Social observers decry the waning of interpersonal connection, the lack of a shared sense of purpose and the decline of community. But bonds like these are still strong in many sectors of society--among them the vibrant and growing network of Pomona alumni. These alumni can be found in every field of endeavor, in politics, social service, businesses new and old, even in Hollywood. The Pomonans' common background serves as the core of many creative and fruitful alliances, and their bonds are as strong, if not stronger, than ever...
A GEOGRAPHY OF HOPE
They were classmates, dorm-mates or teammates at Pomona before scattering across the country to pursue careers. Although most knew each other only as acquaintances, what they had in common was a love of the outdoors and a belief in the power of wilderness to challenge and inspire. Individually, they experienced the transcendent effects of nature, whether kayaking among dolphins off Baja or scrabbling to the top of a granite peak in the High Sierra. As a group, however, they could--and would--do much more.
"It really started with a connection between myself and Tom Michael," says Christopher Mann '94. Both had attended the same high school in Chicago, both ended up at Pomona (Michael was Class of '95), and both wanted to spend as much time outdoors as they could. This was easy at Pomona, a whisper away from the vast Angeles National Forest, and an easy drive from Joshua Tree National Park, the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Coast. On excursions together, Mann and Michael talked of how the public wilderness is beyond the reach of many who might benefit from it if they had the means and the knowledge to do so.
"We started talking about how we could do something to help bring that about for some kids who otherwise wouldn't have it as part of their experience," says Mann. "The idea sort of circulated and percolated among our friends, pulled together from different connections." Half a dozen Pomonans and a couple of non-alums got serious about it. In December 1997, they incorporated as a California nonprofit, called Geography of Hope. The name was drawn from a quote by the late author, Wallace Stegner: We simply need wild country available to us--for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, as part of the geography of hope.
The Pomonans, though just a few years out of college, included members with experience in outdoor education, business, law and corporate management. Besides Mann and Michael, the alumni members of the board of directors were Brian Forster, Skye McQueen and Brett Johnson, all Class of '94, and Eric Bergerson '95. Shannon Mathews '93 also helped at the start.
Another group of interwoven Pomona alumni helped lead the way. Brian Schatz '94 had been a classmate of several of the Geography of Hope founders. Shortly after graduating, Schatz, now a state legislator in Hawaii, founded a nonprofit organization there called Youth for Environmental Service.
"Brian tapped into his classmates and a large network of Pomona alumni in Hawaii for his group, which was working on environmental education," says Mann. "Hearing through the Pomona grapevine that Brian had done this successfully was something that we used as a precedent. We began to think that maybe we're not crazy to do this in our mid-20s. If another Pomonan pulled it off right after he got out of school, maybe we could too."
The board decided that Geography of Hope would award grants to teenagers in disadvantaged financial situations to attend wilderness education programs.
The group started small. In 1999, two teenagers took part. Last summer, five more went into the wilderness. One of the seven is a bright, likable youth who lives in public housing with his grandmother. Her income, from Social Security, is $7,000 a year. The boy's father has been in and out of jail for minor crimes, and his mother has been a drug user.
"We try not to think of our work as charity in the old sense of 'alms for the poor,'" says Mann, "but rather as closing the opportunity gap for very talented and deserving young people." For the teenage boy, Mann says, the wilderness trip "was an opportunity to focus on learning about his own strengths and skills, rather than focusing on survival in the inner city." Michael says the teen was somewhat timid before the educational adventure. Afterward, "It was amazing to see how smiling and happy and excited he was about it. That solidified it for me." Back from the wilderness, having been tested and having met the test, the teenager described it as "the toughest summer I ever had. But it was the best summer I ever had, too."
THE MAKING OF A GIANT
R. Stanton Avery '32 had always been a tinkerer. He had learned as a youth how to operate a printing press, and the knowledge helped him pay his way through college. At Pomona, he was said to have wired an alarm clock to a phonograph so he could wake up to music. A tall man, he was not socially adept, but he had a circle of friends at the College. Together, they helped make a success of a company Avery created and nurtured through very lean years. "He came out of nothing, and he was not a startling student, but he was an imaginative inventor," says Frederick Sontag, Robert C. Denison Professor of Philosophy, who knew Avery.
Dorothy Durfee '32 was one of the first Pomonans to become an ally of Avery's. It was the middle of the Depression. Avery had been working for a former classmate, Donald Dreher '30, as production manager at the tiny Adhere Paper Company, which made self-adhesive signs and double-sided stickers. But Avery left when the company could no longer pay his wages.
Durfee, an elementary school teacher, was Avery's fiancee. He borrowed $100 from her to pursue an idea. Using parts from washing and sewing machines, Avery built a machine for Adhere that could turn out a new type of sticky label at a much faster rate. But Adhere could not afford to market the machine, and Avery and Durfee, by then married, formed their own company to produce what they called "Kum-Kleen (Removable) Price Stickers," so named because they left no sticky residue. The timing could hardly have been worse. The stickers were used by retail stores, and about half the stores in the nation had gone out of business in the early 1930s. But Avery and his wife kept making labels, and kept improving their machines and products. Their business clung to life.
Avery had been returning to the College regularly to attend evening discussions at the home of a political science professor. At one of those gatherings, Avery was introduced to H. Russell Smith '36.
Smith was a self-described "people person," who, unlike Avery, was comfortable speaking in public. In a book about the Avery company, "The First Fifty Years," by David L. Clark, Smith is quoted as saying: "When the subject of Stan's little business came up, everybody thought that it was a joke. He seemed like a fish out of water. Every time he came to a meeting, we all wanted to hear a progress report on how he was coming along and all that he was learning. But we certainly didn't expect anything big to come of it."
Avery's business came close to foundering during World War II. But the government realized a compelling need for Avery labels, and the company came out of the war more prosperous than ever. The postwar years also brought what Avery would describe as the most important event in the company's history, next to its founding: the addition of Russ Smith.
"Russ knew that Stan had this growing company, and Stan told him that he couldn't do it himself; he needed help," says Sontag. Smith became a partner, and his management approach, which emphasized decentralization and the independence of subordinates, proved to be complementary to Avery's impulse toward innovation and the development of new products. The company's growth compounded. Based in Pasadena, Avery Dennison (the Dennison name was added in a 1990s merger) now has more than 17,000 employees and annual sales of nearly $4 billion.
Avery, who died in 1997, and Smith never relinquished their ties to Pomona. Smith, now a director emeritus of Avery Dennison, is a former chairman of the College's Board of Trustees, and three Smith children are alumni. His son Stewart '68 is the board's current chair. Another connection exists through Philip M. Neal '62, a Pomona trustee, who became Avery Dennison's chief executive officer in 1998 and chairman in May 2000. His two sons are also Pomona alumni.
"Stan Avery knew that it was Pomona that helped get him Russ Smith, who helped to make the company," says Sontag. "And Stan and Russ brought Philip Neal into the company. These are the kinds of connections a small college can produce."
A NEW HORIZON
The connections that enable many Pomona alumni to amplify their own talents extend to the larger Claremont Colleges community as well.
On a searing August day in 1998, Arlo Belshee '99 and Dan Moran (Harvey Mudd '99) founded an Internet company while building a fish pen on a pier in Long Beach for Moran's thesis. Of about 30 people working at the business in early fall this year, 20 were graduates of The Claremont Colleges. Many faculty members, administrators, trustees and alumni of the colleges have put money into the venture; in some cases, substantial sums.
The company, called Horizon, a Glimpse of Tomorrow, creates rotating, three-dimensional crossword puzzles and other games for use in Internet advertising. Ads accompany or are embedded within the games. 3-D Crossword is Horizon's flagship product. Customers buy it for their own Web sites in the hope it will help make the sites "sticky" by keeping visitors engaged.
Moran has bachelor's degrees in biology and government from Harvey Mudd. Belshee was a mathematics major at Pomona. After they had an epiphany on the pier about developing a Web advertising strategy, the networking began. Moran and Belshee enlisted two more students as co-founders: Jason Fredrickson from Harvey Mudd and Holly Rushing from Scripps. Investment money trickled in. Horizon added more students and recent grads as the web of contacts broadened. In late summer, along with Belshee, who is co-founder and chief technology officer, several other Pomona alumni held key roles: Ben Hoyt '00, director of business development; Jeremy Douglass '99, crossword coordinator; and David Conneely '97, marketing strategist. Conneely was steered to Horizon by Pomona College's Career Development Office.
Horizon's founders plumbed Pomona's alumni database and found Andrew Brown '78, a vice president at J.P. Morgan & Co. He joined the company's board of directors, and helped open the door to other financial resources. By midsummer 2000, Horizon had raised $1.5 million, much of it from people connected with the colleges.
By late summer, many Internet start-ups were going up in smoke after burning through investors' cash. But as other start-ups were laying off, Horizon was hiring. And as fresh investment sources began drying up throughout the new industry, Horizon, through a contact Brown provided, was completing a new venture capital deal of at least $3 million. Moran and Belshee said they were not fazed by the problems of other start-ups.
"It's a tough space to play in," said Belshee. "Because you're in a start-up environment, there's a lot more now-now-now, the pressure's higher, there's a lot more importance attached to everything. If this project doesn't succeed, it's not just that the company loses money or that you'll be transferred to a different department--the company is gone. Everyone's coming in late at night. Everyone's coming in on Saturdays, on Sundays."
Moran said "There's tremendous pressure ... If I don't do my job, 30 people don't eat, 30 people get evicted. That's extremely stressful." But he sees the chastening of other dot-coms as a good thing. "It weeds out some of the weaker competitors, and it weeds out some of the weaker clients," he said.
Horizon anticipates a positive cash flow within a year.
"Companies like ours," Moran said, "with a business model that works, with a revenue model that makes sense, companies that are designed not to raise money on stock but to actually be profitable, those are the companies that are going to survive."
A movie producer is only as good as the writers she knows, says Lynda Obst '72. A Pomona connection helped lead her to two of them: brothers Richard '76 and Douglas Preston '78.
They have more than Pomona in common. All three grew up in the 1960s, all three have been magazine journalists, and all three have written bestselling books. All have collaborated on projects with one another. Obst is now best known as a producer, Richard Preston as an author and journalist, and Douglas Preston as a suspense novelist.
Obst recently obtained the rights to make a movie based on a story idea of Douglas Preston's, called Grave Goods. "When I came up with the idea, I brought it to Lynda rather than shopping it all around town, since I knew she would make a great movie. And she gets movies made, which is important," says Preston. He is co-author, with friend Lincoln Child, of a succession of popular suspense novels, among them Relic, Riptide and The Ice Limit.
Douglas Preston met Obst when he was a senior at Pomona and Obst, then an editor of The New York Times Magazine, came to the College to give a lecture on careers in journalism.
Preston, who was a writer and editor for a magazine published by the American Museum of Natural History before becoming an author, says he has wanted to work with Obst for a long time.
Preston says his deal with Obst for Grave Goods is very unusual, if not unique, in Hollywood. She will develop a film project independently--Preston will have nothing to do with the script. He reserved the right to write a novel based on the idea he sold her and expects to start it soon. "It will be interesting to see how the two end products--movie and novel--compare," he says.
Obst also has sought to resurrect a movie project based on Richard Preston's taut nonfiction book The Hot Zone, an elaboration of a story he wrote for The New Yorker about an effort to prevent the spread of a deadly virus from a U.S. military lab. Her first attempt to film the movie in the mid-1990s crumpled when her project stalled, while a producer who had lost the bidding for the rights to Preston's story raced ahead with a knockoff version, apparently shooting footage even before a script was written. The competing movie became Outbreak.
The collapse of The Hot Zone became an exemplum on persevering in Obst's autobiographical book Hello, He Lied--and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches. If The Hot Zone gets into theaters, it won't be the first time Obst has revived a dormant project. It took her 17 years to get Contact into production. The Hot Zone's seeming demise, Obst says in her book, was "only the temporary end ... Round 47." She says, "Hot Zone's eventual gift to me will have nothing to do with its outcome. Hot Zone's legacy will have been the understanding of the illusion of finality."
The Preston brothers--who also have worked together at times--have maintained a long and trusting relationship with Obst in a business known for frequent fallouts among partners and friends. Their years at the College may have played a part in that.
"Our shared Pomona background, while we rarely discuss it, is important," Douglas Preston says. "Both of us respect each other's intellect, which is not something either of us could say perhaps about many other Hollywood people. Lynda is a reader, again a rarity in Hollywood. And by that I don't mean she just reads books, but she has a deep intellectual appreciation for literature which I know was engendered at Pomona. Sometimes in Hollywood I feel like an alien--but I've never felt this way with Lynda."
Obst also maintains connections with other Pomonans, including alumni at Paramount Pictures, where she works now. She says she frequently sees author, columnist and jazz scholar Stanley Crouch, who is a close friend of hers and a former instructor at Pomona. She recently reconnected with writer, editor and critic Louis Menand '73, who was a member of her band when both were undergraduates. "We do feel a kind of intimacy, a kind of camaraderie," she says of these relationships, born of the college years. "We're well aware of it, and it's a little bit of a rah-rah thing, in a very low-key, Pomona kind of way."
STARTING WITH RESPECT
Christopher Mann, the Geography of Hope co-founder, says he thinks many Pomonans are able to connect productively because of "a shared sense of intellectual curiosity and challenge. When I meet someone from Pomona, I feel that there's a common bond and that they're multidimensional, very thoughtful people." Writer Douglas Preston says, "Being a Pomona alum, I think, means a lot more to other Sagehens than it would for most other colleges. Some schools engender more school loyalty than others--why, I don't know--and Pomona is one of those schools." Professor Frederick Sontag has his own idea, and it has to do with the essence of the College. "The freshmen come here and they feel these tight personal relationships--and they learn," he says.