When the Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College, University of Alaska Anchorage awarded degrees or certificates to 151 people last Wednesday night, the event marked not just a milestone for the women and men graduating. It marked a milestone for the college, too. This year, Kenai Peninsula College celebrates its 50th anniversary. The campus that started out as the Homer Branch has been a part of furthering adult education on the lower Kenai Peninsula since 1966.
In August, Kenai Peninsula College holds a big bash to celebrate. Author Clark Fair has been working on a history of the entire college that will be released then. On the theme “celebrating a half century together,” KPC will mark the years with two other 50-year-old civic entities, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
In 1976, Homer native Gail Ammerman became the first local to receive an associate of arts degree. Ammerman also was one of the first coordinators for the Homer Branch. Then Gail Sibson, Ammerman took over from Phyllis Cooper in 1969, who had been a volunteer.
Ammerman also had been working as the Homer High School secretary. KPC director and founder Clayton Brockel asked HHS Principal James Milne if he knew anyone who wanted to run the Homer Branch.
“‘You know, Gail, I think you should do this,’” Ammerman said she remembered Milne saying. “And I thought, ‘Oh sure. As if I don’t have enough to do.’”
She took the job anyway. Brockel sent her a contract to run the branch for $200 a semester. She crossed that out and wrote “$400.” She and Brockel settled on $300.
To fill classes, Ammerman would find instructors to teach interesting subjects and then have to find students. The college needed eight students per course to break even. In the 1970s, courses were $54 for a three-credit college course.
“If I got six students, say, I would start calling up people,” Ammerman said. “I called up people I knew who needed something to do, whether it was in their interest or not. It would broaden their horizons.”
According to a 1992 history of the Kachemak Bay Campus by Lance Petersen, at one point a new KPC director asked Ammerman to resign because a new full-time instructor, Petersen, was going to do her job. Petersen knew nothing about it, told the director he didn’t want the job, and the matter was dropped.
Chris Laing took over after Ammerman when the coordinator became a half-time job, and then Jim Riggs became the first full-time coordinator in 1982. Carol Swartz had been an adjunct instructor. She remembered teaching in the basement of what’s now the Bay Realty building.
In 1983, the Homer Branch moved into a building donated by Nick Gangl at what’s now the Best Western Bidarka Inn. The building was later moved and is the top floor of the Captain’s Coffee building on Pioneer Avenue. In 1986, the college bought the most recent former post office, now Pioneer Hall, on Pioneer Avenue. The Homer Branch changed its name to the Kachemak Bay Campus and Swartz became the first — and so far, only — college director.. Swartz credited music teacher and advisory board member Mary Epperson with urging her to be director.
“She’s the reason I’m director,” Swartz said. “She talked me into this.”
Under Swartz, the Kachemak Bay Campus has grown in programs, student body and facilities. Each year, the graduating class includes something unseen 48 years ago: bachelor of arts or science graduates who did all their course work in Homer.
Pioneer Hall has been its main home for 28 years, and has seen expansion and remodeling. In 2011, the college added a second, permanent building, Bayview Hill.
“It’s been a long haul,” Swartz said.
The Kachemak Bay Campus isn’t done growing, she said. On the college’s master plan for its next phase is a vocational-technical education center.
“It’s part of the plan to move to that when the community is ready and the funds are ready,” Swartz said.
The glory of this year’s graduates are echoed in the long-ago achievement of Ammerman.
“It was a milestone in my life,” she said of getting her AA degree. “I graduated from the Kachemak Bay Campus. I’m mighty proud.”