Written by: Executive Director Dominic Tartaglia
On a Summer afternoon I had the opportunity to sit down with a man that has been changing San Luis Obispo and educating students at Cal Poly since his arrival. In my previous interviews, one man kept coming up as a person that had a story that would be great material for this series. The following account of our interview is the summation of the longest interview that I have ever conducted and the lessons that were laced throughout the interview, as to be expected from a long time professor.
In 1952 a young man came to San Luis Obispo with his wife and two children to pursue a new career as a professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Ken Schwartz and his family were leaving a much larger Los Angeles to try the small town life. In his words there was some hesitation about moving to a town of only 14,000 residents, “It was a big step down from LA but we thought we would give it a try.” Prior to this point in his life, Schwartz had been an architect and the thought of becoming a teacher was a foreign concept but it appealed to him and he planned to give it a shot for a while. “After the first couple of years, things just kept expanding and I never left.”
Teaching has been a significant part of Mr. Schwartz’s life and was evident throughout the interview as questions that I asked were answered with a question in return and followed with a thorough analysis of the subject matter. When given the opportunity to discuss his early career at the university, the first subject that he brought up was the “Learn by doing” educational philosophy that Poly is so well known for. Schwartz explained, “Julian McPhee was instrumental in developing the learn by doing philosophy and what many other establishments would call an upside down educational philosophy. That was my indoctrination.” Campus was also physically different in those years as there was not a clear separation in the teachers’ offices and classrooms, it was just as common to find classrooms and offices in the fields and barns as it was to call on professors by their first name.
That concept resonated with Schwartz and he carried that vision forth with him near the end of his time at the university when he assisted in designing and programming a new school in Costa Rica. In that process he spread the philosophy to other planners from around the world and the school later grew to become a university that echoes the teaching style of Cal Poly as we know it. As we sat and talked about the benefit of a campus that was integrated to that point, he recalled stories of taking his children out to the barns and fields where they were immersed in agriculture. Not only could they pet the hogs and pick produce but occasionally the professors would be around to share a simple lesson, “I hope that we don’t lose that spirit with the growth of the university.” For many of us who grew up as kids in SLO, we can relate.
The topic of the growth of our town radiated out much like the way a community grows from the center out. I doubt this conversation followed that formula by chance. When talking about the civic center and the efforts to maintain the County seat Schwartz recalled, “A hell of a fight to keep the government facilities Downtown. It was not an easy fight.” In the end the argument was made to stay Downtown and not move out to the area near Madonna Inn. As a result, the existing Downtown businesses were able to be successful as they provided support to county to employees, jurors, contractors, etc.
As is the case in many communities, growth was happening in San Luis Obispo and the small agrarian town that existed when the Schwartz family moved here was changing. “Before the mega hardware stores, there were five privately owned hardware stores Downtown. How were they supported? When you would go into one of these stores what you would find was people with cowboy boots. They would come in from surrounding ranches of the county and they were buying supplies at the same time they were stocking up on food. So it was one trip, maybe weekly or bi-weekly. And it was a different kind of economy out in the hinterlands. It wasn’t vineyards, it was cattle and animal raising and hay and grain as opposed to grapes.” Ultimately the change in the agrarian economy affected the urban Downtown.
Which brought up the question for me of whether or not SLO could adapt and become urbanized in spite of our agrarian history. I got a question back, “What do you know about Proposition 13?” The following discussion and analysis of the infamous proposition outlined his disgust for how it shaped elements of our city. One big factor in whether Downtown could adapt in Schwartz’s analysis stems from the change in ownership of Downtown buildings. “I think when I was mayor, business ownership and property ownership were pretty close to par. About 80% of business owners owned their buildings. Now that may be inverted.” As we pressed further into this topic, profit and entrepreneurship were contrasted historically versus presently. Schwartz added, “In the former times, the profit from the property was more a function of the business as opposed to the value of the property.”
Indeed the times have changed and the relationships between businesses and the property they operate on have very different ratios but we are one of the few communities blessed to still have business owners that own the land under their stock. When I imagine what Downtown looked like in the days of Woolworth’s and Sears, I also see the private businesses next door, and I see the familiar faces of the shopkeepers of today with the same welcome of a smile and expert guidance on whatever product or service I am looking for. In that vision I know our town has changed but in doing so we preserved the essential character that embodies the Downtown SLO experience. It is with great appreciation for people like Ken Schwartz that I get to work and live in paradise.