Thursday, March 16, 2006 | Well, I lost a guy, and now I’ve gained a guy.

In December, the governing board of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District voted, 5-0, not to renew the contract of Dr. Ted Martinez, Jr., president of Grossmont College.

This week, I was tickled to read the city of San Diego’s announcement that they have hired Dr. Martinez to be their new deputy chief of neighborhood services, at a salary around $22,000 more than he was making at Grossmont.

I am proud to say that, as Grossmont’s journalism instructor, I taught Dr. Martinez a thing or two. You people down at City Hall, stop him and ask him what “wild art” is. It isn’t every college or university president that knows the answer. Five or so years ago, Dr. Martinez had the gumption to ask me to help him start up a campus/community newsletter. A couple of years later, he had the good sense to hire Susan Herney to run it, and the thing is now winning a dozen national awards a year.

The newsletter is good because the stories in it are good, because people – faculty, staff, even the occasional administrator – are forever doing good things at Grossmont. Of them all, I like the whale story best. That story didn’t get into the newsletter, because it happened before Dr. Martinez’s time. One week we came back to class and encountered this ungodly smell coming from the west side of campus. It turned out to be a dead whale in an auxiliary parking lot across the street from campus. The biology department had learned of a whale being washed up on a local beach. Some faculty and students went down to the beach and obtained agreement to bring the whale back to campus with them, to study it, in a sort of a whale of a hands-on field exercise.

I think they may have gotten in some trouble, too, but that’s beside the point. It takes inspiration, and incentive, for an instructor to suggest his class go bring back a dead whale from the beach. It takes leadership to convince the class that this is a good idea, and get them to go along.

That sort of action, in some less dramatic form, is happening every day at Grossmont, and on all community college campuses. You may recall the California community college system was created in the 1960s, to provide a free two-year college education to any student who wanted one. No SATs, no entrance exams. If a student could hear thunder and see lightning, he or she could sign up for classes at a community college.

There’s no way to count the total lives to whom that opportunity has made all the difference. Community colleges don’t get much ink, but they should. This very day there are a couple of hundred of “beat-the-odds” movie plots unfolding on the Grossmont campus alone, because the students there, with no other chance at education, are studying in the company of faculty who understand the chance they have been given, to work with those students.

Dr. Martinez understood that relationship, and he nurtured it, and he saw to it that it was celebrated, and recognized, in the newsletters, through the foundation, via the innovator-of-the-year awards. He wore a suit, and never saw a meeting he didn’t like, and he could turn out reports that were impressive in their heft, and create PowerPoints to glaze the most dedicated eye.

But inside, he was a trench guy. He was always out there among us, and we felt he was at least as much one of us, as he was one of them. Faculty were put on the planet to teach, to ask, to listen. Dr. Martinez wouldn’t know what “wild art” is, if he weren’t always ready to ask, and to listen.

Now he’s famous, one of the top leaders in a city government that needs a lot of leading. We miss him at Grossmont, but this is a bigger job on a bigger canvas that will mean a lot to people across the entire region. We were mad at the board when they fired him.

Now, it’s neat to see they were just setting him up for something this special. Jerry Sanders should send them a thank-you note.

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