BC History Spotlight: Grace Van Dyke Bird

Grace Van Dyke Bird smiling

Monday, July 1, 2024

By Deanna Rea

Grace Van Dyke Bird was the first recognized President of Bakersfield College and the first woman to head a public community college in California. She was known as both an innovator and a woman of great vision. While presiding over Bakersfield College for thirty years, Grace’s reputation as a remarkable leader was recognized nationwide, and she is credited with advancing the junior college movement in California and beyond. She helped guide BC through its infancy and early growth to become a fine academic institution of higher-quality learning, integrity, and compassion that serves a diverse population of students and its members.

Bird’s academic career began after she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1914, with majors in architecture, education, and French. In the Fall of 1917, just four years after the Kern County High School District created Kern County Junior College, Grace began teaching French and English literature to both JC and Kern County Union High School (now Bakersfield High School) students, a tenure that lasted thirty-two years.

By 1920, Miss Bird became acting dean of the junior college and part-time vice principal of the high school after Mr. Paul Vandereike, the first Dean of Kern County Junior College, decided to take a leave of absence. That following year, Grace Van Dyke Bird’s title as Dean of the Junior College (later recognized as President) was solidified by the college board in agreement with Mr. Ludden and Mr. Vandereike. “I had become dean by accretion and not by a ‘big bang,’ as an astronomer might say,” Grace told interviewer Ralda Sullivan, recorded in ‘Volume I: Grace V. Bird.’ “I thought very little about being made an administrator of a small college where I already knew personally each student who was in the college and all faculty” (37).

Her care and commitment to others and the devotion of her boundless energies towards college projects made her an outstanding leader who set the tone as an innovative administrator by influencing an educational movement. She sought to improve the lives of students and fellow educators by uplifting their sense of worth and confidence in their abilities and higher education.

Margaret ‘Peg’ Levinson, a close friend and colleague of Grace, tells interviewer Ralda Sullivan, “Sometimes it was just a matter of listening. Sometimes it was a matter of doing something… You were a person with three dimensions, and [Grace] was just as aware of the three dimensions as anyone could be” (71).

Grace Bird's views differed from those of her colleagues where education was concerned. She believed that the experiences of community college were of sincere value and worthy enough in their own right, not necessarily made to be preparatory to another level of education—not many people shared these views at the time. Grace is therefore widely respected and credited with establishing interpersonal peer relationships between community colleges and the university, particularly the University of California.

In March of 1950, Miss Bird resigned from her position of leadership at Bakersfield College after announcing her intentions to move forward with the Office of School Relations at the University of California, Berkeley. In pursuit of responsibilities in community college affairs, Grace left behind her marvelous expertise and wisdom, touching the lives of our next leaders. In 1956, the Panorama campus was constructed, and the new library facility was named in honor of Grace Van Dyke Bird. When plans were being made for a new library in 1996, one thing was clear from the start: the facility would continue to bear her name.

Bakersfield College, built upon the legacy of Grace Van Dyke Bird’s influence, continues to be an institution of enrichment, integrity, and valuable education, where faculty and administration work together to create an exceptional learning environment for all students. Grace Van Dyke Bird’s name will forever be enshrined on BC’s library, and the legacy she built will have an immeasurably positive impact on generations of college students for years to come.

Grace Bird holding a baby
Grace holding a book talking to administrators in the BC library
Grace at her 90th birthday party
portrait painting of Grace Bird