Former West Hills College Lemoore President Don Warkentin died Monday, just one month after retiring from the college that he helped build from a collection of trailers to a full-blown campus. He was 69.
Mr. Warkentin is only the second president of West Hills College Lemoore, a job he took in 2004.
His death was unexpected and took friends and former colleagues by surprise.
Community college administrators around the state have been emailing their condolences, said West Hills Community College District Chancellor Frank Gornick.
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“Don led a full, rich and active life, and his death diminishes us all,” Gornick said. “On our campuses and at our center, the entire college family is in mourning.”
Last month, in recognition of his status as the longtime campus leader until his retirement Dec. 31, the board of trustees awarded him the title of president emeritus.
Mr. Warkentin, who grew up in Reedley and graduated from Reedley High, went to college at Reedley College and California State University, Chico.
He served in Vietnam as an Army lieutenant in the 25th Infantry and was awarded two Purple Hearts.
Mr. Warkentin’s 42-year career in education began in 1973 when he was a biology teacher for Lemoore High School, where he served as a football coach, baseball coach, athletic director and principal of the continuation school.
In 1986, he joined West Hills College as an associate dean at the Lemoore center, which was then a satellite of the college in Coalinga.
When Mr. Warkentin started work at West Hills, the Lemoore center was a collection of trailers, but a feeling of unity and purpose prevailed that remains a hallmark of the campus culture, Gornick said.
“No one could have done any better than Don,” Gornick said. “Students love it, and faculty likes working there. That goes directly to Don and his leadership style.”
At executive meetings, Mr. Warkentin showed his sense of humor, Gornick said.
“He had a little bit of mischief in him,” Gornick said. “He’d take a different approach knowing he’d get a rise out of someone at the table. It was playful, always good-natured.”
After West Hills Lemoore became its own campus in 2002, he oversaw expansion projects, including the Golden Eagle Arena and a new student center.
The college has grown from 700 students to over 4,500 today.
“That college is part of him,” said West Hills College Community District trustee Jeff Levinson of Lemoore. “He put those students first.”
Retired West Hills College Lemoore athletic director Bob Clement said Mr. Warkentin hosted a barbecue for students at the beginning of each school year, wearing an apron and flipping hamburgers and hot dogs.
“He was a people person; he would walk around the college and meet people,” Clement said. “He had an open-door policy.”
It’s fitting that a memorial service for Mr. Warkentin will be held at the college’s Golden Eagle Arena, because he played a major role in its design and construction, Clement said.
“He had a vision” that the arena would be used for all kinds of events, not just athletics, Clement said. Graduations are held there, and Sarah Palin and Laura Bush have spoken there.
Mr. Warkentin was a sports fan who frequently attended sporting events at the arena after it opened in 2011, Clement said. He also attended women’s basketball games as a member of a group called the “fun-time fans.”
He was active in Lemoore civic life, was named Citizen of the Year in 2014 by the Lemoore Chamber of Commerce and was a member of the Kiwanis Club.
Date of birth: Nov. 15, 1946
Date of death: Feb. 1, 2016
Occupation: Retired college president
Survivors: Wife, Betty; daughter; Brooke; son, Steven
Services: A viewing will be held 5-7 p.m. Friday, at South Valley Community Church in Lemoore. At 10 a.m. Saturday, a public graveside service with military honors will be held at Lemoore Cemetery. About noon Saturday, a celebration of life will be held at the Golden Eagle Arena on the West Hills Lemoore campus.