100 years of education: The history of St. Clair County Community College

In 2023, St. Clair County Community College (SC4) reached its centennial milestone, marking a century since its establishment and the enrollment of its first students.

Pete Lacey, Senior Vice President of St. Clair County Community College.“Our community college campus, I would argue is the nicest,” says Pete Lacey, Senior Vice President of SC4. “I mean, the setting in a downtown along the rivers, [the] international border … It's just a really cool place.”

As Michigan’s second-oldest community college, SC4 has stood to see a world war, the robin becoming Michigan’s state bird, the construction of the Mackinac Bridge, the Civil Rights Movement, the opening (and demolition) of the Pontiac Silverdome, and so much more.

With such a long and storied history, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the journey of the community college and how it has evolved to serve students today.

Port Huron Junior College's first graduating class, 1923.

1920s: Class begins at the ‘high school with ashtrays’

Originally Port Huron Junior College, SC4 was established on June 11, 1923. The college offered its 34 students a selection of six programs in its first year — engineering, pre-med, pre-law, pre-dental, business administration, and general studies. Students could select from 13 different classes to enroll in which options included zoology, biology, history, chemistry, French, rhetoric, and mathematics.

The college’s small size allowed for classes to be taught in Port Huron High School’s auditorium. The space was divided into three classrooms according to Andrew Kercher, Community Engagement Manager for Port Huron Museums.

Andrew Kercher, local historian and Manager of Community Engagement for Port Huron Museums.
“There [weren’t] any community college buildings or junior college buildings,” Kercher says. “It really was an extension of the high school administered by the school district.”

He says this arrangement led people to call Port Huron Junior College “the high school with ashtrays.”

Despite its size, the Skippers – the school’s longtime mascot — began playing basketball and baseball the same year with the University of Michigan’s help.

“Michigan donated their uniforms to [..] Port Huron Junior College in order for us to get started with our team,” Lacey says. “And we’re [still] blue and gold today.”

The programs developed several professional athletes in the century since, including former NBA guard Al Hairston, two-time World Series champion and Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson, and more.

When students were not competing, Lacey says they often celebrated during the 1920s at ice-skating parties on the Black River. When the ice thawed, 43 students used the river for a canoe race.

By 1928, the college moved to the then-12-year-old Ladies of the Maccabees building. The Greek-and-Roman-inspired building is where the college operated for nearly three decades.

Students work in the biology laboratory and typing class at Port Huron Junior College, 1942.

1930s and 1940s: The Great Depression, students on trial, World War II

Before Port Huron Junior College reached its 10th year in operation, the Great Depression began impacting families, businesses, and the economy throughout the United States.

According to Lacey, the college dropped its art classes during this time but ultimately remained stable after each major historical event since, offering a “positive, welcoming environment” to students.

A class schedule for Port Huron Junior College, 1923-1924 (bottom left) and 1947-1948 (top).
The 1940s began on a drama-filled note for one group of students. According to Lacey, several students were accused of an act severe enough that the matter was taken before Dean John McKenzie.

Were the students caught cheating or plagiarizing assignments? Did they engage in criminal activity on campus? Not quite, but the accusations were serious enough to put the students on trial.

The students were accused of not studying.

A trial was held with Dean McKenzie presiding as judge and was heard by a jury of college faculty. The defendants plead not guilty, claiming that the accusation was false and that they did study the previous semester.

After attempting to prove their innocence during their final exam, the jury ultimately returned with a verdict of “not guilty.”

While the trial may not have affected the student population as much as previous historical events like the Great Depression, World War II brought changes to programs and changes in the student population that reflected the United States as a whole.

“Forty students enlisted into the war [and] had to answer the draft in ‘41,” Lacey says. “So in World War II, we had some students leave the campus and go fight.”

The war almost closed the college as “most men of fighting age were in the army,” according to Kercher. Fortunately for the continuation of the college, the government accredited a pilot training program during the 1940s that helped alleviate pressure caused by the war.

At the same time, women around the country worked in place of men who were away at war. Lacey says the number of women enrolling at SC4 also increased during this time. These students opted for classes such as home nursing and first aid – a precursor to SC4’s nursing program which was introduced in 1954.

Once the war ended, veterans enrolled at the college using their GI bill to fund their education, according to Kercher. Lacey says many of these veterans entered skilled trades.

Students in class at Port Huron Junior College, 1962.

1950s and 1960s: DEI program’s roots, Patterns publication, and the Skipper’s basketball dominance

Kercher says Port Huron did not see many protests on campuses during The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, but Lacey attributes the movement as a contributor to the college’s decision to establish the SC4 Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in 2020.

“When you think civil rights movement, you think of some of the issues that we deal with today, Lacey says. “This college has always been a place where students from all over the globe have been able to come and learn and have been successful. So that's something that has been a staple for 100 years and something we're pretty proud of in our work today with DEI.”
The end of the ‘50s marked the beginning of SC4 publishing its annual magazine Patterns comprised of student submissions. Patterns is the longest-published community college literary and arts magazine in Michigan.

Its first edition, titled Green Mask Presents Creative Writing Awards 1959 instead of Patterns, displayed winners of SC4’s first creative writing contest. The contest’s judges were Patterns founder and English and German professor Blanche Redman, fine-arts instructor Alton Reeves, and speech department instructor Margaret Wedge.

Allan Steele won first place in poetry for “One Hamburger, No Mustard” and first honorable mention while John Pardee earned second honorable mention. Keith Laducer’s story “The Outcast” won first place among short stories and Shaun Shambleau earned both first and second honorable mention.

Only the first-place winners were featured due to space restrictions, Steele’s poem about a person ordering a hamburger in Detroit and Laducer’s story about a soldier’s effort to prove to himself that he is not a coward.

Patterns’ 2023 65th edition includes an award named after founder Blanche Redmanan and over 100 pages of content from its contributors. Any SC4 student can submit poetry, essays, short stories, and visual art to be published each year.

SC4’s college campus continued to expand during this time with the acquisition of the North Building in 1963 which was later followed by the openings of the Clara E. MacKenzie Building and the A.J. Theisen Building.

St. Clair County Community College's athletic facility, the SC4 Fieldhouse, present day.

The Skippers’ men’s basketball team also dominated during this decade.

Beginning in the 1964-65 season, Robert “Sam” Kromer coached the Skippers to five straight Michigan Community College Athletic Association championship wins.

Future Seattle Super Sonic Al Hairston debuted in 1964. Hairston, who Kromer told reporters in 1966 was the best player he ever coached, scored 29.8 points per game his sophomore season, including a game in which he scored 42 points against Flint, a 39-point game against Alpena, and a 38 point-performance effort against Joliet.

Hairston would go on to become SC4’s all-time leading scorer, with 1,147 total points.

Six-foot-eight-inch forward Mike Branaugh’s rim protection helped earn the Skippers 54 wins from 1965 to 1967 and future Cleveland Cavalier James “Bubbles” Harris was a “scoring machine” in his two seasons. Harris set several records during his career, including the most points scored in a season at 995 and a record for points scored in an individual game at 48.

Hairston’s scoring record did not last long. Harris broke it by the end of his career in 1969 – amassing 1,311 total points.

The Skippers won 121 games and lost 13 during the five-season stretch.

Meanwhile, a millage to establish the St. Clair County Community College District passed in June of 1967. Port Huron Junior College needed a new name.

Approximately 30 names were suggested by the public and were read during a board meeting by Secretary Mary F. Neil.

Marine-inspired names were popular, including Blue Water Community College, Great Lakes, and Huronia. Other names such as Edison Community College, honoring the famous inventor and former Port Huron resident, were suggested. The board ultimately chose St. Clair County Community College to reflect the area where the institution draws its major support.
Not long after, SC4 opened the Clara E. MacKenzie Building which offered roughly 80,000 square feet of new classrooms, “the finest teaching laboratories available anywhere,” a greenhouse, and the latest technology of the 1960s.

The audio-and-visual room featured 20 study carrels where students could listen to recorded tapes and phonographs. Professors could assign a tape recording to be played from noon until 2:00 p.m., for example, and students could dial the correct channel to listen.

The building provided a far larger space to keep books, pamphlets, microfilms, and other materials stored in the old library.

One day that May, traffic on McMorran Boulevard was blocked off, not for road construction, but to help prepare the new building. Two hundred students carried 15,000 volumes and files of 400 periodicals from the old library across the street to the new building which offered enough space for double the volumes and 600 periodicals.

Students registering for classes at St. Clair County Community College, 1973.

‘70s, ‘80’s and ‘90s: Expansion toward the digital age

Becoming a community college allowed the ‘60s and ‘70s to be a period of growth for SC4’s campus and population, according to Kercher. Plus, Lacey says the end of the Vietnam War led to increased veteran enrollment similar to the end of World War II.

The expansion is reflected in the catalog of classes SC4 that has grown since 1923. By 1970, SC4 advertised over 60 general education courses across a range of subjects including dog obedience training, cake decorating, welding, indoor golf, coin collecting, typing, and more.

English classes for non-native speakers were also available, emphasizing that around 20% of SC4 students at the time came from outside of the district and from around the world. American SC4 students also experienced an international education through the college’s sister school in Yucatan, Mexico, according to Kercher.

The ‘80s and ‘90s were a period when the college entered the digital world, allowing students access to less-owned equipment that is now ubiquitous. With the introduction of the College Center and Fine Arts Buildings in the 1970s and the Applied Technology Center in the early 1980s, the campus continued to expand during this timeframe with a particular focus on technology.

“We had a traveling bus of computers [in 1989],” Lacey says. “That bus would go around to communities, and you could teach classes on computers in [...] a big charter bus.”

According to Lacey, students on campus in the ‘90s experienced remote learning through interactive TV. A professor could use a TV to teach a class from Bad Axe while students took notes in Port Huron.

A radio station and TV studio were built in the fine arts building and a broadcast journalism program was created.

The college first connected to the internet in 1996, eventually building to the college students are familiar with today.

Campus view of St. Clair County Community College along the Black River in Port Huron, Michigan.

2000 on: More students, more classes, more amenities

During the turn of the century, the college underwent continuous development, expanding its academic offerings, resources, and physical campus.

In 2006, the Learning Resource Center moved to the expanded College Center and international students continued enrolling from countries like Botswana, Brazil, England, and Ukraine.

St. Clair County Community College campus housing along Huron Street in downtown Port Huron, Michigan.
Additional facilities including the Health Sciences Building, student housing, SC4 Fieldhouse, Experience Center, and the Challenger Learning Center were constructed and the former TV studio was transformed into a space dedicated to Esports (electronic sports).

Among the more recent enhancements at SC4 are the introduction of Skip’s Corner Pantry, which provides essential items to students in need, and the expansion of the college's athletic offerings through the introduction of a new adaptive sports program in 2023.

Encompassing nearly 30 acres in the heart of downtown Port Huron, today, the college continues to evolve and serves as a key resource for the region. With an annual student enrollment of approximately 4,000 students, SC4 now offers around 350 different courses.

Reflecting on the past 100 years, Lacey feels positively about what lies ahead in the future of SC4.

“It's been fun to see the college build over that first 100 years and then to dream about ‘What does the next decade or beyond hold?’” he says.

For more details about St. Clair County Community College, its programs, or resources, visit sc4.edu.
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Read more articles by Joseph Goral.

Joseph Goral graduated from Oakland University in the summer of 2023 with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and a Bachelor of Arts in communication. Before his graduation, Joseph was a digital news intern at ClickOnDetroit and a contributing writer for The Oakland Post. When Joseph is not writing, you can usually find him watching Pistons basketball, playing with his dog Biggie, doing personal photography, or spending time with friends and family.