Upon her retirement from Bakersfield College in 1977, Dr. Ruth Maguire reflected upon the reason she accepted a position there in the first place.
That reason was Grace Van Dyke Bird, Bakersfield College’s first president. Maguire described Bird as an amazing woman who was ahead of her time.
She stated to the May 15, 1977, Bakersfield Californian: “Everybody said, if you want to learn about junior colleges, see Grace Bird. She’s the DEAN of junior colleges.”
Such praise of Bird was not uncommon. In fact, over the course of her 29-year tenure at Bakersfield College, it was the norm – and not just locally. Bird had established a distinguished reputation as in an innovator in higher education throughout the state and the nation.
Grace V. Bird’s notable career began shortly after she graduated from Berkeley. In 1917 she accepted a teaching position as a Bakersfield High School and Bakersfield College faculty member, where she taught French at both schools. She was appointed vice principal of the high school and head of the college during the 1921-22 school year. She remained with the high school until 1940 when she began working full time as the head of Bakersfield College. She was extremely successful at increasing enrollment at the college as the student population grew from just 80 in 1921 to over 1,200 in 1949.
In 1928, she was unanimously elected president of the Central Association of Junior Colleges. The position of president of the Junior College Federation of California was also bestowed upon her in 1934 and 1935. The April 18, 1935, Californian reported she easily earned the position as she was a leader “prominently identified with the junior college movement in California since its inception and who has directed development of the local junior college into one of the most outstanding institutions of this nature in the state.”
It was no surprise that Bird’s success earned her a job offer from Berkeley that she accepted in 1949. Upon her resignation from Bakersfield College, the editor of The Californian lamented over her leaving as she was a “friend to thousands and an educational force for incalculable good since she came here 32 years ago.”
Bird felt the same about leaving Bakersfield and the students she cared deeply about.
As a parting gift, the board of trustees of the Kern County Union High School District named the Bakersfield College library in her honor. The Californian reported on Dec. 31, 1949, that the decision would not doubt “give her a nice ‘warm’ feeling when she is slogging away at her desk on the Berkeley campus to know that there is a Grace Van Dyke Bird Library down in Bakersfield.”
Grace V. Bird helped establish female leadership in higher education in Bakersfield. She set the foundation for the women who followed in her footsteps, including Presidents Sandra Serrano and Sonya Christian. And at last, CSUB can be added to that list with the recent addition of the university’s first female president, Lynnette Zelezny.