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Reading Area Community College celebrates 50 years

Entering Reading from the west, driving over the Penn Street Bridge, it offers a friendly greeting.

Look to either side and you’ll see it. The Miller Center for the Arts and Schmidt Training and Technology Center to your left, and Berks Hall to your right.

The campus of Reading Area Community College is an integral part of Reading, one of the first things many visitors to the city glimpse. But that hasn’t always been the case.

The school is a relatively new addition, at least in terms of institutions of higher education. It has only existed for five decades, and the current campus is younger still.

And despite the esteem it now holds in the community, its valued educational role in the community, there was a time when its creation and survival were far from assured.

The Yocum Library along the Schuylkill River at dusk on the campus of the Reading Area Community College. (BEN HASTY — READING EAGLE)

But as the years passed RACC persevered and grew. It carved itself a niche, crafted an identity while providing thousands with an education they may not have otherwise received.

And in 2021 it is celebrating where it has been, where it is and where it is going.

This year is RACC’s 50th anniversary.

To mark the occasion, the Reading Eagle spoke with the school’s current president and four past presidents to get a look through their eyes at RACC throughout the years.

Dr. Byron L. Rinehimer 1971-74

When Dr. Byron L. Rinehimer agreed to take the job as RACC’s first president, he didn’t know what he was walking into.

The school’s founding was not exactly a smooth process. It was created by the Reading School District but faced extensive opposition from many community leaders.

County officials, business leaders, leaders from other local colleges and others came out against the plan to create RACC. The concept of community colleges was still very new — they were established in Pennsylvania in 1963, just eight years before RACC was created — and not everyone understood their role.

Opponents thought they would siphon students away from other schools. And because RACC would be an endeavor of the city school district, there was concern about what it would mean for school property tax rates.

Courtesy of RACC

A editorial cartoon depicting opposition to the creating of RACC. (Courtesy of RACC)

But RACC’s founders, led in large part by Dr. Ralph Geigle, Reading School District superintendent, saw what a community college could mean to Reading and Berks County. They persisted, and the school board approved sponsoring the new school in September 1970.

Rinehimer, dean of students and instruction at Luzerne County Community College at the time, was named the school’s first president in January. He began his tenure in June, unaware of the controversy surrounding RACC’s founding.

“When I came, I discovered that the county was really in opposition to the college,” he said.

Dr. Byron L. Rinehimer Jr., RACC’s first president. (Courtesy of RACC)

Rinehimer, 94, said he didn’t pay much mind to any opposing voices. He had a job to do, and he knew if he did it well they would be silenced.

“My job was to put together the administration and manage it,” he said. “We were not fearful of the attitude of the community at the time, or the community leadership. We knew what we had to do.”

Rinehimer put together a 120-day plan. It included things like developing curriculum, hiring staff and getting approval from the state to open up.

“We did all of that and opened the doors,” he said. “We laid the groundwork. The field was a little rough, but we got it going.”

Those doors were on a former school building at Fremont and Bruckman avenues. The inaugural class of 265 students attended classes for the first time on Oct. 13, 1971.

Courtesy of RACC

RACC’s first home, a former school at Fremont and Bruckman avenues. (Courtesy of RACC)

Reading officially had a community college.

“I thought the community college would serve the need of unmet education in Reading,” Rinehimer said of his expectations.

The college would provide an affordable education, Rinehimer said, one that was available to anyone willing to learn. It could serve recent high school graduates as well as adults, it could provide training for local businesses.

Rinehimer took that message to the community. He said he began meeting with all sorts of groups — Kiwanis Clubs, the Chamber of Commerce, local high schools — sharing his vision for RACC.

The business community was one of the first groups to buy in, Rinehimer said. The school began developing some technology programs, like engineering, that really attracted students and proved quite useful for businesses looking for well-trained employees.

“That was the first step in growing,” Rinehimer said.

Rinehimer left RACC in 1974 for a series of other jobs in higher education. But before he left, he shared a plan for the future.

That included things like finding a permanent home and getting accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

“It’s been pretty much executed to perfection,” he said. “I think today they’re pretty much solid on their feet. I’m really proud of them.”

Dr. Gust Zogas 1986-2003

For its first few years, RACC was a college without a home.

Or, at least, a permanent and cohesive one.

It started out at Fremont and Bruckman avenues, adding a Schuylkill Campus at Schuylkill Avenue and Greenwich Street in 1972.

The college expanded to other locations around Reading over the next few years, mostly in old school buildings or storefronts.

In 1978, RACC finally found its place. Taking over a former Holiday Inn along the Schuylkill River, the Riverfront Campus was dedicated in October 1978.

Courtesy of RACC

A depiction of the Holiday Inn at Second Street and Penn streets that would become RACC’s home. (Courtesy of RACC)

Dr. Gust Zogas was working for RACC when the school moved to Second and Penn streets. And a few years later, in August 1986, he took over as president.

He described RACC as a tiny college when he took over, still serving only a few hundred students. It was also struggling financially, finding itself in debt.

Zogas said it had become apparent that the Reading School District could no longer afford RACC. He saw it as his mission to find a different sponsor.

“That was one of my self-imposed tasks,” he said. “I had a whole plan in place.”

Courtesy of RACC

Dr. Gust Zogas, RACC’s third president. (Courtesy of RACC)

The plan he hatched was to get the county to take over sponsorship of RACC. With the resistance the founding of the school faced, he knew it would be a heavy lift.

He went to a public forum held by the county commissioners and laid out an argument: RACC students who live outside of Reading had to pay twice the tuition of city residents. If the county took it over, any Berks student would pay the same.

Zogas also reached out to local school districts, telling them of the benefits of the county taking over sponsorship of RACC. Several provided their support.

The next step was creating a commission that studied the impact a county-sponsored community college could have. Local business leader Rolf Schmidt — who would later have a building on campus named after him — presented the findings to the county commissioners, telling them there was a compelling reason to sponsor the school.

Zogas’ efforts paid off. In July 1991 the county took over sponsorship of RACC.

“That changed the college,” Zogas said.

With the county now in its corner, RACC saw significant growth over the next several years.

In 1994 it received $11.6 million to build Yocum Library and expand what is now Weitz Hall. And two years later the Gust Zogas Student Union Building was dedicated.

Reading Eagle: Bill Uhrich

The Yocum Library on the campus of Reading Area Community College.

The growing campus attracted more and more students, and with tuition now the same countywide the school drew from all over Berks.

“When people see growth they want to see what it’s all about,” Zogas said. “When we started to build, that changed everything.”

Of course, what goes on inside those new buildings is pretty important, too. Zogas said faculty is the real essence of a college, and he made a point to make sure RACC had the best one possible.

“We had to realize that we’re a teaching institution,” he said.

Providing a quality education was how RACC could secure its place in the county, Zogas said. And when it became clear that RACC graduates were finding good jobs or continuing their education at four-year colleges, the school’s reputation was formed.

“They covet our students now. They want them,” he said of local businesses and four-year colleges.

Although Zogas said he was proud of all that was accomplished during his tenure, he knew the evolution was not complete. There was still more to create, still more room to grow.

Dr. Richard A. Kratz, 2003-07

Dr. Richard A. Kratz started his tenure at RACC in the midst of a construction boom.

Before Zogas left, he had helped put the wheels in motion for creating what would become two of RACC’s shining jewels. Kratz would shepherd them to fruition and continue to add to the school’s campus.

About a year after Kratz took the reins, in April 2004, construction began on the Rolf Schmidt Training and Technology Center and the Miller Center for the Arts.

Courtesy of RACC

Construction of the Rolf Schmidt Training and Technology Center at RACC. (Courtesy of RACC)

The school also purchased the former Fleetwood Industries building on Second Street and later the Penske building on Riverfront Drive that would become Schuylkill Hall.

Courtesy of RACC

Dr. Richard A. Kratz, RACC’s fourth president. (Courtesy of RACC)

“Sometimes I felt I wasn’t a president, rather I was in the real estate business,” Kratz said.

But the growth of RACC’s campus created a new feeling, Kratz said. It gave the school a sense of community.

“It created a campus feel,” Kratz said. “You don’t do it because of that, but it did give the students a sense of pride. It was a huge difference from one building that was a Holiday Inn.”

It also allowed RACC to expand its offerings to students.

“What it did was give us more space to do what we were all about,” he said. “It helped us grow, helped our students grow. It gave the sense that we were a growing college that could meet the needs of so many different sectors.”

That was certainly true for the Schmidt Center, which opened in spring 2006.

“That opened up all kinds of new ventures with business and industry,” Kratz said.

The same was the case with the Miller Center, which helped make RACC a pivotal piece of the cultural landscape.

The Miller Center for the Arts at RACC.

Kratz said he is extremely proud to have had a role in helping RACC grow, and to do so while still carrying out the community college’s mission. Despite its widening campus, the addition of building after building, RACC remained a place open to anyone seeking an education.

“My great joy in life was to go to commencement,” he said. “Some of those people, I wouldn’t have the courage or fortitude to go through what they did in order to graduate. I respect them so much.

“To see students realize that if they work hard they can get through here is so special. And who knows where they’ll go next.”

Kratz said that is what RACC is all about. It’s a place that offers hope and opportunity, a place that can take you from where you are to where you want to go.

“It’s egalitarian. RACC is not highly selective and doesn’t cost a lot of money,” he said. “No bones about it, you have to work hard. But if you do, you’ll succeed.”

Dr. Anna Weitz, 2007-18

On Dr. Anna Weitz’s second day as president she got to attend the opening of the Miller Center.

“How cool is that, you’re on the job two days and you get to do that,” she said.

Dr. Anna D. Weitz, RACC’s fifth president.

Weitz took office at the tail end of RACC’s period of furious expansion. It had moved from a somewhat unwanted creation to a vital and beloved local institution.

Her job, she said, was to make sure RACC’s new buildings were put to good use and that community love was fostered.

“The affection people had for the college was there before I ever came,” she said. “I was struck by it and, frankly, felt a tremendous responsibility to enhance it however I could.”

Weitz came to RACC well equipped to do that. She had previously worked in the administration of five different community colleges, most recently at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College in Jonestown.

“I had a very interesting perspective on different kinds of colleges,” she said.

She saw an opportunity to further RACC’s role as a place for all people with all backgrounds, and started referring to the school as the community’s college.

“I wanted people to feel that they had a stake in what was going on here,” she said.

Weitz helped expand RACC’s dual enrollment program to give high school students a jump-start on their college careers.

She led an effort to elevate the school’s noncredit workforce development programs, where students don’t earn a degree but a credential in fields like nursing or phlebotomy.

“They’re really designed for people who need direct hands-on workforce skills development,” Weitz said.

That went hand-in-hand with new partnerships with local career and technology schools that allowed high school students to earn college credits for certain technical programs.

Weitz said that during her tenure there was also a concerted effort to serve the increasingly diverse student population that attended RACC.

The Learning Center for Multilingual Students was established as a resource, she said, and for many students it became a second home. It provided support such as advising and tutoring, but was also a spot where students could connect with others going through similar experiences.

“Our college is open to a diverse population, but this was a special place,” she said. “Students need to be able to find their own little niche.”

Weitz said the learning center represents everything that is great about a place like RACC.

“It epitomized everything RACC is about,” she said. “It’s open and accepting. Nobody is worried about where you started, they’re worried about where you’re going to end up.”

During Weitz’s tenure, RACC also began developing an active online education program. That, she said, made the school accessible to even more students.

“There has certainly been a growth in the number of associates degrees you can earn entirely online, and that was pre-pandemic,” she said.

Weitz said she is proud of the time she spent as president of RACC, that she took the responsibility of leadership and promoting the school very seriously. She knows it’s a gem, she said, and that it will remain so for a long time.

“I think it has made an unbelievable difference for literally tens of thousands of people who never thought they’d earn a GED, learn to speak English, get the skills to get a job, get an associates degree,” she said. “I think it’s a resource that we can never really measure it has on so many.

“I think this 50 years is such an important milestone to remind the community of that and for the community to say, ‘Job well done.’”

Dr. Susan Looney, 2018-present

By 2018, when Dr. Susan Looney took over the presidency, RACC had fairly well established itself.

It boasted an extensive campus with beautiful useful buildings. It offered a variety of important, much-needed programs.

People around Berks knew what it was, knew what it was all about.

“RACC had a very strong reputation way before I became president,” she said. “It has continued to thrive and be here for our students and also for the community. I didn’t make this, I was just fortunate enough to be president during this time.”

Dr. Susan Looney, RACC’s sixth president.

Looney, who worked in the administration for about five years before becoming president, said her goal is to make sure things at RACC continue to be up to par, that the school’s reputation for excellence continues to grow and that the school influence expands.

“I want RACC to have a seat at the table,” she said. “To be part of the conversation.”

That means making sure students continue to succeed, she said, and that RACC continues to provide top-notch teaching. It also means being responsive to the needs of the community.

The COVID pandemic — and the impact it has had on the workforce — made that part of RACC’s role abundantly clear.

“In this time of having such a workforce crisis on top of a pandemic, it’s wonderful that we’re able to be here and training people to make sure there’s a well-skilled employee pipeline,” she said.

That was the case before the pandemic, too. Looney said that there was a desperate need for pharmacy technicians, and RACC worked with Reading Hospital to create a training program.

“Being nimble like that, that’s what a community college can do that a four-year university really can’t,” she said.

Looney said RACC’s 50th anniversary is an opportunity to thank all of the “friends that we have in the community that are just amazing.”

“It’s hard to find a person in Berks County who doesn’t have some connection to RACC,” she said. “It’s just makes me light up and smile.”

Looney said that walking through RACC’s campus makes her feel honored and humbled, knowing that she gets to be a part of this institution that changes the lives of students and the community.

As for what’s in store for the next 50 years?

“It’s hard to picture 50 years from now, but what I do know is that our future is bright,” Looney said. “We will continue to be nimble, we will pay attention to what’s needed. We will be here.”


Source: Berkshire mont

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