City College students may not realize is that current college President Kathryn Jeffery is not the first woman to lead the campus. Belle Cooledge, one of the founders of Sacramento City College, which was known as Sacramento Junior College when it opened in 1916, was the first de facto president though she never assumed the title
“Oh! She’s one of my favorite people,” says City College archivist Caroline Harker. “I think she’s just incredible.”
Cooledge was born in Sutter Creek in 1884, and graduated from Sacramento High School in 1900. She attended U.C. Berkeley where she majored in chemistry and earned her master’s degree in education. Cooledge began teaching in 1904 and started working at Sacramento High School in 1912 as a math teacher.
In 1916, Sacramento Junior College was founded; the college was originally housed in the upper floors of Sacramento High School, at 18th and K streets, with Cooledge as its sole administrator. Cooledge worked for the college for 31 years before retiring in 1947.
The college was closed in 1918 after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. Cooledge took a sabbatical from the college during the war and trained and then worked as an army nurse. According to a 1936 article in The Sacramento Bee, “Armistice Day, 1918, was something of a disappointment to Miss Belle Cooledge, dean of women at the Sacramento Junior College.
“‘That was, of course, our first feeling,’ explained Miss Cooledge, who is a firm advocate of peace,” The Bee article reported.
“‘I was a nurse, then stationed in camp, and we were the next unit scheduled to cross the sea when the armistice was signed. That was the sentiment of everyone in camp, just a little disappointment that we never got across.’
“The feeling soon changed, she added.
“‘We changed our tune when we saw those returning who had been in the trenches.’”
Cooledge spent another year in the service tending to the wounded soldiers who returned home before resuming her work with Sacramento Junior College when it reopened in 1920.
When Jeremiah B. Lillard began his tenure at the school in 1923, he took on the role of president, while Cooledge was named vice-president and dean of women.
“I often heard Jerry [Lillard] say that ‘Aunty Belle,’ as we used to call her, took many of the burdens of running the college from off his back, leaving him free to go out into the community and sell the community college idea,” said Lloyd Bruno in a 1983 story published in the Suttertown News.
Cooledge’s duties at the school were not limited to looking after the female students. She also oversaw maintenance of the campus, classroom and office assignments, and the budget.
Bruno’s story also included an often-told anecdote on Cooledge’s generosity.
“She dispensed student loans from a cigar box she kept in her desk, replenishing it with contributions from the PTA, the patrons’ association, and her own money.”
Cooledge was memorialized greatly upon her retirement from the school in 1947. The Pony Express society editor, Carol Van Den Berg, wrote in April of that year, “[Cooledge] has always found time to aid a student who somehow couldn’t meet his monthly rent bill, or needed advice. That is the type of person she is. She is beloved and respected by all who come in contact with her, for her fine sense of humor and her ability to see all sides of the question, and yet stand firmly for her own convictions and high ideals.”
After retiring from the school, Cooledge was elected to the Sacramento City Council and appointed mayor of the city that same year. She was the first woman to hold the position, and did so for two years. She served an additional two years on the city council, and was not reelected during the election of 1951. Cooledge “takes her defeat cheerfully” proclaimed an article in the Sacramento Bee written by Gene Hill.
“I am definitely through with politics and am going to find some other interest to occupy my time. I still plan to take a part in the civic life of Sacramento, but it is too early to tell just what I will do,” said Cooledge.
Cooledge died four years later in November 1955.
“For me, the most important and heartwarming thing is that she really dedicated her life to this school,” Harker says.
In the 1931 edition of “The Pioneer,” Cooledge wrote of her hopes for all City College students.
“My wish for you all is that you may take the spirit of endeavor and desire to succeed which we have watched grow in you, to your future undertakings, and that happiness and success may be your reward.”
Originally published in the Express – City College’s student newspaper on 3/11/2014. Find the Express Story HERE.
Research assistance provided by Sacramento City College Special Collections.