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CMC history: Going to the mountains to find ourselves

At Colorado Mountain College's "West Campus" at Spring Valley in the 1970s, a lot of things got their start – new degree programs and new ways of teaching, plus new students who came from diverse geographic areas and backgrounds. It was a defining era both for the young college forming its identity and for its students.

CMC's location in the mountains naturally lent itself to programs not offered by other colleges. The outdoor education program, led in those days by Jack Snobble, was uniquely positioned in high-altitude "laboratories" where students could explore mountain, river and canyon environments.

Other classes brought students into the field, too. Geology classes went on excursions to see and touch textbook examples of geologic formations.

The budding photography program had a backdrop of wildflowers, trees, rivers and majestic peaks in snow, sun and autumn colors. During the 1970s, it bred four graduates who went on to work for National Geographic magazine.

Faculty member Arnie Dollase took his sociology classes to the state penitentiary in Canon City where students heard inmates' stories firsthand. Participatory, real-world education became a trademark of learning at CMC.

In 1974, the 7-year-old CMC gained full accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

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WORD GETS AROUND

As part of its original charter, Colorado Mountain College's primary mission was to provide a postsecondary education for local high school graduates. In CMC's rural five-county district of the 1970s prior to the ski-town boom, Dollase said, "There were not enough kids in the district to sustain the college." CMC college recruiter Barb Edwards said, "And local kids wanted to go to school away from home."

Edwards joined the college in 1976, working with high school counselors up and down Colorado's Front Range and across the state.

CMC wasn't a hard sell, she remembers. "We had majors that were very unusual, small classes and very reasonable prices," she said. Word was catching on about CMC, and students from Chicago, Texas and all points east and west began enrolling.

"We attracted the kid who didn't want to go where everyone else was going, the kid who didn't want to be lost in the crowd," Edwards said. "CMC appealed to the student who had a good vision of what they wanted to do. It was also a great place for those who had no idea what they wanted. CMC helped each kind of student develop and shape their futures.

"It was my job as a recruiter to tell them this isn't a run-of-the-mill place. It's really special."

STUDENT DREAMS

Tim Upham found out about CMC from a fellow student who went to George Washington High School in Denver. Upham came to CMC in the 1975-76 school year.

"The whole experience was magical," said Upham, who recalls taking marble sculpting from Frank Olsen, buying a pass to the local hot springs pool for $14 for an entire academic quarter and living in a tipi on a Spring Valley ranch after classes ended.

His pivotal experience, charting his life's journey, came during Dollase's ethnic studies class. During the Native American section of the class, Upham learned about Black Kettle, a Southern Cheyenne Indian leader who was promised protection if he flew the American flag over his tipi. The promise betrayed, many of Black Kettle's tribe were brutally killed in Colorado Territory's Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.

Upham had a vision of creating a large painting of Black Kettle draped in an American flag to coincide with Colorado's centennial statehood observation. He wanted to create a 35,000-square-foot snow painting on the Vail Mountain ski area.

"I had no outlet of doing something like that," said Upham. "If a 20-year-old, long-haired guy would have approached Vail Associates and the Forest Service to paint on their slopes, they probably would have thrown me out or called security. But Mr. Dollase liked my idea. He said, 'Tim, let's do this.'"

The professor pitched the project to Vail, and the powers in place agreed.

It took Upham and some fellow students and friends two full days to lay out the massive 175-foot-wide grid of bamboo and nylon markers to transfer his concept painting onto the snow. The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News covered the undertaking. But the temperatures didn't cooperate, rising to almost 70 degrees on the day of painting.

The result wasn't fully realized, but "I was still very happy," said Upham. He credits Dollase with helping him pursue his creative path which took him to fine art and film school, eventually culminating in a career as a large-scale public art sculptor.

"Faculty and administrators had community and state connections and students benefitted from those connections," Edwards said.

CELEBRATING HISTORY

The Post Independent this year is celebrating local institutions’ anniversaries — including our own — with a special feature many Sundays through the year. The PI traces its roots back 127 years, but 125 as a daily, while the White River National Forest looks back on 125 years and Colorado Mountain College marks 50 years.

Today we offer the fourth installment of CMC history.