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From humble beginnings, Napa Valley College realizes founder’s legacy


When Harry Maxwell McPherson, better known as “Dr. Mac,” founded Napa College 75 years ago, he intended to help train local students for careers. His intention set in motion a tradition of excellence that has served the Napa Valley well.

Napa Valley College (NVC) – twice named the No. 1 community college in the state of California – adds more than $300 million annually to the local economy, graduates hundreds of students to higher educational levels and jobs, and serves as a source of community pride.

McPherson’s legacy of valuing education stemmed from his own life experiences, according to his daughter, Ann Cash. “He was dedicated to education for everyone,” Cash says today. “Napa Valley is still benefitting from the belief that everyone who comes into the college sphere would be afforded educational opportunities. Everyone in my family went to community college and transferred to four-year colleges. Student success – that is what Napa Valley College is all about.”

Her father’s legacy lives, she said, because the college remains accessible and affordable to virtually anyone who wants the benefits of higher education. For example, Dick Vermeil, known as “The Calistoga Comet” due to his football prowess, was seeking college level education in 1954 after graduating from high school.

“I needed help, I hadn’t done anything in high school and was not prepared at all for college, so I decided to catch up, and Napa College provided me the opportunity,” said Vermeil, who went on to play two years in Napa and two more at San Jose State College before focusing on college coaching.

Vermeil returned to Napa College to coach, went on to coach at Stanford University, then later with the Los Angeles Rams and UCLA, leading the UCLA Bruins to a Rose Bowl victory. He coached professionally for the Philadelphia Eagles before leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory. He retired with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001 and is now a Napa Valley vintner.

“I continue to help other students at Napa Valley College gain the same benefits I did, just like the people did in helping me in 1954 and ’55,” said Vermeil who contributes annually to Napa Valley College student scholarships through the NVC Foundation.

Likewise, former Psychology student Roella Pineda, 23, said she would have been lost in college without the help she received from caring, professional counselors in the financial aid office who helped her find and acquire scholarships.

“They listened to me and got to know me personally – I was not just another number to them,” said Pineda, who went on to study at California State University East Bay. “Napa Valley College taught me how to balance a lot of things in my life.”

Pedro Ceja, whose father came to Napa Valley from Mexico as an agricultural worker, graduated from NVC in 1977 with a degree in electrical engineering. He recommends the college to students of all ages and economic backgrounds. “Napa Valley College has given me the opportunity to follow my dreams and accomplish the American Dream,” said Ceja, who owns Ceja Vineyards in Carneros with his wife, Amelia.

Another student, Armando Hurtado said, “The networking community within Napa Valley College, and the faculty, really opened doors that I never knew existed.” As a first-generation college student, he was working to pay for his school expenses while saving money by living at home.

“The scholarship opportunities available to students at NVC forever changed my experience at UC Davis,” said Hurtado, who received the Napa Valley Grape Growers Foundation Scholarship and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Enology and Viticulture.

When Mike Thompson of St. Helena came home from Vietnam, he used the G.I. Bill to get started at Napa’s community college. “Thanks to the education I achieved at NVC, I was able to go on to a four-year university and earn my undergraduate and graduate degrees,” said Rep. Thompson, who was first elected to Congress in 1998.

Longtime St. Helena businessman Bob Pestoni also attended Napa College before moving on to a university and a career. “Be it as a student wanting to use it as an affordable step before university, someone seeking mid-life vocational retraining, or a senior citizen wanting to learn a second language or take a physical education class or an art class, the college has been of service to nearly every member of the community,” said Pestoni.

Napa Civil Engineer K.C. Chaudhary also credits Napa Valley College for getting his start in business, in 1958. “That beginning led me to set up my own business and work on the seismic retrofitting of all San Francisco Bay Area bridges,” he recalled. His firm, Chaudhary & Associates Civil Engineers, now has a staff of 40 employees.

Doug Yarris grew up in the Napa Valley and was working as a bellman for Silverado Country Club when he signed up for classes at the college. “NVC was my launching pad,” he said. “It allowed me to grow up and find out who I really was without amassing debt, ultimately allowing me to graduate from Stanford without owing anything.” Yarris became successful dentist and owner of Hope & Grace artisan winery and tasting room in Yountville. “I love NVC because it’s the quintessential place to learn about serving others,” said Yarris.

Dave Whitmer, an NVC graduate who retired from the county of Napa in 2013 after serving 33 years as the Agricultural Commissioner and Sealer of Weights and Measures, agreed. Whitmer is volunteering as a Guiding Coalition member of the Napa Circles Initiative, a local anti-poverty campaign; serves on the Board of Directors of Sustainable Napa County; and is a member of the Marketing and Asset Development Committee for the Napa Valley Community Foundation. He also supports the college. “The NVC Foundation provides scholarships and other types of support to help students succeed,” Whitmer said.

Mary Ann Mancuso, president of the board of trustees, said helping students succeed has been a 75-year tradition at NVC. “A community college is a reflection of its community, and Napa Valley College proudly strives to reflect the community values set forth by Dr. McPherson 75 years ago – access to post-secondary education for anyone seeking to advance in life.”

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