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Dr. Robert Tranquada '51 Receives Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award

Dr. Robert E. Tranquada

For all of Robert E. Tranquada’s accomplishments—his medical, academic and administrative achievements; his instrumental efforts on many boards; his founding of the Watts Health Clinic—he is a very humble man, saying that serendipity was the driving force behind his career. But it seems that much more is going on: A lifelong commitment to service.

Tranquada knew from a very young age that he wanted to become a physician, after a kind doctor treated him when recovering from being hit by an automobile at age five. “[Becoming a doctor] was the one thing I never had any questions about,” says Tranquada ’51. “But most of the rest was just my response to where I found myself.”

Where he’s found himself today is a recipient of Pomona College’s Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award, which recognizes alumni for their high achievement in their professions or community service. Tranquada has touched many lives and organizations, from the Claremont Colleges, USC and UCLA to the community of Watts and the greater Los Angeles area.

Tranquada received his medical degree from Stanford University in 1955 and discovered an enjoyment of academic medicine while working at the Los Angeles VA Hospital. He ended up as an associate professor at USC, where he was led to one of his proudest accomplishments.

After the Watts riots in 1965, during which he commanded a National Guard medical battalion treating injured troops, there was federal money available to open a clinic in the city. The dean of the medical school at USC offered Tranquada the job.

“I was doing research and taking care of patients and teaching and enjoying my life as an associate professor. I had never, ever considered doing anything in the way of administration,” recalls Tranquada, who spent three years getting the Watts Health Clinic—which is still a pillar in the community—up and running. “It was an utterly and absolutely rewarding thing to do. It opened my eyes to the areas of policy and healthcare."

Tranquada’s career took a further turn to the administrative and academic when he was recruited to chair USC’s department of community medicine and health care. He later became dean of the School of Medicine and continued his career in similar professorial and dean positions at the UCLA School of Medicine, the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (where as chancellor he oversaw the development of a new graduate school of medicine), and back to USC, where he is now emeritus professor of medicine and public policy.

In 1991, another opportunity opened up to Tranquada: He was asked to chair an L.A. County taskforce on health care, which developed the Community Health Council, a board Tranquada has been on every since. One of the Council’s accomplishments is the L.A. Care and Health Plan, an independent health authority that provides health insurance through Medi-Cal to 900,000 people in L.A. County. Tranquada also served on the Christopher Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, which was developed after the Rodney King beating.

Tranquada has been particularly vital to Pomona College, the Claremont University Consortium and Keck Graduate University, so much so that the Tranquada Student Services Center was named in his honor.

His service to Pomona began with the Alumni Association in 1965. He became president of the association in 1968, which also began lifetime membership on the Pomona College Board of Trustees, including as vice chair from 1987-1991, chair from 1991-2000 and chairman emeritus since 2000.  The decade Tranquada was chair included an ambitious $150 million capital campaign, the construction of three new buildings, and institution of a major cycle of policy reviews.

Former President Peter W. Stanley once said at a dinner honoring Tranquada’s service that "… the heart of a college is its people: their integrity, wisdom and commitment to what is good. Whenever and wherever these are the criteria, I want Pomona College to be judged by Bob Tranquada."

During his initial days on the Board in the 1970s, Tranquada also served as a Pomona representative on the CUC board, which led to his involvement in the establishment of Bernard Field Station and Keck Graduate University, of which he was a founding board member.

"I've had experience on a number of different governing bodies, with some struggling organizations and some not so struggling," he told Pomona College Magazine in 2000, "and I can't identify another experience I've had that can match the one with Pomona. It has been a class act all the way. Not because I was there, but because that's the way the institution is."

Tranquada’s current board work includes being an emeriti member of Pomona, CUC and Keck, as well as continuing work on the Community Health Council, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, the Good Hope Medical Foundation, Huntington Medical Research Institutes, and Mt. San Antonio Gardens. His past appointments are too numerous to recount.

He laughs and says his wife Jan ‘51 says the board work keeps him out of trouble.

Tranquada is one of a long line of Sagehens, including many couples who met on campus: his parents Ernest Tranquada ’27 and Katherine Jacobus ’29; his sister Carolyn Tranquada Prestwich ’54 and her husband Bruce Prestwich ’56; Tranquada’s son John ’77 and his wife Lisa Sackett ’77; and his niece Lisa Prestwich ’79 and her husband Mark Phelps. There’s an entire list of cousins, too. Tranquada joked once to Pomona College Magazine that “Pomona College has been sort of a marriage mill for our family.”