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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Former Bakersfield College professor Jerry Ludeke holds one of the original letters sent by legendary director Grace Van Dyke Bird to BC students stationed overseas during World War II. The letters offered news, encouragement and comfort from home and provide a glimpse of what life in Bakersfield was like at the time.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Former Bakersfield College professor Jerry Ludeke looks through a book of notes from BC students who served in the military during World War II.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Josephine Chase, whose records are kept in the BC archives, was the first student to graduate from Bakersfield College in 1913-14. She transferred to UC Berkeley.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Former Bakersfield College professor Jerry Ludeke appears excited as she speaks about the rich history that is stored at the Bakersfield College archives.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

The walls at the Bakersfield College archives are decorated with photographs, news clippings and other items that chronicle the history of the college.

The school was 89 years into its first century before administrators established the Bakersfield College Archives, but since 2002, they've made up for lost time.

Photographs, yearbooks, bound histories, letterman jackets and yell sweaters, oral histories from past presidents -- even the Olympic torch carried to Salt Lake City in 2002 by now-retired BC Professor Chuck Wall -- are among the 11,967-item collection catalogued and stored on campus.

Hundreds more are in the upstairs room in the Grace Van Dyke Bird Library that serves as archives central, being painstakingly recorded a few at a time each day.

They're priceless proof of how Bakersfield and the college matured along with its students, but also evidence of the two-year college's ongoing connection to its alums.

"It's pretty unusual for a community college to have an archives. Because community colleges are newer, they haven't focused much energy on preserving their pasts," said Greg Goodwin, an archives founder and current chairman, explaining how the archives began with ambitions to interview past presidents like Ralph Prator, who occupied the position for eight years starting in 1950.

"For almost 30 years, we were the only college within about 100 miles, so it became pretty standard for families to send their kids up here," Goodwin said.

Housed on the Bakersfield High School campus for its first 43 years -- and regularly staffed by gifted ex-BHS teachers like 1914 UC Berkeley grad Grace Van Dyke Bird -- the college earned a reputation for producing talented grads, when members of that first class went on to Berkeley themselves.

"In those years if students were preparing to go to college, they would begin at Bakersfield College, and then typically transfer to Stanford or UC Berkeley, but more often UC Berkeley, and that relationship was forged through Grace Van Dyke Bird," said Kern Community College District Chancellor Sandra Serrano, who helped establish the archives during her presidency.

Alumni kept BC in their hearts after leaving. Their love -- plus the human penchant to save things -- fueled the archives' swift amassing of documents, garments and ephemera.

One recent addition is the late Robert James' pristine yellow 1953 Junior Rose Bowl letterman jacket with off-white leather sleeves, donated by his widow Lynn James.

The game, played in the Rose Bowl from 1946 to 1977 -- though known as the Pasadena Bowl from 1967 to 1971 -- pitted the winning California Junior College and National Junior College Athletic Association squads against each other.

In 1953, Bakersfield squared off against Northeastern Oklahoma A&M -- winning by holding the team at the goal line for four downs without scoring, making its famous "goal line stand."

Robert James, who died in 2009, invented engineering equipment used halfway across the world, but always held onto his championship jacket and a metal plaque offering lifetime free entry to home games.

"He was very careful of it, and he is very proud to know that it is in the hands of Bakersfield College," said Lynn James, who attended BC herself in 1957 and 1958. "That was our hometown college; didn't make any difference at the time that it was two years."

First lady of BC

BC's archives reflect that reverential attitude toward education -- in no small part because Bird served as its director for 29 years, from 1921 to 1950, and so much material pertaining to her is in them.

Bird left BC in 1950 for a position overseeing community college relations at UC Berkeley. But archives director Jerry Ludeke, a retired BC professor herself, said the legendary educator -- the first woman to head a junior college in California and possibly the nation -- left an indelible imprint on the school.

Bird cared about students and staff so much that she'd take home student profiles each night, memorizing them to greet people by name on campus.

That personal touch was still in place more than a decade later, Goodwin remembered, pointing out that when he was hired in 1964 to teach American history, secretaries he'd never met called him by name. He learned they'd studied his profile, much as Bird might have years earlier.

Possibly her finest hour is captured in the archives' most amazing acquisitions -- left to the college by Bird, naturally.

Fifty years before going online became a national pastime, she used pen, paper and mimeograph machine to turn the college into an information powerhouse, the 1940s equivalent of an Internet server, writing witty, personal, heartfelt letters -- about one a week -- to BC students and grads serving in World War II.

Members of all four service branches received her letters, which were packed with information about everything from promotions to engagements to "Gold Stars," a somber recitation of grads killed in action, to a listing of those missing.

"R.T.3/c Bob Lane writes from the South Pacific to praise Bakersfield and those charming Davies sisters, Jo Ellen and Patsy," Bird writes in a section of one letter titled "Serving Overseas."

"Sgt. Charles Anderson writes from the West Indies: 'It is almost two and a half years since I have seen the old home grounds. That's a long time in my book. I haven't even managed to get so much as a 24 hour pass in all that time,' " Bird continued.

Sgt. Anderson was, the college director noted, comforted by his pet dog, Uncle Rafe, "who has piled up enough flying hours to win his wings."

Does that sound like a dog smuggled onboard a government aircraft? Sure does. But Bird seems to have instinctively understood the difference between doing one's job and standing on ceremony.

"Where is she getting all this information? She's getting it from them. She's become the hub. The first part is her writing to them, and then they caught on to having them write in here," Ludeke said, displaying an autograph album signed by servicemen passing through Bakersfield.

When they were in town, BC students would dash off a few lines on their way someplace else -- because then, everyone was going somewhere. Their former director would then alert the troops.

Anderson himself finally hit town on April 18, 1944, a little more than a year before the war ended, and he wrote the following entry:

"Home on the only furlough in 3 years. After 20 months overseas, everything looks mighty good in Bakersfield."

Ensign Gordon H. Bradford stopped by six days later, on April 24th, and left behind an incomplete sentence that might have meant a lot more when read by an infantryman out in the European rain.

"On 15 days leave prior to fleet carrier duty," was all Bradford said, leaving Bird to put it in context, which she did handily.

"We are given to thinking of war as something that separates us. And, of course, in a very real way, it does. But it also brings us together in another very real way. You cannot guess how often you are in our conversations," Bird had written in another letter addressed to "Beejayceers," because back then, it was Bakersfield Junior College.

She closed a missive from late in the war with an equally moving pronouncement:

"Here is to The Day when the only column it will be possible to have in this letter is headed "Home for Good."

"Our best wishes and affection," and then, a signature in slightly spidery fountain pen ink: Grace Bird.

Clearly, she meant every word.

"I marvel at the letters here. She gets all the information in, but there's always this spirit of love for them, and the appreciation of this beauty of sharing the world of home personally," Ludeke said. "She wanted people to excel, and she helped make that possible."

Today, thanks to the archives, and technology that Bird herself prefigured, all her World War II letters are online -- along with a host of other photographs depicting the school's march through time.

You can't help but think the director would be pleased.