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2007 Alumni Distinguished Service Award: John Fisher '67

Passing the Torch

The gritty, work-hard town of Colton, with its rail yards and rumbling big rigs, is much farther away from Claremont than the 25 miles the maps let on. Many high-schoolers there won't go on to a four-year college; it would be safe to assume that few have ever heard of Pomona College.

But Pomona knows Colton. Thank John Fisher '67 for that. From 1995 until he retired in 2004, the high-school AP history teacher sent to Pomona a steady succession of applicants, students who wouldn't typically be looking to an elite liberal arts college. In all, eight of his 10 picks wound up graduating from Pomona. One didn't get in; another was admitted but went elsewhere. Still, 80 percent is quite a feat when you're talking about a school that admits fewer than one in five applicants.

For his keen eye for students with Pomona potential -- and his ability to motivate them to excel -- Fisher is the recipient of Pomona's 2007 Distinguished Service Award for alumni, which will be presented during the April 27-29 Alumni Weekend.

"You see these unspoiled, hardworking, great kids and you see they want more,'' says Fisher, known for an animated teaching style heavy on mnemonic devices, hearty congratulatory handshakes and frequent writing assignments. "(But) they don't know what Pomona College is, let alone how Pomona might catapult them into professional lives they might otherwise only dream of."

That started to change in 1995, when Fisher pointed three of his top Colton High students to Pomona. They all got in. They all enrolled, choosing Pomona over other top-ranked schools.

Part of that first group, Aaron Bruhl '99 was also admitted to Harvard and Stanford, but he picked Pomona because he liked the idea of attending a small school where he could build close ties with professors. He did just that, graduating summa cum laude and going on to Cambridge as Pomona's Downing scholar, then to Yale's law school. Now he's a law professor at University of Houston. "I don't think I ever had a teacher who brought more excitement to learning," writes Bruhl in a tribute to Fisher upon the teacher's retirement after 22 years. "That Pomona College had produced such a person was one of the main reasons that I decided to go there. It was just the right place for me, and that decision is responsible for many of the opportunities that I have had since then."

Salina Serna '99 led the first generation of her family to go to college. After graduating from Pomona, she went to University of Washington Medical School. Dr. Serna is now a hospitalist at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, Calif., caring for patients with internal medicine diagnoses.

Terry Roberts '99 today is chief operating officer of the computer software firm, SL-Tech, and is pursuing his MBA at UCLA. He remembers how Fisher would rush to the door before class let out to give each student an enthusiastic handshake and a slap on the back that "if you weren't really on guard almost sent you flying across the hallway. The enthusiasm was always there, every day, every class, through the whole year," says Roberts.

The next year brought to Pomona Richard Mendoza '00, who went on to Yale's law school and served as a clerk for Ferdinand Fernandez, former Pomona Trustee and judge in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Today Mendoza is an associate with the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers in downtown Los Angeles.

The list goes on: After earning his graduate degree in chemistry from UC Irvine, Tom Vasquez '02 returned to Pomona where he is now the Organic Chemistry Lab coordinator. Gricelda Gutierrez '03 teaches Spanish at Fontana High, where she helps with a program encouraging students to go on to college. Heather Valenzuela '03 is working on her master’s degree in teaching at Evergreen State College in Washington State, with plans to teach either high school biology or middle school. Kelly Baden '04 works for Warner Music in Burbank. "He's the one who brought Pomona to my attention," says Baden, the last of the bunch, graduating in 2004 with an American Studies Major. "It was perfect."

Fisher, to no surprise, shares that same fondness for his Pomona days, when he majored in international relations and later government, played on the basketball team and went to Liberia for a summer as part of the Crossroads Africa program. The kind of student who had to work hard at his classes, he always felt fortunate just to have been admitted, gaining an appreciation for "what Pomona can do to open up the world for a regular person who doesn't have a lot of advantages."

Fisher remembers how one of his Pomona College professors, Michael Armacost, encouraged him to enter the teaching profession. In a recent letter to Fisher, Armacost writes "The great thing about the teaching profession is that one never knows when and how one will shape another's life. You clearly have influenced countless students, and for that you can be very proud, as I am for you."

Though he is now retired, Fisher’s influence in the lives of his students will play out for years to come. He used to bring to class a clay torch, taken from a smaller-scale replica of the State of Liberty that had once been a movie prop, and encourage each of his students to hold it. "I want you to all feel what it's like to have the torch," he would tell them. "Pass it on, pass it on."