“Dream the impossible dream, and when you find that dream hold onto it and never let it go.”
These words from "Man of La Mancha" recalled by Pepperdine Chancellor Charles Runnells speak directly to the entire history of Pepperdine University. Sitting in his corner office with an immaculate view of Malibu, the Pacific Ocean, and the 125-foot Phillips Theme Tower, Runnells is one of the few people who experienced Pepperdine’s monumental move to the “dream campus” in Malibu, or commonly referred to as the “miracle at Malibu.”
To imagine Pepperdine University in another location besides pristine Malibu is a difficult task. The Wave’s mascot, the salty breeze from the ocean and the surf club are all small things that make the Pepperdine atmosphere what it is today. Without Malibu, Pepperdine just is not Pepperdine.
However, as little as 30 years ago, when George Pepperdine College opened its doors on Sept. 21, 1937, it was far from being neighbors with the coastline. In fact, the original campus was located on South Vermont and 78th Street in South Central Los Angeles, directly down the street from where the University of Southern California is located.
George Pepperdine College welcomed 167 new students from 22 different states and two other countries when it kicked off its first year in 1937. A brand new campus awaited the students; situated in a pleasant, quiet area called Vermont Knolls. The campus was convenient for the college students because it was submerged in a large, growing metropolis, which provided the students with job opportunities and public transportation.
At the time of its founding, George Pepperdine College was born into the darkness of the Great Depression. But, despite the circumstances, the small private college succeeded and continued to grow tremendously at a time when others were failing.
Then, in the late 1960s, the small college started to run out of room on the confining 34-acres. It was time for George Pepperdine College — now Pepperdine University — to relocate.
The Watts Riots were one of those unavoidable factors.
The 1960s was generally a time of racial unrest throughout the United States. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed in an attempt to ease racial relations in the nation. However California, along with many other states, attempted to bypass the federal law by adopting Preposition 14, which challenged the fair housing portion of the Civil Rights Act. Bitter sentiments developed within inner cities until 1965, when tempers snapped and exploded right in Pepperdine's backyard with the Watts Riots.
“Although we had good relations with the neighbors around, there was so much turmoil in the city and it began to cause a disturbance,” said Helen Young, wife of Dr. M. Norvel Young.
The riots began as a result of a routine traffic stop Aug. 11, 1965 when a Los Angeles police officer pulled over a 21-year-old black man, who was suspected of being intoxicated. When onlookers joined the scene, and additional police officers came, chaos broke loose and eyewitness accounts of police brutality swept through the neighborhood, resulting in six days of riots.
“There was a lot of unrest in the area which made it unfavorable for students to attend the college,” Runnells said.
Also according to “Crest of a Golden Wave,” a book of Pepperdine’s history, in 1969 activists in the Watts area threatened to burn down the campus. President Young, however, did some all-night negotiating to evade the extreme conflict.
In addition to the disturbances in the area, Pepperdine College was running out of room after years of increasing enrollment, Young announced a multi-campus idea that would move the undergraduate campus to an alternative location, and, in 1967, a committee was formed, including Runnells, to seek out the best site to move the campus to.
Several sites were considered for the new location for the college, including settings in Valencia, Orange County, Ventura County and Westlake Village
According to Helen Young, Pepperdine was about to take the location in Westlake Village when suddenly the opportunity of obtaining land in Malibu arose when the Adamson-Rindge family, who owned hundreds of acres in Malibu, offered George Pepperdine College 138 acres of Malibu land.
“George Evans, a financial adviser to the Adamsons, asked the Adamsons to donate the land to Pepperdine,” Young said. “In his quiet way he was instrumental in obtaining the Malibu land.”
Runnells served as a liaison, working directly with the Adamsons and their lawyers in trying to coordinate the attainment of the land. Runnells said that the widely believed rumor that the University of Southern California was offered the land first is “entirely false.”
As the committee analyzed each perspective location, many of the members thought that that it would be impractical to have the Malibu land because building in the Santa Monica Mountain terrain would skyrocket building costs.
“In the end they all agreed that it was advisable to move to Malibu because of the spectacular land,” Runnells said. “The trustees were also aware that it would be easier to get money to build at the Malibu location.”
On April 13, 1971, the university broke ground to commence construction on the Malibu campus. Building continued, and in September 1972 the Malibu campus opened for student enrollment. However, according to “Crest of a Golden Wave,” it was nothing short of a miracle that the campus opened on time.
The main parking lot was not even paved until a day before the school opened, the gas was not turned on until after students arrived, and the students had to eat cold food and go without showers for the first day.
However, the new campus embraced Pepperdine’s largest entering freshman class in its history with 475 students. Advanced transfer students bumped the Pepperdine population to 867.
Despite initial hardships, the campus continued to develop into what a Los Angeles Times article deemed a “glittering diamond” in Malibu. Many friends of Pepperdine interested in Pepperdine’s mission donated funds to the university in order to continue constructing even more buildings.
In addition to the Adamson-Rindge gift of 138 acres, Pepperdine’s fourth president Dr. William Banowsky continued to acquire the land adjacent to the original acreage. And when following in the foot steps of his predecessor, Pepperdine’s fifth president Dr. Howard White was responsible for purchasing the last 200 acres, which is now where the Drescher Campus will be located when it is completed.
Helen Young believes acquiring the additional land was crucial to Pepperdine, and describes White's purchase of land “his Louisiana Purchase.”
“The wisest decision Pepperdine ever made was to buy the property contiguous to the 138 acres and everything that bordered it,” Young said.
The miracle at Malibu was monumental in the history of Pepperdine University and it brought many more opportunities to the surface for Pepperdine. In its short history, Pepperdine has succeeded when others failed, persevered when others gave up, and survived when others died.
Submitted November 14, 2002