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Writer: Sharon Dymmel
Is it possible to love your job so much that you never leave it? Not even after death? There are those who believe this may well be the case for Louis Plummer – a man who left an indelible mark on his beloved Fullerton College by dedicating most of his life to nurturing and expanding the campus and its educational impact. But before we get to Mr. Plummer's very own ghost story, let's take a look at what made him so special.
Louis Plummer's professional life can easily be characterized by his uncompromising focus on education. Born June 24, 1883 in Ottoville, Ohio, he attended Ohio Northern University, where he graduated with bachelor's degrees in science and commercial science. After working five years in the public schools in his home state, he decided to collect on the promise of the Golden State – California.
In 1909, Plummer joined the staff of Fullerton Union High School as head of the Commerce Department. For a man bent on making education his life's work, his timing was perfect. Just two years prior to his arrival, the California legislature enacted a law that gave high school districts around the state permission to establish post-secondary schools. The idea behind the legislation was to offer high school graduates who might not be able to afford the tuition of a four-year university the option of completing their first two years of study at a community college. When Plummer arrived on Fullerton's high school campus, the time was right for making the community college dream a reality.
Working with Delbert Brunton, the principal of Fullerton Union High School from 1909 to 1916, Plummer helped bring the idea of community college to life in Fullerton. The first class of 26 freshmen began their college studies on the Fullerton High School campus in 1913. And while the entire course catalogue contained just 10 classes, it was the start of what has become the oldest community college in the state.
Knowledge may be gained from books but the love of knowledge is transmitted only by personal contact. No one has deserved better of the republic than the teacher. No one is more worthy to be enrolled in a democratic aristocracy, "king of himself and servant of mankind."
– From "A Tribute to the Unknown Teacher" by American author, educator and clergyman Henry Van Dyke
In a career that would span more than three decades, Louis Plummer truly became a "servant of mankind" as he dedicated himself to increasing the educational opportunities for everyone in Orange County – first through his work at Fullerton High School, then through the junior college that grew out of it. But Louis Plummer wasn't your average educator and administrator. During his years in Fullerton he served as a teacher, vice principal, principal, and superintendent. But it was his personal dedication to the students and surrounding community that made him so beloved.
Elvin A. Ames, a teacher and supervisor of maintenance at Fullerton Union High School during Louis Plummer's tenure, became a close friend of Plummer and his family. Ames recalled, "Mr. Plummer's whole life was the school. He just lived and dreamed and thought about the school at the time. I never knew a school man who was so dedicated to his school."
In the book The History of Fullerton Union High School by Diane Oestreich, Ames recalled how people admired Louis Plummer for his personal touch. For example, Plummer made it a point to get to know people by planning special outings for his faculty and staff. He also conducted faculty retreats at a cabin built at Lake Arrowhead just for this purpose.
But his community involvement didn't stop at the campus' borders. In 1920, Plummer felt a special calling to reach out to the immigrant communities that called Fullerton home – especially the Mexican population of migrant farm workers. In his book detailing the history of Fullerton Union High School and the Junior College, we learn that Plummer himself disregarded the trend towards discrimination against this population. Instead, he viewed them as yet another community of people in need of the benefits of the American educational system. But his interest went beyond the purely academic. "They were and are our neighbors," Plummer wrote. And by his actions, he proved beyond a doubt that he meant what he said.
Plummer's desire to help the migrant workers improve their lives and better assimilate into American society led Fullerton Union High School to hire an English teacher who went to work directly in the migrant workers camp. The first lessons were given on subjects as basic as reading the labels on food products in an American grocery store. Miss Druzilla Mackey, the first English teacher hired for the job, actually moved into a small worker's house in the migrant camp so she could live among her pupils and better understand their way of life and culture. When writing about her experiences, Miss Mackey recalled fondly that while she taught the migrant workers English and the basic survival skills necessary to succeed in American society, she felt they often taught her more than she did them. For example, when the ladies of the camp decided Miss Mackey was too thin because she couldn't afford to buy enough food (something that was hardly the case), they took it upon themselves to give her neighborly aid in the form of fresh milk, corn, and eggs every day.
When Miss Mackey was invited to a Mexican party on the Bastanchury Ranch – at the time, the largest orange ranch in the world and very close to Fullerton Union High School and the college campus – she became aware of several previously unknown Mexican camps located deep in the hills of the property. She was astonished to find the poor living conditions of the people whose houses were constructed out of whatever they could scrounge up from the rubbish pile of the ranch itself. Discarded sheets of scrap metal, old fence posts, and sign boards were used to build shelters and a community of 30 families shared one working water faucet and a few makeshift privies.
Seeing their need, Louis Plummer and his wife made it a point to get personally involved with the group. According to Miss Mackey, "Their warm friendship was greatly fostered by Mr. and Mrs. Plummer, who were not afraid to frequently entertain and be entertained by these most poverty-stricken of our people." This kind of personal outreach and genuine interest in peoples' lives continued to characterize Plummer's career as Fullerton College grew and thrived under his leadership.
During Louis Plummer's tenure at Fullerton College, enrollment increased from 28 students in the first class of 1913 to more than 1,600 students in 1940. Plummer also oversaw the expansion of the college from the days when all classes met on the high school campus to the purchase of separate tracts of land for the college, the construction of many of the college's original buildings, and the expansion of the campus' borders to include an impressive stadium and athletic field.
For those who lived through "the Plummer years," it will always be remembered as a golden age for the campus. Louis Plummer's leadership and guidance continued without interruption until something unexpected happened in the Board election of 1939…something that would change the course of Plummer's educational career.
There is no doubt that Louis Plummer helped guide Fullerton's high school and junior college through some of the most difficult periods in history. After his arrival in 1909, Plummer steered these institutions through World War I and the Great Depression. For his contributions to the community and many beneficial accomplishments on behalf of the high school and college, Louis Plummer was a beloved and respected figure on campus. But as the old saying goes, "You can't please everyone." And for Louis Plummer, it was professional politics that marked the beginning of the end for his tenure.
It all began with something as simple as a proposed personnel change. Plummer wanted new leadership in the Physical Education Department. He appointed a man named Donald Cruickshank to take over the program. Unfortunately, this provoked the anger of the longtime basketball coach Arthur Nunn, who had been in the department nine years longer than Cruickshank and felt he deserved the job of Department Chair.
In the Board of Trustees election of 1939, the balance of power shifted and those who supported Louis Plummer were suddenly outnumbered. Longtime Plummer friend Elvin Ames said of the election, "Mr. Plummer had been elected so many times that his friends felt that he'd be elected again and didn't go to the polls." Whatever the reason, bitter political payback was the name of the game and all those who had supported Louis Plummer in his decision concerning the P.E. Department leadership change found themselves demoted. Even worse, Louis Plummer was forced to resign and his chief rival effectively took the reigns of the college, leaving Plummer with little to do. But Plummer was not a quitter, and in spite of the humiliating situation he found himself in, his dedication to the college never wavered and he finished out the last year of his four-year contract under very difficult circumstances.
In her book on the history of Fullerton College, author Diane Oestrich describes the situation this way:
A class act, Plummer reported punctually every day to work in his office for the one-year interval before his resignation became final, even though he was required to turn in his key at day's end and pick it up again the next morning.
Elvin Ames recounted that "Mr. Plummer was crushed by the action." And yet, even when he officially left the campus for the last time, his instinct to serve his fellow man continued unabated.
It was 1942 and with the start of World War II, Plummer used his expertise to help the war effort by accepting a job as manager of industrial training for the Ryan Aeronautical Company of San Diego. He held the position until the end of the war. But in spite of the ways things had ended, his love of the college never left him. And the love and devotion the students and faculty felt for him lived on as well – so much so that the year after Plummer departed Fullerton College, a tribute was planned that would set off a chain reaction no one could have predicted.
If the story of Louis Plummer were punctuated with a permanent black stain on his professional legacy at Fullerton College, it would certainly be a tragedy. Thankfully, that is not the case.
In what might be compared to a Hollywood ending, Louis Plummer finally received the justice due him. It all came about in an unlikely clash between the staff of the school annual and the school's administrators, including Frederick Chemberlen, Plummer's successor.
For the 1940-'41 yearbook, Dudley Boyce – student editor of the publication – got together with his staff to vote on the book's dedication. By unanimous decision, it was decided the annual should be dedicated to Louis Plummer as a fitting tribute to his twenty-one years as superintendent of the district.
Normally, the dedication of a yearbook would pass without much notice. But with the political shakeup in the administrative ranks still fresh on everyone's minds – and with Louis Plummer's adversarial replacement now ensconced in the superintendent's office – the dedication caused a huge stir. Plummer's successor, Frederick Chemberlen, called Dudley Boyce into his office to demand the dedication to Plummer be dropped. When Boyce refused, Chemberlen threatened to keep him from graduating. The young editor stood his ground and informed Chemberlen that he would have to keep the entire yearbook staff from graduating as their decision had been unanimous.
Unwilling to accept defeat, Chemberlen took the matter up with Boyce's father, William T. Boyce – the first Dean of Fullerton College. When Superintendent Chemberlen demanded that the dean convince his son to drop the idea of dedicating the annual to Louis Plummer, the senior Boyce refused as well.
In the end, the annual was dedicated to Louis Plummer and the yearbook staff was allowed to graduate. What's more, the political payback that characterized the end of Plummer's career and the demotion of many of his allies was reversed, and all who had suffered unfair treatment at the hands of Chemberlen and the Board of Trustees were returned to their former positions or promoted. Chemberlen resigned the superintendency in 1943 and the board that had backed him was put out to pasture as well.
In light of Louis Plummer's long history at Fullerton's high school and junior college, it's easy to imagine that his heart remained at these institutions throughout his life. But does his spirit remain even after this death?
According to Aimee Aul of the Fullerton Museum Center, some believe Plummer's ghost may well haunt the building that bears his name – the Louis E. Plummer Auditorium. Built in 1930 while Plummer was Superintendent of Fullerton's High School and Junior College District, some strange and perhaps supernatural events have taken place inside this architectural treasure.
Over the years, theater staff and volunteers have reported many spine-tingling sights and sounds which they attribute to a spirit they call "Louie" – ghostly blurs captured on film, the eerie feeling of a strange presence in the upstairs balcony, and even a disco ball that began to spin by itself, then reverse direction when witnesses begged "Louie" to stop the shenanigans.
Each year as Halloween approaches, Aimee Aul leads a ghostly walking tour of Fullerton's most haunted sites, and Plummer Auditorium is one of the tour's most popular attractions. According to the museum's official brochure given to walking tour participants, the most dramatic event at the auditorium happened one night after the performance was over and everyone else had gone home. As the assistant house manager was conducting his final rounds of the theater, he glanced up to see "the floating head and shoulders of a balding man" descending the stairway. The apparition only lasted a moment, but it definitely made a big impression on the wide-eyed employee!
Could this ghostly image have been the spirit of Louis Plummer himself? Or just tricks of the mind that come with the creaks and groans of an old, storied building? We may never know for sure. But it's not hard to see how Louis Plummer might have liked the idea of sticking around campus…forever.
"…it's easy to imagine that his heart remained at these institutions throughout his life."