Back to school

Three professors emeritus provide a history lesson of UH-Maui College

Dick Mayer (from left), Victor Pellegrino and Ernest Rezents, all professors emeritus from Maui Community College — now known as University of Hawaii Maui College — gathered Friday to reminisce at the Kahului campus. -- The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

KAHULUI — A gas station and a drive-in theater used to be neighbors of the campus of Maui Community College, now known as University of Hawaii Maui College.

And less than 50 people ran the entire Kahului campus when it was known as Maui Technical School in the 1960s.

The ’60s and ’70s were a different time for the campus, where on Aloha Friday everyone would show up in aloha shirts and muumuu for a pau hana gathering at the beach. It was also when faculty laid the foundation for growth for the college, which now has around 340 faculty and staff.

“We had tons and tons of meetings where we get to know each other, discuss things, develop philosophies and develop the curriculum. We were friends on the outside, we were friends on the inside,” said Victor Pellegrino, a professor emeritus. He taught English and other subjects and led extracurricular activities from 1967 to 1995.

“Everybody knew everybody’s spouses and everybody’s children,” noted Dick Mayer, another professor emeritus who taught geography and economics and led other activities from 1967 to 2001.

This was the entire faculty and staff at the former Maui Community College in September 1967. In the middle of the photo, without a tie and wearing glasses, is Dick Mayer, who taught geography and economics. To the left of Mayer in the top row with black hair and glasses is Victor Pellegrino, who taught English. Also the top row, the second from the right is Ernest Rezents, who taught science and agriculture. The three shared their memories of the campus recently. -- Photo courtesy of DICK MAYER

Another professor emeritus, Ernest Rezents, who taught from 1960 to 1995, said: “You taught day school and night school. You didn’t worry about work overload. You just did your job. You had a job to do and did it. I don’t think they had unions in those days. So it may have been a slave camp. We all survived.”

“What you have today is the foundation laid in those days,” he said.

The three retired professors gathered Friday at the UH-Maui College Ka’a’ike Building to reminisce about their experiences and the college’s history, growth and even controversial times. Around 30 people attended, including current and past faculty and staff.

The college began as Maui Vocational School in 1931. In 1958, the Hawaii Department of Public Instruction authorized the name change to Maui Technical School, signifying the upgrade of vocational education to a technical level, according to the college’s website.

In 1964, the state Legislature enacted the Community College Act establishing a statewide community college system under the University of Hawaii. Maui Technical School was incorporated into the system in 1965, and transferred from jurisdiction of the state Department of Education to the University of Hawaii.

The UH Board of Regents authorized the college to confer the associate in arts and the associate in science degrees, and it approved the name change to Maui Community College in 1966.

As it became a college, the organization hired around 16 new faculty, including Pellegrino and Mayer.

Pellegrino met his future wife, Wallette, who was from Maui, when they were graduate students at Marquette University in Wisconsin. They moved to Maui.

Mayer said that with that tie to the island, Pellegrino was an attractive candidate for the faculty, one who would provide longevity.

As for himself, Mayer said, he was 25 years old with not as much teaching experience as other candidates, but he had just came out of the Peace Corps.

Mayer was hired, and he presumed he was seen as an asset, noting those who hired him must have thought: “If you can survive in Nepal, in an isolated area, you might survive in Maui and stay here.”

In the ’60s, the library and old science building were the larger structures on campus. The grassy lawn in the middle of campus was full of sand, and it fell to open wooden louvers and fans in the buildings to provide relief from the heat.

More buildings were added over the years.

Beginning in 1995, five were built: Ka Lama, Ka’a’ike, Kupa’a, Laulima, and Pa’ina. In 2013, the $26 million science facility Ike Le’a opened.

In 2010, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission Board approved the name change from Maui Community College to University of Hawaii Maui College, reflecting the college’s three baccalaureate degrees.

Rezents, now 86, taught science and agriculture in the old science building. He is impressed with Ike Le’a and marveled at its physics classroom.

Rezents is a local boy, born at Puunene Hospital. He was raised in Puuohala Camp in Waihee, from where he walked to school at St. Anthony. His mother worked in the cafeteria there, and his father worked for Wailuku Sugar Co.

Later, Rezents went into the military, and he continued his education at various places and schools. He is an arborist who left his mark on the campus and around the county.

A faculty member at the presentation had Rezents explain how he and his agriculture students planted the monkeypod trees that shade the parking lot in front of the old science building. It is the coolest spot to park on campus.

Rezents teased Mayer, who back then opposed cutting down the plumeria trees in the lot to make way for the monkeypods.

Mayer, who is 76, also reminisced about the gas station that was to the left of the campus’s main entrance off Kaahumanu Avenue.

Now, one either turns left or right at that main entrance, but years ago the road went straight through the middle of campus to the drive-in theater.

Mayer said faculty joked that “half of our students were conceived” at the drive-in.

Pellegrino said he has some sandstone from the old gas station, which he took to his property in Waikapu. He also took home croton plants that used to line the area where customers paid to get into the drive-in.

“Those days, we were fairly thrifty people,” the 81-year-old said smiling.

The campus was a progressive one, and it led the charge to oust a community college chancellor who came down “like an iron fist” on the schools, Mayer said.

Mayer said he wrote a statement for MCC’s faculty senate to get Shiro Amioka fired. It said Amioka initiated new policies for the community colleges with minimum consultation with students and faculty. It listed other issues, including that Amioka did not respond to correspondence from the faculty of community colleges.

Other community colleges joined MCC, and eventually Amioka stepped down.

Amioka, who held other higher education leadership positions and served as superintendent of public schools, also was honored at UH, including having a lecture series and scholarship in his name.

Over the years, the college has hosted some interesting guests.

They included Jerry Rubin in 1970. He was one of the Chicago Seven who were tried for protesting the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Rubin spoke in the old science building to a standing room-only crowd. Rubin was anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, and a founder of the Yippies.

Then a noise came from the back of the room. The doors opened, and there stood then-Council Member Joseph Bulgo with his cowboy hat and lariat. He had come to pick up and tie up Rubin, Mayer recalled.

Bulgo objected to the radical spokesman being allowed on campus.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed.

The college also hosted the then-“No. 3” person in the U.S. Department of Justice, who came to “pacify” and “quell” the anti-Vietnam War protests under orders from President Richard Nixon, Mayer said.

The man was William Rehnquist, who eventually became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

He gave a talk in a science classroom. Afterward, Mayer recalled, faculty took him out to what was then the fanciest restaurant in Kahului — Sheik’s, which is still located up the street on Wakea Avenue.

The professors reminisced about having one copy machine on campus, which was run by one person. Faculty had to request copies days in advance so they could pass them out to students in their classes.

Pellegrino said when he first started he even had to share a projector, and he got yelled at by another faculty member when she found out he borrowed it.

The professors also pointed to the satellite dish next to the library, which was another milestone.

According to the college’s website, in the 1980s it established a higher-education cable television channel that delivered instruction to its tri-isle service area.

The professors also noted the number of politicians who attended the college over the years, including Mayor Alan Arakawa, former council members Mike Molina and Joseph Pontanilla, and former council member and current County Clerk Danny Mateo, who took classes on Molokai.

An audience member said there was no student government on Molokai at the time, so Mateo took it upon himself to start one.

“This school has provided a good foundation for the whole Maui community over the years,” Rezents said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at