Mel Lindbloom was assistant superintendent of the Auburn School District under Superintendent Hayes Holman in 1962 when his boss tasked him with the job of working on opening the region’s first community college.
But when Lindbloom first set sights on what was to become the campus of Green River Community College, today known as Green River College, he had his doubts. It was all trees in those days, he later recalled, and 124th Street ended in an unimpressive pile of sawdust.
“Ray Needham — the college’s first dean of instruction — and I, along with one of the architects, tramped through brush and found the corners of the buildings on the original master plan,” Lindbloom told the Kent Reporter in 2015. “I just didn’t think it is was going to happen. There was so much to do.”
But get it done they did.
And ever since the college opened its doors in 1965, it has served tens of thousands of students, providing career and technical education, associates degrees and, today, nine bachelor’s degrees along with opportunities to transfer on to other educational institutions inside and outside of the United States.
Lindbloom died at his home in Lynnwood on Feb. 10, 2020, at age 97.
On May 20, 2022, friends, colleagues and family members gathered in the 7-year old Mel Lindbloom Student Union building on the Lea Hill campus to celebrate the life of the man who served as GRC’s first president from 1964 to 1980.
Suzanne Johnson, current president of Green River College, described Lindbloom’s many-faceted legacy, which encompasses not only the founding of the college, she said, but also setting up one of the strongest career and technical college systems in the nation.
“One of the most important measures of legacy (is) what you leave in people … Mel Lindbloom has a legacy in tens of thousands of students that have come through the doors of Green River College and have gone out into the world and beyond this community to do amazing things in their lives.”
Needham, who was Lindbloom’s “right-hand man” during the creation of the college and for its first few years, remembered his friend and colleague in a video clip that was played at the celebration. Needham said the two met when they were students at Washington State University, with Lindbloom working on his doctorate, and Needham working on his master’s degree.
“I was living in a dorm, and in the next room to me was a guy I got well acquainted with named Mel Lindbloom, and we seemed to be shaving at the same time and we became good friends,” Needham said.
A few years later, the friends reunited in Auburn.
One of the first tasks at the time was to do the work to get the college going. A citizens committee of people interested in the college had already been developed, and it became the work of that committee and others to convince the Legislature to allow more community colleges to be built.
Under state law, community colleges, then called junior colleges, could not be built in a county where there was already a four-year university. In 1961, that law was changed, effectively paving the way for colleges like Green River. In 1962, the state authorized Green River Community College to open in the fall of 1965.
Lindbloom told the Kent Reporter in 2015 that getting the college up and running was no easy task.
Indeed, his opening comment to faculty was: “Now what do we do?”
Needham recalled Lindbloom’s enduring influence on his own life.
“Of all the people that I have known who really helped me, it was Mel. I watched him as president and I found myself doing a lot of things like he did,” Needham said. “If I had to list one or two people in my life as my hero, it was Mel Lindbloom. I took a lot of his ideas of working with staff, being honest.
“I remember a couple of times when we had things that weren’t so good happening, and we’d just as soon not run off to the press, and he’d say, ‘No, let’s tell the press the very first, get the word out.’ He was extremely honest. And I think his honesty has stayed with me all my life,” Needham said.
Needham left Green River in 1970 and went on to serve as president at colleges in Oregon and North Carolina before retiring from Tacoma Community College. He attributed his success as a college president to what he learned from Lindbloom.
Earl Hale, former executive director of the state board of community and technical colleges, met Lindbloom in 1971 and recalled the influence he wielded through the trustees’ association and the president’s association in their formative years.
“He was that kind of a major figure in the system,” Hale said. “Mel had a foot in each bucket. He could look at issues strategically, he could look at the long term, and he could give advice to our office or to the board I worked for in those days about the division of labor between campuses and the state office. And he could talk a little about what this or that would mean, what needed to be systematized and what didn’t. And I appreciated that about Mel. He could look at the big picture, and he could be a statesman.”
“The opinion leader, the advice giver was a role Mel played very well, the best,” Hale added.
Lindbloom, who served on a Navy destroyer in the Pacific theater during World War II, advocated for students during the Vietnam War. Students could defer military service if they were attending college full time.
Lindbloom, colleagues said, was most proud of the college’s commitment to serving students. One motto he took seriously during his presidency was “think student, then decide.”
“The element that I am really proud of is the commitment to the worth and dignity of students, and that has been proven over and over,” Lindbloom said in 2015. “It is a great place, and I am very proud of it.”