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Ashley Lowery, Deseret News
Harold Park, 98, is the oldest living graduate of the institution. He holds a toolbox he made while taking sheet-metal classes at Central Utah Vocational School. Three generations of his family have attended the school.

OREM — If it weren't for the absence of a casserole dish of green Jell-O and the presence of a Deseret News reporter, copiously taking notes, it would have been easy to confuse the gathering at Harold Park's Orem home last week for a full-on, three-generation family reunion.

As it was, though, the Park family was just sharing memories of their hometown school, Utah Valley State College. Harold Park, 98, is the oldest living graduate of the institution, which, after 18 months of preparation, will officially take on the title of Utah Valley University Tuesday.

"Who do you want in the photo?" one family member asked, as the newspaper photographer hustled the Parks off the couch for a group shot.

"Anyone who's taken classes at UVSC."

They laughed. The only one who wasn't included in the photo was the toddler, who tinkered with Matchbox cars as her elders chatted.

"She's a future Utah Valley University grad," her mother said, with a wink.

It's not an anomaly, in Utah County, for a family to have so many ties to UVSC.

"We're a regional institution," said UVSC President William A. Sederburg. "To be locally engaged is one of our major initiatives."

Since its humble beginnings as a vocational school in the early 1930s, UVSC has gone through five presidents, five names and three campuses. But even as the school claims the more prim and proper title of Utah Valley University, school administrators maintain at least one thing about the educational institution will never change.

"As we decide what kind of university this is going to be, we are constantly asking ourselves, 'How can we be stewards of our community?"' Sederburg said. "Community engagement has always been at the heart of this school's goals."

Generation One: technical school

UVSC's original conception was in response to public need.

It was the early 1940s, and Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor had just violently thrust the United States into World War II.

"As things were stirring in Europe, the country was stressing defense-oriented technical training," said Mark Bezzant, UVSC's official historian. "They were worried the Japanese would bomb the steel plants on the coast so they wanted to train more people who could work in the steel industry."

So, the school's first director, Hyrum Johnson, organized classes in a barn at the Provo City Fairgrounds, and Central Utah Vocational School was born. Among other things, the school offered courses in welding, parachute upholstery and nursing.

When the military turned Harold Park down because of a weak ankle, he enrolled at Central Utah Vocational School.

"I thought, 'Well if they're not going to take me in the Army, I'll stay and work,"' he said.

Park took sheet-metal classes. He specialized in air conditioning and heating systems. His business, Modern Heating & Sheet Metal, is now the longest-running heating and air-conditioning gig in Utah County.

"Because of the war, we didn't have metal to work with so we'd practice our layouts and things with sheets of paper," Park said. "We had paper, a pair of scissors, a pair of dividers and a tape measure. That's how we learned duct work."

Park didn't have any books for his classes, which included basic mathematics and business theory. There were no quizzes and no finals.

"We just kept going over the things we thought we needed practice on," he said.

He never imagined the school he attended would someday reach a student population of nearly 24,000. There were only 15 people in his program.

As far as the school gaining university status, "now that's just unbelievable," he said.

"I could have never gone to a university," Park said. "For one thing I could never have afforded it."

But in those days, he said, a little vocational training went a long ways. Salaries were largely dependent on hard work and technical skill.

"It was hard to find any work during that time," he said. "The degree helped a lot. It was something no one could fire me from."

Generation Two: community college

By the time Park's children were grown, however, the educational landscape had changed considerably.

"There's a lot more pressure now to get formal education beyond high school," he said. "Even if you don't end up working in the field you study, you draw a better salary."

UVSC responded to the societal pressure.

"Brigham Young University started raising its standards, and it started getting harder and harder to get in," historian Bezzant said. "People in Utah County still needed higher education, and it gets more expensive if you have to leave home. UVSC evolved to meet the needs of the community by offering associate degrees and then, later, bachelor's degrees."

The school soon outgrew its campus. State funding was limited, though, so the school's second director, Wilson Sorensen, got the faculty together to landscape the Orem campus, where the school currently stands.

"The president dug the sprinkler system himself," Bezzant said.

The institution increased offerings in general education courses like psychology and history as it morphed into a community college, but UVSC maintained a strong vocational base. As a university, school administrators said, that won't change.

"We aren't abandoning the trades," said Bezzant, who is also assistant vice president in charge of school, college and university partnerships. "We're not going to plant ivy around all the buildings and turn into an ivory tower. We're just growing with Utah County."

It was the school's auto mechanics program that initially attracted Joseph Park, Harold Park's third child, in the 1960s. During high school, he started doing concurrent enrollment at what was then called Utah Technical College at Provo.

The 57-year-old Mapleton resident jokingly refers to his time at the school as "release time for troubled youth." He didn't graduate from high school, but because of UVSC's open enrollment policy, Joseph Park got his grades up enough to get accepted to law school. UVU will retain an open enrollment policy.

"It was a good springboard for individuals like me to get an opportunity to go to college," he said. "High school didn't work for me, but once I got into a college atmosphere I couldn't get enough of learning."

In the 1970s, when Tom Rasmussen, associate vice president for institutional advancement, attended UVSC, "It wasn't cool," he said. He originally enrolled because his father was an auto mechanics teacher so he could take classes for free.

It didn't take long for the school to win him over, though. He liked the small class sizes and the way the teachers took a personal interest in him. Because of the school's small size, he got to play on the basketball team — something that "would never happen today," he said, laughing.

"The teachers cared about what they taught," he said. "They taught from experience, and that's what I liked the most. It wasn't just theory out of a book. I didn't feel like a statistic."

Generation Three: state college

As UVSC has grown, it hasn't lost that personal touch, said Rasmussen, who has been employed at UVSC for 25 years. He got tears in his eyes when he talked about how far the institution has come during his lifetime.

"When we became a community college, we were told we would continue to grow," he said. "Every step of the way I thought to myself, 'There's no way this is going to happen. We just don't have the funding.' And yet it did. It's like a miracle, really."

Dustin Park, Harold Park's grandson, is too young to remember Utah Technical College or Utah Valley Community College. To him, the degree he got from UVSC in 2005 is more of a great deal than a miracle.

"I mean, for the cost per benefit of going there, it was better than about anyplace," said the 29-year-old, who works in construction management in Lehi.

It won't be a typical university. The school offers college-prep level classes to make education more attainable for everyone. Instructors still take time to work with students. Local residents get a large percentage of scholarship money.

"The education I got there was very hands-on," Dustin Park said. "I built a house. I helped teach high school students construction. I learned how to build cabinets."

UVSC's transition from college to university has sparked a little rivalry between Dustin Park and his younger brother Chad, 28, who will graduate next semester with a UVU diploma — but it's all in fun.

"I'll have a big advantage over him, you know, because I'm graduating from a university and not a college," Chad Park said, playfully. He nudged his brother in the ribs. "Sorry, dude."

But really, Chad Park hasn't noticed many changes since the college started making preparations to become a university after the state Legislature unanimously approved the name change in February 2007.

The school has changed 80,000 Web pages and 2,000 signs. Teachers are scrambling to get their master's degrees to maintain tenure.

"I see them doing homework while we're taking tests," Chad Park said.

Most of the major modifications, like rewriting polices, creating a master's degree program and reworking the academic structure, have been behind the scenes, though.

"It is weird to think how far we've come because the changes have been really gradual," said Dennis Farnsworth, who will celebrate his 37th anniversary teaching at UVSC in November. "It has not been overwhelming. It has been year by year, decade by decade."

From his place in the classroom, Farnsworth doesn't see how teaching at UVU will be much different from teaching at UVSC. He hopes to improve his skills as a teacher — but then, he's been doing that since he was hired at Utah Technical College at Provo.

"It has been more of an evolution than a revolution," Farnsworth said.

Sederburg agreed.

"I've never for a second thought the quality here at UVSC wasn't university level," he said. "The exciting thing is, now we have the title, we have the extra funds to target weaknesses and define the future of the institution."

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