It is with great sadness that Prince William Sound Community College bids farewell to John Devens, PhD, our founding President, who passed away last week at the age of 74. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. Dr. Devens was a good man who got things done. His generous contributions to our community will live on as his legacy. He was a man who accomplished great deeds but attributed much of his success to the convergence of timing, placement, and drive.
“I don’t know if you could get away with it today,” Devens said in a recent interview about the founding of PWSCC. “I was very political in those days and I would go to Juneau and just beg for money, but when we first got the $50,000 there were a lot of people who wanted to see it used elsewhere.”
Luckily for the multitude of rural students who have bettered their education because of PWSCC’s existence, Devens was able to hold fast to the 1978 endowment. Yet, even before the $50,000 endowment from the city of Valdez, the establishment of learning centers in different communities helped establish the necessary groundwork.
In 1971 concerned citizens of Valdez and Cordova petitioned the University of Alaska to establish learning centers. Five years later the Copper Basin area would also establish a learning center. So when founding president Devens was hired in 1977, his first assignment was to begin the involved task of bringing the centers up to a collegiate level.
“When we started working trying to get a community college, we barely had enough to pay even my salary, so I started looking around and thought, ‘I’ve got to have more population,’” Devens said. “So I went to the Board of Regents and made an argument for including Cordova and Copper Basin in the community college district and they went along on it.”
Bringing Cordova and Copper Basin under the PWSCC umbrella turned out to be critical in forging a financial path for the college’s future advancement. In addition, it was under Devens’s leadership that the college’s first three dorms, which were originally built as U.S. Army barracks, were purchased and revamped for housing and classrooms.
“We kept one building as a dorm and the other two were used for classrooms,” Devens said. “At the time we didn’t even have money for lighting, so we used the kind of fluorescent lights you plug into the wall, the kind you might see in a garage, and of course the roof leaked everywhere. We took pictures of all this, then I took it to the legislature to help make our case for more funding.”
It was this well-known Alaskan ‘can-do’ attitude of sacrifice and determination that helped build PWSCC. Devens also cites the importance of the college’s dedicated group of administrators and educators who believed in the college’s mission and community worth.
“We were a small, tight-knit group in those days. The staff would even wrap Christmas presents together,” Devens said. “We had Sophie Dollarhide in Copper Basin. She got things going there… I remember once she even taught piano with no audio feedback by drawing out the keyboard on butcher paper.”
From those hard-scrabble beginnings, Devens then fought for the acquisition of Growden Harrison Elementary School in the 1980s to serve as PWSCC’s main campus location. The elementary school, essentially donated by the city of Valdez, has undergone a series of renovations and updates to become the more modern, tailored incarnation of today. Eventually all classes were moved to the main campus and the dormitory area became used exclusively for housing.
The PWSCC dormitories, steeped in their own history, are still in use today. In addition, the dorms have filled a myriad of vital emergency functions over the years, not only to PWSCC, but to the community as well.
“In 1980 the cruise ship Prinsendam, operated by Holland America sank in the Gulf of Alaska,” Devens recalls. “All these tourists filled the hotels, one group was in the high school gym and we took the officers and entertainers and put them in the dorms.”
In addition, during the infamous Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989, the dorms served a vital role housing the overflow of responders to the emergency, while the college itself served as a cleaning station for oily wildlife.
“There was a point where all of our students were out working for the oil spill,” Devens said. “We were using the classrooms to clean the animals… I had a brand new hot tub on my deck that was confiscated as a bath for cleaning otters.”
Also, most notably and under Devens’ tenure in 1989, PWSCC became accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Devens continued to serve as president of PWSCC until 1992, at which time he vacated the position and continued on with his long and colorful career in politics. Interestingly enough, that same year he campaigned in the Alaska Congressional election for the sole seat in Alaska’s House, and lost to the incumbent by only a slight margin of less than 5%.