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A Brief History Of Long Beach State

Published: October 15, 2015

Long Beach State: A Brief History, a new addition to The History Press History Series, was written by Journalism’s Barbara Kingsley-Wilson to tell the story of how the university grew out of Fred Bixby’s bean and alfalfa fields 66 years ago.

“This is a book that focuses on the people and personalities who grew the university,” explained Kingsley-Wilson, who joined the university in 2004. “These are the people who brought CSULB from nothing, a campus with a few rehabbed departments with no books, with faculty who had to rake debris out of the way to teach their classes, into one of the largest educational institutions in the state.”

To do that, Kingsley-Wilson used live and archived interviews available in the University Library.

“The recorded statements were a huge help. Without them, it would have been hard to do anything. It was hard to find interview subjects who were students at the very beginning. But their audio files are available,” she said.

Kingsley-Wilson encountered her share of surprises on her way to writing her first book.

“It’s true that everything starts somewhere, but it still surprised me what a seat-of-the-pants operation CSULB once was,” she said. “It was after World War II and those involved were used to a certain amount of privation. A lot of people didn’t have the money to attend UCLA or USC but still wanted a higher education. Former Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill (who was in one of the first classes at the college) talked about that a lot.”

Other surprises included how many prominent people got their starts or rose to prominence at CSULB, including architect Ed Killingsworth, musicians Richard and Karen Carpenter, and comedian Steve Martin and basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

Two presidencies that she found especially compelling were those of Stephen Horn and Robert Maxson.

“These two presidents were positive agents for change,” she said. “In Dr. Maxson’s case, he was a great promoter, although he didn’t come up with ‘Go Beach.’ But he did slap it on everything he could find and used ‘Go Beach’ in his conversation.” Maxson also created the President’s Scholars program.

Writing A Brief History gave the author a sense of things that aren’t here anymore.

“There are certain traditions that have faded with the years including Forty-Niner Days,” she said, referring to the annual gathering of students, faculty and community in a hastily constructed “town” that celebrated the college with a Gold Rush theme. The event was a rallying point for school spirit, especially in the university’s early days. “It all had to be put together within 36 hours and some of the best structures were shipped off to Knott’s Berry Farm. It was a blast at the same time there were culturally insensitive references to various communities. Students got more and more impatient with that.”

The book is a “brief” history of CSULB. And there’s a reason for that. When Kingsley-Wilson first discussed her book proposal with the archive librarian, she was told others had tried and given up because the subject is so broad and diverse.

“I decided to concentrate on how did the basic stuff start? What happened to the first president and all the feuds with the first faculty? How did the Pyramid start? How did women’s sports get started? Even before doing much research, I saw ex-President Stephen Horn was a great force for change. He could be controversial but he helped, according to one administrator, ‘professionalize’ the university,” she said.

Her career as a professional journalist helped Kingsley-Wilson to write A Brief History. She worked 10 years at the Orange County Register before joining CSULB in 2004. She also taught journalism at USC.

“As a reporter, you do your research but you tell your story through people,” she said. “It is more interesting and understandable. That’s what I tried to do here. It was a matter of talking to a lot of people and looking through records.”

Kingsley-Wilson sees A Brief History as a fresh start at looking at the history of a university.

“When a reporter writes a story, it isn’t meant to be the last word. It starts a conversation that reveals there is even more to say,” she said. “I hope A Brief History gets people talking about the history of the university. It’s relatively short, but it’s a rich history.”

Having written A Brief History has changed the way Kingsley-Wilson sees CSULB.

“When I pass particular buildings, now I know when they were built,” she said. “Now I know that entity with a crazy beginning can grow into a well-known institution.”