Alums walk us past woolly worms on memory lane
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine
Oh, the stories they tell of life at Grand Canyon College in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. Of a simpler time, except for the rules and regulations. Of a campus crawling with far more woolly worms than students. Of accomplishments and milestones. Of pleasant memories that live on even though virtually all of the buildings where they were created are gone.
Four alumni from that era — Pete and Bertha Gorraiz and Rick and Rosemary Senitza — can scarcely believe their eyes as they walk around a campus that is nothing like what they knew. But that’s what makes the stories even better. So let’s grab some hot cocoa, put another ember on the fire and allow these four retired teachers to educate us.
Strolling through the ’50s
Our first subject: how the University got its purple and white colors. Bertha Gorraiz says it was her idea.
“I was the rebel,” she says. “When I was a freshman and I got here, their colors were brown and gold — I thought they were ugly colors even though it was the colors that went with sundown.”
“This is good. Listen to this,” chimes in Pete, her husband of 61 years. You get the impression he’s heard this one, oh, about a thousand times — and never gets tired of it.
Bertha continues, “I said, ‘Let’s take a petition around to change the colors and make bright colors — purple and white.’ We signed off the petition and we put in fine print, ‘The colors can never be changed again.’ So I’m the reason we have purple.”
The gleam in her eye makes her look far younger than her 82 years, and her face shines brighter still as she tells how she and Pete met. “I was a freshman, he was a junior,” she says, “and the women’s volleyball coach, Mrs. (Mildred) Brazell, told me one time in class, ‘If I wasn’t married, I’d marry that Pete Gorraiz. That’s what I’d do.’ I said, ‘Who is that? I’ve never met him.’ But I took care of that.”
That Pete Gorraiz, who turned 85 in early February a week after his wife’s birthday, was an athlete who says his one claim to Grand Canyon fame is that he got the first base hit in the school’s rich baseball history before he graduated in 1954. He was born and raised in west Phoenix on Thomas Road, which then was called Maricopa Road.
“Everything was different,” he says. “There were dirt roads everywhere.” Bertha, who grew up in Littlefield, Texas, was nonplussed by the cotton fields that surrounded the Grand Canyon campus, but she was less than enthusiastic about woolly worms that seemingly tried to expand their cotton-pickin’ minds by regularly slithering into the classrooms.
“As a freshman, I had a friend who was a couple of years older than I was — he went to our church,” she says. “And because I was a freshman and he was an upperclassman, he gave me a fruit jar and said, ‘I want you to fill this up with all those woolly worms.’ And I went, ‘Blehhh!’ I had to walk all over campus and put woolly worms into this jar.”
The woolly worms weren’t the only creatures that didn’t show the campus much respect. Bertha remembers a conversation she overheard while she was working at a drugstore at 27th Avenue and Camelback Road:
“I was at the cash register, and a man came in talking to another man and said, ‘By the way, what are these buildings down here on the north? They’re brown buildings. They’re kind of one level.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, I think it’s a TB (tuberculosis) sanitarium.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not!’” But respect on campus was a big thing. That translated into rules so strict, they seem incredible in today’s world.
“Tell him about when you were grounded for a week,” Pete tells Bertha. “This is good!”
“I was out watching the boys play football,” she says. “They were throwing the ball back and forth, and I was over to the side just sitting there watching them. A teacher called my mother and said, ‘People from the different churches driving onto campus and seeing this girl out here watching the boys play football — that’s not good.’ And my mother said, ‘Well, you’d better be thankful she wasn’t out there playing with them.’” Still, her mother grounded her. Different times, indeed.
Cheering through the ’70s
Bertha was a cheerleader, and the rules certainly extended to their skirts, which had to be down to mid-calf. They still were required to reach the knees, even though the miniskirt was all the rage, when high school sweethearts Rick and Rosemary Senitza (classes of ’70 and ’71, respectively) arrived in Phoenix after growing up in Lawrenceburg, Ind., not far from Cincinnati.
“We had to kneel on the ground, and when we did the skirts had to touch the ground,” Rosemary says. “And we weren’t allowed to wear our cheerleader uniforms around campus.” (Believe it or not, cheerleaders were chosen by popular vote and had to try out at Chapel.)
Women had to be in their residence halls (Rosemary lived in Kaibab) by 9 p.m. during the week and 11 p.m. on weekends. Chapel for all students was mandatory every Wednesday, and Sundays were equally strict — the campus police ordered Rick to stop washing his car one Sunday because it was considered work on the day the Lord reserved for rest. There also was no food service on Sundays.
Rick played point guard on the basketball team, coached by Ben Lindsey, the winningest coach in school history and a 2010 inductee into the GCU Athletics Hall of Fame. The 1969-70 team went 21-6, supported by big crowds that spilled out of the doorways of the old North Gym, and became the first Grand Canyon team to qualify for the NAIA district playoffs. The Antelopes later would win NAIA championships in 1975 and 1978.
Rick went on to coach junior high basketball, and he and Rosemary are such big basketball fans that they met the men’s team in Italy when it was touring there before the 2013-14 season. When they make the one-way, 33-mile drive from their home in Gilbert, Ariz., for men’s games at GCU Arena, it’s as if the North Gym atmosphere has been put in a time machine and multiplied many times over.
“This is the best basketball experience in the whole state, including the high school championship games,” Rick says. “You don’t see anything like this anywhere else. The fans are 100 percent better. The cheerleaders are 100 percent better. The game experience is 100 percent better.”
When they venture away from the Arena and see what’s happening around campus, Rosemary says, “In some ways, I’m overwhelmed. When we were students here, there was basically nothing. We had one ping-pong table — but there was no ball.”
Rick says, “I’m proud of the place. We both talk it up to anybody and everybody.”
Bertha and Pete also are basketball regulars and have even more reason to be amazed by GCU’s rapid growth, considering how tiny the campus was in the 1950s. “It’s fabulous,” Bertha says. “You can see Grand Canyon all over the Valley. It makes you feel real good, that this Christian college is doing so well.”
But that doesn’t take anything away from what things were like before the worm turned.
● Click here to read about an alumni couple who added triplets to an already busy household.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.