Westmont began spring semester as scheduled on Jan. 8, while preparing campus for rain late that afternoon and the following day. The college was not in Santa Barbara County’s evacuation zone that included many areas below the Thomas Fire burn scar, but public safety officers kept a 24-hour watch for flooding.
In the first chapel since students were evacuated Dec. 10 due to the fire, the college honored first responders, members of the news media, and several college employees who played a key role in Westmont’s response and recovery from the fire. More than 1,000 people attended the service, which included words of praise by Edee Schulze, vice president for student life, Tom Beveridge, director of physical plant, and President Gayle D. Beebe.
“I want to thank those who put aside their own schedules, those who put forth heroic and herculean effort to stay the fire, those who communicated important information and those who protected not only Westmont but the Santa Barbara community and our segment of the country,” Schulze said. “Most importantly we pause to thank God for His constant faithfulness, His watchful care, and His specific interventions that went beyond where human effort could.”
Although most emergency responders were unable to attend due to the impending storm, Beebe thanked Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Lieutenant Brian Olmstead, who received a heartfelt standing ovation. “Brian represents an incredible sheriff’s department and I have huge admiration for your sheriff and for what you do to keep our community safe by working constructively and proactively with the campus so we feel secure as we go through these incredible challenges.”
Beebe thanked C.J. Ward and Beth Farnsworth of KEYT NewsChannel 3 for their coverage. “You became our lifeline for the latest developments on the fire,” he said. “We sent emails to over 20,000 members of the Westmont family, encouraging them to go to your website for the latest and best coverage of the fire. I heard from board members in Trinidad, students coming home from Westmont in Europe and alums living in Singapore. All of them were following your broadcast live via the internet.
“Right here at home we were able to plan and adjust our response because of your up-to-the-minute coverage of this huge threat to our community. It’s a community that we all love and cherish so much and you reminded us of the best and brightest of who we are. You were brilliant in your coverage, relentless in your courage and perfection in your approach.
Beebe recalled waking up at 4 a.m. to Ward and Farnsworth on TV, and when he went to bed at 11 p.m., they were still on. “As you worked, you gave me an enormous pride in our community. And your willingness to endure any inconvenience, to bear any burden, you made me want to do my job better. You were truly inspirational. We are so proud to honor and celebrate a news team that combines your skill and sophistication with an authentic appreciation for the uniqueness that is our community.”
The service ended with the chapel band leading the audience in the college hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”