A college is born: RCC celebrates 50 years

Does every vote really count? Phil Nelson, from his personal experience, gives an emphatic, “Yes!”

It was 1968 when Nelson, a Grants Pass local, heard Marjorie Holzgang give a talk at North’s Chuck Wagon. The topic: create a community college. He was sold. Soon after, Bill Ford—who would later be a county commissioner—joined the effort. These three “founders” worked tirelessly to create
Rogue Community College.

“We certainly weren’t the only people working to create the college,” Nelson recalls. “We had the active support of many community leaders, including Anne Basker and Midge Renton.” Basker spoke for the college and later became a county commissioner. Renton, a local schoolteacher, circulated petitions and served on the RCC board for many years.

They were all inspired by these Josephine County realities:
• High school graduates attending college was the lowest of all 36 Oregon counties.
• Unemployment was 14.9 percent (statewide was 6.9 percent).
• 70 percent of high school seniors wanted to attend college!

Clearly, a college was needed and wanted.

Marjorie Holzgang, a soft spoken and effective community leader, spearheaded a communication effort to create the college. She was determined that local high school graduates, many with limited means, would be able to continue their educations, whether for a college degree or job training, close to home.

Holzgang found support in Jackson County for a college, and an initiative to create “Rogue Valley Vocational Community College” was on the April 1970 ballot. But it did not pass.

The good news? 56 percent of Josephine County voted “Yes” on the failed ballot. Holzgang and Ford agreed to try again for a college in Josephine County in the November 1970 election. Midge Renton led the effort to gather 897 signatures to petition the State Board of Education which in turn recommended the election to the Legislature’s Emergency Board. It was authorized.

In the months leading up to the election, supporters reached out to all 35,000 people in the county. Holzgang and others conducted a furious speaking tour of service clubs and community meetings. They led people on walkabouts of the recently closed Job Corps camp (the proposed site for the college). There were radio and TV ads, and they handed out 25,000 “Good News Bulletins” at grocery stores and other locations. There were only 35,000 people in the county.

Election day arrived. The “Proclamation of Formation” of Rogue Community College was approved by 56 percent of Josephine County voters: 6,712 to 4,563. A big win! But the college could not operate without a tax levy. “A whopping $330,657 each year,” Nelson recalls. “The levy barely squeaked by—5,322 in favor and 5,226 against—a margin of 96 votes.”

It was by that one slim margin, 50 years ago this November, that RCC became a reality. Every vote does count. From that impassioned, grassroots effort, a college was born.

Today, RCC serves over 15,000 students every year in Josephine and Jackson counties, and it is an economic and employment driver for the valley.