Bucks County was a much different place in the mid-’60s than it is now. It was mostly rural, with most people living in places like Doylestown or, in the lower part of the county, Levittown. There wasn’t much but farmland in between the county seat and burgeoning suburb, but that was where Dr. Charles Rollins laid the foundation for what today is a Bucks County institution.
Rollins, who passed away at the age of 94 last week, was the founding president of Bucks County Community College. It was one of the first of its kind in the state, and the nation.
“It was a brand-new concept for all but two states in the country,” said James Freeman, a longtime professor of language and literature at the school. “We probably would have eventually had it, but it would have taken a lot longer.”
A former Marine, Rollins had attended college on the GI Bill, earning an M.A. and Ed.D. from Columbia University in New York. By the time Pennsylvania passed its Community College Charter in 1963, which mandated state and county funding for community colleges, he’d served as the dean at York Junior College in York, Pennsylvania and as founding president of Edison Junior College in Florida.
Recognizing the advantages of the GI Bill and noting the needs of unemployed civilians, recent high school graduates and older people looking to change or improve their careers, Rollins was a staunch, early advocate for community colleges.
“The guy would drive to Harrisburg and talk to state representative and senators. He’d take them out to lunch and say, ‘Let’s get this rolling,’ ” said Freeman. “He was good at getting things started and being a body in the right offices to get everything he could to make the project fly.”
The college opened its doors in the fall of 1965, and the first class of 750 students gathered in just one building, now Tyler Hall. Most of them were recent high school graduates from Levittown mixed with adults, particularly middle-aged women and one student in her 70s. A few months after classes began, the federal government passed the Higher Education Act, which established federal aid for tuition and kicked off a boom in new community colleges for the rest of the decade.
Meanwhile, Rollins and his family took up residence in a cottage on the campus. There’s still a basketball hoop where he and his son would play, and he would regularly eat lunch with the students and other faculty members in the same room those first few years.
“I think the fact that he lived on campus made him identify with the school and really shape the growth of the place,” said Martin Sutton.
Hired personally by Rollins, Sutton is part of the original faculty and still teaches part-time at Bucks. He’d heard about the new school from an article in the Allentown Morning Call newspaper. The person who wrote that article also ended up on the college’s staff.
Sutton acknowledges that the original faculty was fairly homogenous, especially when compared to the college’s mixed-gender, multicultural and international staff today. But in 1965, that wasn’t the case.
“Back then, it was about getting younger, middle-aged and older people on the faculty with diverse professional backgrounds,” Sutton said. “I was 27, one of the younger ones. My officemate came after being a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was in his 60s.”
Rollins and his family made sure the team was tight knit. His wife hosted picnics and created a faculty wives club. The staff and their own families would spend weekends at the college, often canoeing in the nearby Neshaminy Creek.
“There was a small-town feeling on the campus,” said Sutton.
There was also plenty of work to be done. Getting accreditation was a big focus the first few years, and Rollins would set five- and 10-year goals for the school. He also worked closely with architects and construction crews as new buildings went up, and continuously lobbied for money to keep the college growing.
Sutton recalls a time he drove Rollins to the airport. The president was snowed in at the Newtown campus, and walked all the way to Langhorne to meet him.
“He went to the U.S. Department of Education and came back with $6 million in grants and loans to build new red brick buildings,” said Sutton.
To many, Rollins’ own professional background was an important part of his personality — and integral to the school’s success.
“He had that that tough, no-nonsense, get things done military attitude, which is good in a college president. He wasn’t shy about making the tough decisions,” recalled Freeman.
As tough as he could be, however, Rollins always had an open-door policy for students and staff.
“He was a force of nature when it came to convictions and his beliefs, but he’d listen to other points of view and try to make the best calls for the school. Sometimes, he didn’t agree with you but he’d listen to you,” Freeman said.
Fellow language and literature professor and former school provost Dr. Annette Conn noted that, despite his “rather stern and military bearing,” Rollins was a “surprisingly liberal early supporter of free speech.”
She points to outcry from the community when the school’s cultural affairs committee planned to mount a controversial Andy Warhol film festival in the ‘70s. Rollins, said Conn, backed the right of the campus community to pursue the festival, even if it didn’t reflect everyone’s tastes.
It’s an example of the principles that kept people like Conn, Freeman and Sutton at the college for decades.
“His toughness was always with an eye toward doing the right thing for the most people in the community,” said Freeman.
A memorial service to celebrate Dr. Rollins’ life will take place on Aug. 2 at the solarium on the second floor of the Charles E. Rollins Center at Bucks County Community College’s Newtown Campus, 275 Swamp Road in Newtown, at 4 p.m. The service is open to the public. Those who wish to attend should call 215.968.8219 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.