A Scientific Breakthrough at Westmont

ribbon cutting

Then President David Winter (left) and professor Frank Percival and Alan Nishimura (far right) watch as Joanne Blokker cuts the ribbon at the ceremony dedicating Whittier Science Building in 1986. Photo courtesy of the Westmont archives.

For nearly 50 years, the natural science departments at Westmont suffered the most from inadequate facilities. The chemistry department used a remodeled garage, and the biology department took over a lathe garden house, later enlarged with more lab space. The completion of Carroll Observatory in 1957 provided a classroom and a lab, especially for physics, but all areas labored for decades with unimpressive facilities. Nevertheless, the talented faculty gave themselves whole-heartedly to science education in a Christian framework.

The late President Roger Voskuyl, a chemist trained at Harvard, keenly felt the need for modern classrooms and laboratories. In a 1966 report, he summarized what Westmont needed to do to improve its facilities, attempting unsuccessfully to interest a prospective donor. The need for a science building persisted, and in the early 1980s Donald Whittier, a Santa Barbara resident, made a generous, $1 million grant to the college to launch this project. He asked the college to name the facility after his father, Mericos H. Whittier. The Kerr Foundation also gave a large gift toward construction. The cost of the building and new science equipment exceeded $2 million.

Westmont broke ground April 20, 1984. Whittier died before the building was done, and his daughter, Joanne Blokker, represented him at the ceremony. Niva Tro ’85, a chemistry major, and Dr. Clifford Benton, professor emeritus of chemistry, spoke. Benton had taught chemistry for nearly 30 years in the old, inadequate building. After earning his doctorate at Stanford, Tro joined the Westmont faculty in 1990. Despite poor facilities, a significant proportion of chemistry graduates earned advanced degrees, more per capita than any other department. Voskuyl, who then served as special assistant to the president, saw his dream of a science building confirmed and offered a prayer of commitment.

Westmont dedicated the completed Mericos H. Whittier Science Building Jan. 10, 1986, with Joanne Blokker cutting the ribbon. The biology department took up residence on the ground floor with greatly expanded space for teaching and for research, and the chemistry department moved into the second floor with its two large labs and specially designed instrumentation lab.

Whittier prepared the way for a significant expansion of science instruction, and the modern equipment provided excellent training for faculty and student research as well as preparation for graduate school. When the building opened in 1986, enrollment in the sciences increased greatly.

Mericos (Max) Whittier (1867-1925) came to California in 1891 with $25 and worked as a rig hand for Union Oil. He soon became a partner in Hardly Able Oil, but this venture failed. He succeeded instead by buying and reselling land in the Bakersfield area. In 1910, he invested in Belridge oil field, which Shell Oil bought for $3.65 billion in 1979. Whittier also helped create the city of Beverly Hills, Calif., and supported many philanthropic ventures in Southern California. Like his father, Donald Whittier gave generously to support local causes, especially in Santa Barbara. He founded the Mericos Foundation in 1980.

Whitter Science Building

Whitter Science Building

Whittier was the last new building Westmont dedicated. After more than two decades, the college will finally celebrate a second major science facility when Winter Hall for Science and Mathematics opens in 2011. Faculty and students in computer science, mathematics, physics and psychology will move into state-of-the-art labs and classrooms, further strengthening the sciences on campus.

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