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Dr. Robertson's Farewell

By Constance Tillotson

January 20 -- Civic leaders bid a fond farewell to Dr. Piedad Robertson Wednesday night, honoring Santa Monica College's outgoing president as an innovator who helped shape the city during her 10-year tenure.

The reception at the auditorium of St. Monica's Catholic Church came hours after Robertson helped break ground for the college's Madison Theater, the last in a string of projects initiated during her presidency. (see related story)

Top civic and business leaders -- including Mayor Pam O'Connor and former City manager John Jalili -- filled the hall, its tables simply adorned with white linen table cloths and bouquets of jewel-toned Gerber daisies and dark pink Casablanca lilies, as a harpist quietly played in the corner.

Robertson, understated in a chocolate brown pantsuit and tricolored pearls, circulated through the crowd, greeting well-wishers before taking the stage to receive an honorary leadership award from Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson, St. Monica's pastor.

"It is with great sadness to see you go," said Torgerson, who is Robertson's pastor. "You are a generous, courageous woman."

Robertson, whose retirement goes into effect January 31, was presented with letters from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein and Congressman Henry Waxman, among others.

Speakers thanked Robertson for her leadership and support.

"She took the bull by the horns," said Mayor Pam O'Connor. "Her vision set the course to make it the college for the new millennium."

Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John Deasy praised Robertson for helping to "make him a better superintendent."

"When education was at such a crossroads in the country, it was nice to know we were in such good hands," Deasy said.

A driving force at both the local and state levels since taking over SMC's top post in 1995, Robertson guided the college through a devastating earthquake that left facilities battered and a State fiscal crisis that siphoned funds from community colleges.

Robertson also led an unprecedented expansion of the college, which has maintained its spot as the top transfer institution to the University of California and USC, overseeing the opening of the Academy of Entertainment & Technology, the Bundy Campus and Emeritus College, as well as the soon-to-be-built Madison complex.

Dick Lawrence, president of SMC Associates, indulged Robertson's "love of small boxes" when he presented her with a very large blue Tiffany box. After pilfering through the layers of protective bubble, Robertson pulled out a classic crystal bowl with the inscription "Steadfast Support."

SMC Board President Carole Currey thanked Robertson for being the catalyst that brought together the college and the community.

"She is a natural optimist, who always kept her eyes on the prize," Currey said. "And that is the students."

Robertson -- whose retirement becomes effective Jan. 31, 2005 -- will assume the position of President of the Education Commission of the States (ECS), a 40-year-old national education policy organization.

With a staff of 51 and an annual budget of $11 million to $13 million, ECS is the nation's preeminent, nonpartisan source of information, ideas and leadership on education policy.

It tracks trends, translates research, provides advice and creates opportunities for governors, legislators and other state leaders to learn from one another. ECS's ultimate purpose is to help states improve their schools and colleges.

In closing, Robertson presented each college board member with large wooden plaques bearing their black and white photos and the words, "Never say it can't be done."

Then Robertson gave her parting words. "The community will always have my heart," she said, then turning to Torgerson added, "and you will always have my soul."

Tom Donner, SMC's executive vice president of Business and Administration, will serve as acting president until Robertson's replacement is chosen.

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