CNCC takes root in the Rangely community

As early as 1955, the quest for higher learning in the northwest corner of Colorado was ongoing. That year, the state passed House Joint Resolution No. 8, which focused on the need for higher education facilities in northwestern Colorado.
Subsequently, a steering committee was formed made up of three members from each of the counties of Jackson, Grand, Routt, Moffat, and Rio Blanco, which would comprise the proposed junior college district. In January of 1957, the committee was formalized, complete with a non-voting chairman, Mrs. A. E. Bogue of Steamboat Springs. The members from Rio Blanco County were Rangely Mayor Bill Elam, State Board of Education member Stuart McLaughlin of Rangely, and Charles “Bud” Conrado of Meeker.
Much debate ensued, since most of the county committee members involved felt that the junior college should be built in one of their communities. From early on, the communities of Hayden, Steamboat Springs, Craig, and Rangely seemed to be the front-runners in the discussions.
Over the next two years, surveys were conducted by various entities. Dr. Leroy Goode, State Director of Community Colleges, entered the discussions to help facilitate the decision-making process. He brought in Dr. S. V. Mortorana of the U.S. Office of Education in Washington to also conduct a survey of the area’s communities.
By the end of 1958, the steering committee had approved a recommendation to develop a two-campus college, with a technical school in Rangely and an academic campus in the east end of the five-country district. Rangely was decided upon as the technical school site, ultimately, because Rio Blanco County had an assessed valuation equal to that of the other four counties together, and surveys had shown that Rangely residents were likely to pass a bond issue.
Also by the end of 1958, Mesa College Directors had asked the Rio Blanco County junior college committee members to meet with them in Grand Junction. A delegation of Rangely officials, including the committee members, the local board of education, the chamber of commerce, and the town council met with Mesa College officials in December of 1958.
The Mesa College officials expressed a great interest in a proposal to establish the Rangely junior college as a branch campus of Mesa College. Legally, that would mean re-districting issues, so the group decided to seek help from either the Attorney General or the State Department of Education.
In the meantime, the Rangely Board of Education of Rangely School District RE-4 voted in favor of a resolution asking the district voters to bond the construction of the junior college plant in Rangely. In January 1959, the three Rio Blanco County members, along with the superintendents of schools from Rangely and Meeker, met with Rio Blanco County Commissioners to ask for funds from the Federal Royalty money to help pay off the bond. The Federal Royalty funds came from mineral leasing rights; the school bond would, however, cover most of the construction costs of the college.
Since the plan to build the Rangely campus as a branch campus to Mesa College seemed to be the most feasible, the Rio Blanco County committee, along with the Mesa committee, continued to explore the annexation of the De Beque School District 49 and the western Rio Blanco County to form a new Mesa College District. Under law at the time, in order to become a branch campus, the Rangely School District would need to be adjacent to Mesa County. The De Beque district would be the conduit to allow that.
In April 1959, Rangely residents voted resoundingly to pass the bond issue for $2.8 million to pay for a Rangely college campus by a 298 to 9 vote. According to one editorial, “The overwhelming approval startled those interested in forming a junior college in the five-county area of northwestern Colorado.”
The vote effectively withdrew Rangely from the proposed five-county district, since it would now seek annexation to Mesa College District. The verdict on that would become apparent on the heels of the bond election. On May 4, 1959, voters in Rangely School District RE-4, De Beque School District 49, and the Mesa Junior College District (again overwhelmingly) elected to pass the unification proposal.
Work then began on the planning process. Dr. Arnold Weiss, president of the Rangely School Board, was named to the board of directors for Mesa College. He and Superintendent Bernard Yeager met with Dr. Good in Denver to start the screening of applications from architectural firms.
A new Junior College Steering Committee was formed and included the Mesa College Committee, Jim Duggan, Claud Smith, Roe Saunders, Mesa College President Horace Wubben and, from Rangely, Arnold Weiss, Herb Rooks, S. W. McLaughlin, Bill Elam, and B. F. Yaeger.
Land was purchased from Kate Calvat on top of a hill overlooking the town of Rangely. The architectural firm of Caudill, Rowlett, and Scott was chosen by the school board to begin the designs. Caudill, Rowlett, and Scott were also hired to design Rangely’s new junior high school building.
The college then needed someone at the helm to lead the way. Mesa College named Dr. William A. Medesy as the first Dean of Rangely College in May of 1960. He and his family would reside in Grand Junction until the campus was closer to completion and the President’s Residence was ready for occupancy.
As the start of selecting a contractor neared, the Junior College Steering Committee realized costs were going to be higher than expected. They made the recommendation to the school district that they cut some of the buildings from the original design for the time being, stating that they could be added at a later time.
The school district and the steering committee finally agreed that nine buildings would suffice to accomodate what was critical for the college to get started. The first buildings on campus included what are now called the Hefley Gym, McLaughlin Building, Hill, W. C. Striegel Engineering Center, Blakeslee, Allsebrook, Johnson, Rector, and the President’s Residence.
After the school board heard presentations from four contracting companies from around the state, they chose Lembke Construction Company out of Colorado Springs. As with many public construction projects, the selection process wasn’t always a smooth one. Some committee members and residents questioned whether the process was fair and ethical, and permanent injunctions were filed but ultimately dismissed. Construction officially begin in January of 1961.
Within months, new staff members for the college were being hired, new faculty appointed, and construction was progressing nicely. Six-ton wooden beams had arrived for the project, and native rock was being collected for exterior walls.
Rangely community members including church groups, organizations, and residents headed out to the hills each week to collect the rocks. Many were paid by the construction company for the rocks; some just did it for civic service and pride. According to one article, “[The stone walls] have a special significance to Rangely residents . . . . [T]hey brought them to the college site by truck or in the luggage compartments of cars.” To this day, the large wooden roof beams atop the functional rock walls define the campus architecture.
By May of 1962, construction was nearing completion, faculty and staff were at full strength, students were enrolling, and a formal College Advisory Board was in place. The first student to enroll was Gerald Mestas of Glenwood Springs in the Electronics Technology program.
Classes started for 83 students on Sept. 20, 1962. A dedication ceremony attended by hundreds was held on Saturday, October 13th. U.S. Congressman Wayne N. Aspinall and Dr. Byron A. Hansford, Colorado Commissioner of Education, were VIP guests of the ceremony, along with about 150 special guests from state and local entities.
In his address as reported in Grand Junction’s The Daily Sentinel, Dr. Hansford stated, “Rangely pioneered in oil, and now it is pioneering in education.” Roe Saunders, president of the Mesa College Committee, added, “It’s the biggest contribution from the fewest people I’ve ever seen in my life.”