support public higher education and change lives through various donations and gifts, including several endowed scholarships. Commenting on why she contributes to CSULB, Lass said, “It started as a way to honor my mother and father—the Mike and Juanita Lass Memorial Endowment. Flowers are nice, but they fade. This will never fade…and it keeps them alive.”
Mary Jo Lass is forging a legacy that will benefit current and future generations of students and teachers. The ripple effect of her philanthropy will never fade.