Garth Norton: Our Oldest Retiree

By Ron Levesque

Over nearly six years of handling membership for AFT 6157R, I have enjoyed re-connecting with other retirees, and meeting new ones as well as helping retirees connect with their former colleagues, mostly by email.  In early April this year I received a message from Garth Norton, whom I had never met or even heard of.   Garth wrote that he had been reading our email messages and newsletters, which a fellow retiree had been sharing with him.  Now he wanted to be on our mailing list and to pay his fair share of the costs of the group, although he has some issues with the national leadership.  He thanked me for my work.  I replied, and through several exchanges of email, I learned that Garth may well be our most “senior” retiree, having turned 96 in April!  He certainly is the oldest to join our chapter after he agreed to send in his dues.

I learned that Garth taught at San Jose City College for 32 years, from 1956 to 1988.  He has been retired for 35 years, longer than his lengthy career at San Jose City College! I asked to interview him for this newsletter, and he agreed.  I wanted to know more about the history of SJCC because Garth was indeed involved in its incarnation as a community college.  Garth is probably the only one still alive that knows the very early history of our college up to his retirement.  He hopes that someone will pick up the history of the college since his departure on June 5, 1988, before it is lost in time.

Garth actually began his teaching career at Campbell High School, where he spent five years teaching civics and history.  While he enjoyed the students, he tired of PTA meetings and attendance at sporting events and other activities that took him away from teaching. In 1956, he applied at San Jose Junior College and was hired as a social science instructor.

Garth explained that at that time, by law, each junior college was associated with one or more high school districts or unified districts.  High school districts without a junior college paid the tuition for its students to attend college in another district.  Since the only junior college in the county was in San Jose, that is where high school graduates went.  At the time San Jose Unified contracted with the state to provide junior college education at San Jose State University but the new State Master Plan for Higher Education changed things quite radically.  All junior colleges contracting with any higher education college were forced to separate.  That is when San Jose Junior College started operating on the Moorpark Avenue site, sharing the campus with the San Jose Technical High School.  San Jose Junior College was actually founded in 1923 but few even knew it existed until it moved to its own campus.  The Junior College was part of the San Jose Unified School District and taxed its property owners 20 cents per 100 dollars of assessed property value and spent just five cents to cover the costs of the college, pocketing the other fifteen cents to use on elementary and high school education.

A handful of faculty members, known as the Gang of 8, decided to do something about this situation and did!  Garth exclaims, “We wanted our own district!”  Their efforts peaked in the years 1957 to 1959.  Garth gives great credit to Ed Heffley of the Business Department, who was the main driving force behind their efforts.  Six others deserve a lot of credit as well.

Garth was a key member of the Gang of 8 as the legislative chair because of his knowledge of school law and finance and other aspects of the California School Code.  The state legislature had to be persuaded to amend the ‘ed code’ to allow for the junior colleges to set up their own districts.  Garth said he would teach his classes in the morning and then fly to Sacramento.  He was there so much so that he had to register as a lobbyist!  Eventually, the legislature passed an amendment to bypass the ed code to allow independent college districts, with funding based on local taxes.  Garth and others favored forming one college district for Santa Clara County, but this was opposed by Palo Alto, Los Altos, Campbell, Los Gatos, and Santa Clara so this countywide district plan failed.  San Jose Junior College was the first in the state to start the process of separating from the Unified District although other districts, mostly in southern California, followed suit days or weeks later although this could very well be disputed by other districts.

Garth said he greatly enjoyed teaching at the college, especially in his early years.  He loved just being able to focus on his love of history and political science, and particularly the U.S. Constitution.  For many years of his tenure, he was also chair of the department alongside his teaching. The position at first was filled by faculty on their own, and administration did not interfere with instruction or anything else. “We were just left alone to do our jobs,” he recalls.  “The college developed a very expansive course offering, but as administrations changed things started to go to hell and became more and more a top-down operation.”  More and more time was spent in meetings and more time was given over to bureaucracy.    Garth enjoyed serving as chair and felt it suited his abilities well.  He especially loved supervising and mentoring new teachers.

As for retirement, Garth says, “You can have a real good life,” but make a plan in order to adjust more smoothly to a new way of getting through the day.  It took him a while to decide how to spend his time. He realized that he had a great love of sports cars, and he always owned one, and at times several. In his seventies he trained as a docent at the Blackhawk Automobile Museum and Automobile Art gallery and took up a serious study of art nouveau and art deco, and, in time, he began lecturing on automobile styling and design of the art nouveau and art deco periods.  He also organized a large gathering of art deco automobiles as part of a presentation at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and also helped in finding a very special car for a great exposition of “style” at the Modern Art Museum, also in San Francisco.  So, his advice to retirees is to “find something that you can be passionate about and enjoy. There is a great world out there that has nothing to do with your past life as a teacher so enjoy it.”

A small stroke slowed him down quite a bit, but at ninety-six he still drives.  Because he realizes that the ability to drive has become more difficult, he doesn’t drive a lot.  The stroke affected his balance so he uses a cane or walker to avoid taking a fall.

He and his wife believe if life has been good to you, you should share with others less fortunate, so they enjoy a bit of philanthropy.

Thank you, Garth, for sharing your story. You deserve our gratitude for your key role in establishing San Jose City College as the independent community college it is today.  That is quite a legacy for you and the Gang of 8.  He says, “Teachers have to band together.  And the esteem of your colleagues is your strength.”  The Gang of 8 demonstrated how effective that can be.

(Garth wants it known that his recollection of the details of the process leading to the formation of San Jose City College is not based on written notes so his memory is the main source.  Others may well have a different take on things.)