By Clark Fair
Although he operated for several years primarily out of a 1963 Chevy Biscayne he had affectionately dubbed “Ol’ Blue,” Clayton Brockel was literally the “driving force” behind the creation of what is now known as Kenai Peninsula College. And although he shied away from accepting the lion’s share of the credit for this creation, his legacy is clear: a commitment to higher education on the Kenai Peninsula.
Brockel, 86, died July 10 at Central Peninsula Hospital after a long illness.
From 1964 until 1972, when the first building was erected on a permanent campus at the end of Poppy Lane, peninsula residents were most likely to see Brockel trundling along in Ol’ Blue, its backseat littered with college papers and Brockel’s overflowing briefcase. From Seward to Homer to Nikiski, and every community along the way, Ol’ Blue transported Brockel as he set up classes, arranged for instructors, transported dignitaries, and spread the word that there was a college on the peninsula.
In the early days, convincing people that the college existed was the hard part. And no wonder — what was known then as Kenai Peninsula Community College lacked infrastructure. Most KPCC courses were evening offerings scheduled after the classes and other activities at Kenai Central High School had wrapped up for the day. The rest were taught mainly in other public schools around the peninsula, at any convenient confluence of time, space and qualified instructor — all orchestrated by Brockel via telephone from his office at the high school or by driving from place to place in Ol’ Blue.
The college was the brainchild of Brockel, a high school English teacher, and Kenai City School District superintendent Conrad Potter, who in 1963 had initiated an adult education program in Kenai and became convinced that the city needed more. They pushed for and received University of Alaska approval for a community college, Brockel was named director, and even though Potter moved on, Brockel never checked the rearview mirror on his progress. He kept his eyes focused straight ahead.
So from the beginning there was Brockel — his dark trilby hat pulled down over his receding hairline, a sly smile lining his countenance beneath black-rimmed spectacles — laboring for the university’s Division of Statewide Services as essentially a specialist in public relations.
“I considered myself a salesman,” Brockel said, “trying to sell an intangible product: education. You don’t walk up to somebody, knock on the door, and say, ‘Here, I got a package of education for you,’ instead of holding a bunch of brushes in your hand or vacuum cleaners. It’s hard to do.”
But Brockel faced the hard work head-on. He drove the highways and back roads of the peninsula, racking up more than 200,000 miles on Ol’ Blue as he sought out talented, energetic instructors, as he queried residents and business owners about their needs, as he sought funding to keep programs going, and as he gradually took the temperature of the Kenai and realized its tremendous potential.
Unfortunately for Brockel, there existed few templates for many of the things he was about to try — building a community college out of nothing and making it matter.
Fortunately for the Kenai Peninsula, the absence of good models deterred Brockel not one whit.
“I had faith that it would work, that I could do it,” he said. “You had to have faith. You had to be a dreamer. Because there was nothing there to compare it to.”
Still, Brockel knew he couldn’t build college all by himself, so he focused his salesmanship and his charisma on surrounding himself with positive people who could share his dream. He ignored the critics and naysayers, those who said the peninsula’s population could never support a college, those who wondered aloud why Brockel wanted to build a school in the woods away from population centers. He continued to push for higher education because he believed it was a necessity, like roads, utilities, hospitals, police and fire departments. As a result, one of his enduring legacies was his ability to fill the college with people who were dedicated to the mission of educating the community.
“It wasn’t just Brockel doing this,” he said. “You had people out there who believed in this and wanted it to go. They liked the idea of teaching and working on it. Those are the people you look for. Those are the people you want on your advisory committee. Stay away with your attitude that it won’t work, (that) it will never fly. There’s no way I wanted to work with someone on the other side, the negative person, and we had them; we had very conservative people down here who had their roots set and you couldn’t move them. You’d go down and you’d mash your brain into something new, some new ideas, new classes, and they’d sit there and look you right in the eye and say, ‘It’ll never work. It’ll never happen.’ I don’t need that.”
As a result of his knack for finding like-minded individuals to share his dream, some of his early hires turned out to have the greatest impact on the future of the college — the vocational triumvirate of Tom Wagoner, John Williams and Dennis Steffy; art instructor and naturalist Boyd Shaffer; English instructor and playwright Lance Petersen; mathematics instructor and future college director Ginger Steffy; and anthropology professor Alan Boraas.
Once Brockel got the right people in place, he gave them the space to operate. He avoided micromanaging. He trusted his instructors and his staff members to make good decisions and do what was best for the college.
Brockel also had faith in his ability to make good nonpersonnel decisions — particularly concerning the location of the campus and the decision to turn the college toward the oil industry.
When the remote campus site off Kalifornsky Beach Road was selected through a contentious process in the early 1970s, Brockel believed in his choice. Although no bridge yet existed over the lower Kenai River, Brockel believed that it would, and that it would make all the difference.
“K-Beach was a gravel road, and there were very few if any businesses out there,” Brockel said. “There was a small group of houses and Slikok Creek subdivision. Hell, there wasn’t anything out there. (But) we knew when that Bridge Access Road came in, this was going to be an artery between Soldotna and Kenai. We were looking ahead.”
And when the opportunity arose to start a petroleum technology program, Brockel — an academician with no vocational experience — made the move that put the college on the industry map. At the time, no other college in Alaska was interested in starting such a program, and there was no other program in the nation to use as a reference. The college had offered a few stand-alone courses related to the oil industry, but there was nothing about those classes that suggested the college should expand its offerings and develop a full-time program. Wagoner, Williams and Steffy became the boots on the ground, but Brockel, who realized that the peninsula’s future was tied to oil, breathed the first life into the effort.
Brockel wanted to help his community grow, and he decided his contribution was to educate adults and create a college that broadened minds. He believed that the community needed a college, and he made sure it happened. Brockel had great hopes and expectations for what a small Alaska oil community could become, and he did his part to help the community reach its potential.
“I had absolute faith in the fact that as the population grew, the college would grow, that would go hand in hand. This is one of the better areas to live in the state. This population down here was going to grow. And at that time we had petrochemical industries coming in here. So it was the total picture. It wasn’t just a dream thing. It wasn’t just somebody flipping a damn coin. The faith was built on calculation.”