2009-10-15 / Front Page

Cal Lutheran University celebrates its 50th anniversary

By Nancy Needham nancy@theacorn.com

THE BIRTH OF HIGHER EDUCATION IN THOUSAND OAKS AND CONEJO VALLEY—Then known as California Lutheran College, the early campus had lots of wide open spaces. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary after it began accepting students in 1959, California Lutheran University is a scenic and thriving campus on the north side of Thousand Oaks. It has an enrollment of 2,250 undergraduates and 1,300 graduate students. THE BIRTH OF HIGHER EDUCATION IN THOUSAND OAKS AND CONEJO VALLEY—Then known as California Lutheran College, the early campus had lots of wide open spaces. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary after it began accepting students in 1959, California Lutheran University is a scenic and thriving campus on the north side of Thousand Oaks. It has an enrollment of 2,250 undergraduates and 1,300 graduate students. When California Lutheran College was founded 50 years ago in 1959, James Kallas was a missionary in French Cameroun, Africa, later known as Cameroon.

The school’s first president, Orville Dahl, contacted Kallas and invited him to teach religion at the new Lutheran college that was to be built in a community that would someday be known as Thousand Oaks.

The land had been donated by Richard Pederson, a Conejo Valley rancher and son of Norwegian pioneers.

Kallas, a former professional football player for the Chicago Bears, took on the challenge. He left Africa and went to England to get more education, then headed back to the United States to help Dahl fulfill the school’s mission to teach “Love of Christ, Love of Truth and Love of Freedom.”

PROUD DONOR—Richard Pederson, who shares a name with a street in the north end of Thousand Oaks, is shown here, circa 1959, on land that he gave to California Lutheran College, now California  Lutheran  University. CLU  offers  many  cultural  and educational events that benefit all of Conejo Valley. PROUD DONOR—Richard Pederson, who shares a name with a street in the north end of Thousand Oaks, is shown here, circa 1959, on land that he gave to California Lutheran College, now California Lutheran University. CLU offers many cultural and educational events that benefit all of Conejo Valley. When he arrived it was 1961, three years before the city of Thousand Oaks was incorporated. The area was full of farms, ranches, rabbits, coyotes and fleas.

“I couldn’t find the place,” Kallas recalled.

When he drove around Conejo Valley looking for the school, he discovered the paved road ended at what is now the intersection of Moorpark and Janss roads and the rest of the route to CLC consisted of a dirt road. It had rained, and much of that dirt road was puddles and mud.

Kallas, his wife, Darlene, and their four children ages 1 to 13 arrived at what seemed like the middle of nowhere in a pale green 1955 Cadillac. They came upon a man driving a tractor in a large field and stopped to ask directions. The man knew them all by name and kissed Darlene’s hand as he welcomed them to the campus. He was, in fact, Dahl.

“I was the first faculty member to arrive,” Kallas said.

Soon there were 330 students. The town’s population was less than 3,000, he said, and only about 30 houses could be seen from the hill that is now marked with the letters CLU.

At the time, he made up the entire religion faculty and later also served as an assistant football coach. As the college grew, so did the religion department, and Kallas served as the chair until 1974.

He said he enjoyed raising his family in Thousand Oaks and remembers Jungleland, an animal training facility where city hall now stands, and the filming in the area of movies such as “Spartacus” and TV shows that include “Gunsmoke” and “The Rifleman.”

“When the school was founded, the faculty was conservative and the college was Christ-centered,” Kallas said. “Somewhere, they lost their theological anchor. Now the religion department is incredibly liberal.”

He said he is still very impressed with the school.

“The academics are superb,” Kallas said.

“I’m not sure the university is losing its way,” said religion professor emeritus Fred Tonsing, “but is finding its way in this new world. The 21st century is very different.”

Tonsing taught religion and Greek from 1975 to 2003 and has written a book about the history of CLU that is coming out next month.

“Cal Lutheran was never a Bible school. It’s not a Christian school as such. It’s always had an academic vision,” Tonsing said.

Former CLU President Mark Mathews joined the faculty in 1970 as the business administration department chair. The school was in debt at the time and private colleges were struggling, with hundreds of them expected to go under, Mathews said.

In 1972, the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church of America, the two organizations that owned the school, asked him to be “acting president.” Mathews said he couldn’t be the official president at that time because he wasn’t Lutheran.

The economics expert worked with the school’s faculty and staff to come up with innovative ideas to get the school out of the red. A $5-million five-year loan was repaid to Bank of America in two years, and the school’s finances were much improved, he said.

“They changed the bylaws in 1974 to allow someone who wasn’t Lutheran ‘to be considered’ as president,” Mathews said, and he officially served as president until 1980. He then returned to teaching, from which he retired in 1990. He’s now 83 and lives in Santa Barbara.

While Mathews was at CLU, so were the Dallas Cowboys under the leadership of coach Tom Landry and the UCLA basketball team under coach John Wooden. Both teams trained there during the summer.

“Why should the school be vacant in the summer?” he said.

Among the many creative programs at the school was the popular 4-1-4 year, where students studied in classrooms for four months at the beginning and end of the year, with one month in the middle used for an “adventure in education.” For instance, Mathews took his economic students on a trip to study Hong Kong finances for a week followed by three weeks’ study in Japan.

Master’s programs in business and education were added. Lifelong learning was embraced, beginning with an early childhood center. A senior mentor program invited retired professors from across the country to come to CLU to teach two classes, take one class and live on campus in a rent-free apartment—their only compensation. Satellite classes were added throughout Ventura and Los Angeles counties so students didn’t have to drive as far. CLU was the only four-year school in Ventura County.

Registration increased from 750 students in 1970 to 1,000 students in 1980, with 500 more students in continuing education programs.

“We were in a wonderful location and people came. It’s a remarkable school, and I’m thrilled with what it’s become,” Mathews said.

Today, the university has 2,250 undergraduates and 1,300 graduate students, who come from around the world.

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