Austin White - Making History

This article first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of etc. Magazine.

A slim, paper-bound book celebratng City College’s 75th anniversary hit newsstands and bookstores last September.

The 128-page volume belies both the complexity of the collaboration that created it, and the scope of the material contained within its soft, matte covers.

“City College of San Francisco” is a pictorial account of the school’s evolution. It began in 1935 as a junior college without a campus of its own, and had less than 1,500 students.

Now one of the largest community colleges in the nation, CCSF serves more than 100,000 students on 11 campuses.

One in seven city residents has attended class at the college, which has alumni in every state, according to Mono Simeone, Geographical Information System (GIS) coordinator for the college.

The book was inspired by Austin White, an alumnus, history professor and former chair of the Social Sciences department at CCSF, who taught here for 40 years.

Before he died at the age of 77 in 2008 he had been working for several years on a comprehensive history of the college.

His widow, Darlene Alioto, current chair of the Social Sciences department, encouraged two of her friends and colleagues to continue her husband’s research.

City College’s Julia Bergman, a retired librarian, and Valerie Mathes, a history professor emerita, took on the challenge.

“Darlene hoped Val and I could finish his book,” Bergman said. But working with White’s research proved more complicated than they anticipated.

There were multiple versions of his completed chapters and no way to track his revision process.

“We couldn’t complete it the way Darlene wanted,” Mathes said. “Austin’s book was in his head. I couldn’t finish that.”

So Bergman and Mathes did something different. They compiled a vivid portrait, intended to celebrate the college and pay tribute to White’s memory by combining elements of his research with a large selection of historical photographs.

Their brief photo history was released by Arcadia, a publisher of local-interest books with strict guidelines and format restrictions.

Arcadia’s sepia-toned paperbacks are easily recognizable. Slimmer and taller than traditional trade paperbacks, they are displayed in wire carousel racks near drugstore counters, and on the shelves of bookstores across the nation. Each is named after a particular region or neighborhood.

Working with Arcadia gave Bergman and Mathes a clearly defined work schedule and enabled them to have the book printed in time for the college’s 75th anniversary.

Because of the time span they were trying to cover, and the space constraints of the Arcadia format, Bergman and Mathes had to leave much of White’s research out of the book.

Alioto, who teaches a course on the history of San Francisco, hopes to someday see the rest of White’s research published.

“I can’t even begin to think about this until I retire, which is still a few years off,” she said.

White met and fell in love with Alioto at City College, where they worked together in the Social Sciences department for years before their relationship deepened.

Alioto was initially resistant to White’s advances. He had been married once before, and Alioto figured that he was on the rebound. “She didn’t want to be a femme fatale,” White said in a 2006 interview with Etc. Magazine.

But Alioto’s resistance was temporary. They married in 1987.

“We were together 24/7 for 21 years,” Alioto said. “We drove to work together, had lunch together, drove home together, and did our shopping together.”

White was just as attached to his studies.

He once came down with food poisoning, which led to an 11-day hospital stay and a semester away from the classroom. As soon as he could get out of bed, White told his wife, “I can’t stand this. I’m coming to work with you.”

Alioto said he couldn’t stay away from the college. “He would drive up with me, and sit in my office and do research.

He said, ‘If that was a trial run for retirement, I’m not interested.’”

Alioto laughed, though the pain of her loss is still evident. “It was wonderful that we had that time together,” she said, “but it should have been longer.”

White’s death was unexpected.

“He was fine one day, and gone the next,” Alioto said. “He had just gotten a clean bill of health. The doctors said he was good for another 10 years.”

When White began suffering from intense stomach pains, Alioto took him to the doctor. They were told he had acute gastroenteritis — the stomach flu … there was no cause for alarm, the pain would pass.

The next day, White collapsed.

“He died from toxic shock,” Alioto said, “Here, then gone. There was no chance to say goodbye.”

With the loss of White, and with so many tenured faculty retiring, City College is losing its memory, Bergman said.

“People are leaving in such vast numbers that the history of the college is going out the door. All the newbies coming in won’t know any of the history of the institution.”

In an earlier attempt to preserve that knowledge, Bergman and White recorded interviews with both retired and retiring faculty members.

“Austin believed that someone had to capture the history of the college,” Alioto said. However the simple preservation of knowledge wasn’t enough. He needed to share his discoveries with others.

White worked meticulously, building up the material for his book.

He had a key to the archives at the Rosenberg Library. He took his work with him wherever he went.

He would work at the kitchen table, in his office, or in his wife’s office, between towering stacks of paper.

“As a historian, I was looking for something original,” White said in 2006.

“There’s been no real history of City College, and certainly no one has ever written a book about it.”

Until now.

Bergman scoured photographic archives, hunting for images, while Mathes worked with White’s drafts and research materials. Mathes handled the writing — though a good share of the text is White verbatim.

Mathes and Bergman squeezed a lot of history into the book’s 128 pages — the standard length for all of Arcadia editions.

While some of the publisher’s books have as few as 8,000 words, Bergman and Mathes stretched the limit with a word count of 18,000.

“Arcadia gave me some trouble, but at a certain point, I said ‘I’m not cutting anything else.’” Mathes said. “The only reason it all got in there is because they changed the font. They shrank it from 11 points to 10, to make it all fit.”

Though they squeezed a large amount of material into the book, much of their work ended up on the cutting-room floor.

“There was still so much I wasn’t able to put in,” said Mathes. “We were only allowed 70 words for a caption, and 140 words for transitions.”

If a story couldn’t be tied to just the right image, they dropped it. If an image didn’t have the right story to support it, they tossed it out.


Over one weekend, Bergman looked at more than 12,000 photographs and found only one suitable for print.

She carefully weighed the merits of countless images in order to come up with the 204 that appear in the book.

Anecdotes help bring the images to life. One of the images depicts “Trolley Car College,” a nickname given to the school before World War II.

Back then, students had to commute back and forth between classes held at the University of California Extension building, at the Yacht Harbor, and in high schools and public pools across the city, from the Embarcadero to the Sunset.

In 1938, voters approved the purchase and construction of one central campus at Ocean and Phelan, former home to a correctional institution and a jailhouse.

“Out of many, one,” Bergman observed.

Today the school has 11 campuses spread out across the city.

Fascinated by the cyclical history of the college, she says, “Now we’re many again.”

During World War II the college expanded its vocational trade curriculum to meet the war effort.

The Business department trained emergency war workers in shorthand and transcription. The Culinary Arts department trained hundreds of Merchant Marine cooks, bakers and stewards. The Social Sciences department taught courses on “The History of Air Power” and “Winning the War.”

It’s all in the book. Although Bergman and Mathes had to leave a lot out, they still enjoyed the collaborative process.

“We brought in different skills,” Mathes said. “We ended up putting together a book neither of us could have done on our own,”

Alioto is proud of her husband’s research, and the way Bergman and Mathes brought the project together.

“They honor Austin’s memory beautifully … I think it’s a book that should be in the hands of every student, every faculty and staff member at the college, and all of our alumni.”

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