Spotlight on Ohlone:
On the road again: Oppenheim rides on

By Eric Dorman, Editor-in-chief.

Thursday, April 2, 2009—Reprinted from Monitor.

It’s a story that stretches from the strawberry fields of Oxnard to the jungles of Vietnam to the steps of Ohlone; from hopping freight trains to riding Harleys; from a childhood of truancy to 33 years of teaching at Ohlone. And now, Sociology Professor Bennett Oppenheim is ready to turn the page and begin a new chapter: retirement.

“I leave this campus with warmth in my heart and a smile on my face. I have no regrets, I would do it all again in a moment, and I hope being a professor of sociology is as fulfilling for my predecessor as it was for me,” said Oppenheim, who will be stepping down as a full-time professor after this semester.

Man riding motorcycle. 33-year Sociology Professor Bennett Oppenheim hopes to spend more time on his Harley after he retires from full-time teaching in May. —Photo by Jack Husting.

“Bennett will be missed. I can’t imagine him not being here next semester,” said Psychology Professor Tom McMahon, who was hired the same day as Oppenheim in 1976. “[He’s] one of the stars on campus.”

Few, including Oppenheim himself, could have predicted the career devoted to education from which he is now retiring. Speaking in the metered, carefully constructed and immaculately punctuated sentences that characterize his speech both inside and out of the classroom, Oppenheim described a childhood of adventure, hardship and little emphasis on education.

Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1947 and growing up in California, Oppenheim saw little use for school and decided his hands were more likely to earn him his livelihood than his mind. As a frequently truant high school student in the early ‘60’s, he found that the only summer work available to him lay in the fields of Oxnard, California, picking strawberries and other fruit for 50 cents an hour alongside Mexican migrant workers as part of the Bracero worker program.

The work, which started at 4:15 in the morning and stretched until 7:15 at night, was physically and psychologically brutal. At the start of the workday, at 4:15 in the morning, “I’d get down on my knees on the front end of a row of strawberries and I couldn’t see the end,” remembered Oppenheim. At the 7:15 p.m. quitting time, he’d still be picking strawberries from the same row.

The Bracero program, a temporary work contract initiated in 1942 between the United States and Mexico, was officially terminated in 1964 due to the substandard pay (Oppenheim’s 50 cents an hour was less than half of minimum wage) and deplorable working conditions that had come to characterize the program. The conditions, though, however difficult, enabled Oppenheim to take an early step in his sociological education. Living, eating and working alongside Mexican immigrants, Oppenheim was immersed in a culture he might never had experienced so fully otherwise.

If the experience taught him about people, it taught Oppenheim about the importance of a positive outlook on life, too. Picking strawberries day after day alongside people who had very little materially but lived richly nonetheless, “taught me that it isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it,” said Oppenheim. “There are things more important than a material standard of living.”

After three years of high school in Ventura, Oppenheim spent his senior year in the Boys Republic correctional program in Chino in 1965. At Boys Republic, the motto of “Nothing Without Labor” very much held true, said Oppenheim, as the boys were expected to put in long hours on the farm held by the program. It wasn’t jail, but there was no leaving and no visitation.

After Boys Republic, Oppenheim enrolled in Ventura Community College, but dropped out in April 1966 to join the Marines. The decision, he said, constituted more of a preventative measure than a desire for a long-time military career. “I figured I was either going to get in trouble [on my own], or I could put myself in an environment where I couldn’t,” explained Oppenheim. Eight months later, he stepped off the plane in Vietnam.

Oppenheim emerged from the war in 1968 physically unharmed but psychologically changed, determined to make sense of the horrors of the past two years. He began “wandering,” as he described it, hopping trains and hitchhiking across the country, and then to Europe.

It was in Europe that Oppenheim began to turn his life around. The catalyst for the transformation was simple—he met a woman, a U.C. Davis student studying abroad, and fell in love—but the results were profound. “For the first time I was around someone who was well-read, well-educated and well-spoken,” said Oppenheim, “and I began to understand what it must be like to know more than what I knew.”

She and Oppenheim soon parted ways, but Oppenheim’s newfound desire for knowledge lingered. He returned to Ventura Community College and devoted himself to studying “24/7,” going on to enroll in the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he specialized in Spanish. He enjoyed his time there, but the institute served another purpose as well. “I wanted to find out if I could handle the pressure [of higher academics],” said Oppenheim.

The answer came when Oppenheim was accepted into U.C. Berkeley, where he was immediately drawn to sociology. “Sociology was natural because of the places I had lived, the places I had seen, and what I felt I knew the most about, which was the people in the world around me.”

He majored in sociology, with a minor in computer studies. The strange-sounding combination of disciplines, he explained, was really not that unusual—at that time, a knowledge of programming was necessary in order to carry out the number-crunching needed for sociological research. In the 1970s, before the dawn of the personal computer or even the floppy disk, the only computers were mainframes, refrigerator-sized units that had to be programmed with paper punch cards. The machines were so few and in such high demand that Oppenheim was only allowed to use them from 2 to 5 in the morning.

Oppenheim went on to get his Master’s and Doctorate in sociology at Berkeley. As soon as he was out of school, he knew he wanted to teach. “I wanted to be a student all my life. The next best option was to be a teacher.”

He taught throughout his graduate studies, first at Ventura Community College, then at Sonoma State.

He came to work for Ohlone in 1976 as a part-time sociology instructor. As the main campus was not yet completed, his first classes were taught at Mission High School. After a year and a half of adjunct work, Oppenheim became a full-time instructor, teaching both sociology and computer studies because the sociology department did not include enough courses to employ a full-time teacher. It was not until 10 years later that the department had grown large enough for Oppenheim to teach sociology exclusively.

Ohlone was a very different place when he first began teaching, Oppenheim remembered. He would often take his 20-student classes outdoors on sunny days—an impossibility with his 150-student classes today.

Though he has taught three core classes consistently throughout his career at Ohlone—Intro to Sociology (SOC-101), Sociological Problems (102) and Marriage and Family (105)—Oppenheim has also taught a handful of other varied classes over the years. One such class was a course on the “World of Work;” another was a one-time semester-long research project in which he and 300 students interviewed 5,000 Tri-Cities families for a buying habits survey for the Chamber of Commerce.

Alongside teaching, Oppenheim has also served as union negotiator for the United Faculty of Ohlone (UFO) for the last 26 years. The opportunity came up almost by chance: after taking issue with a clause in his contract at a faculty meeting, a colleague told him that if he had a problem with it, he should do something to fix it. Oppenheim took the advice to heart and ran for the position of negotiator soon after. He has been re-elected to the position continuously since.

Historically, union negotiators usually burn out quickly, due to the demands of the job, but Oppenheim said that after dealing with drill sergeants daily, even the toughest negotiations pale in comparison. “My life experiences make that kind of encounter very easy.”

Oppenheim named his work on health benefits for retirees and salaried workers as his most meaningful achievements as negotiator, but also mentioned a less tangible, but no less important, victory: Ohlone’s faculty have maintained a positive enough relationship with the administration that they have never felt obligated to go on strike during his time as negotiator.

Political Science Professor Alan Kirshner, whose 38 years of teaching make him one of the longest-serving faculty members on campus, said that Oppenheim’s work as negotiator has been instrumental to the well-being of the college. “He’s the ideal person [to act as negotiator],” said Kirshner, who played a role in persuading Oppenheim to take the position. “He is definitely going to be missed by us.”

Oppenheim will serve through the end of the year as negotiator. While no decisions have been made concerning his replacement, History Professor Heather McCarty has indicated that she is interested in the position, said Kirshner.

Kirshner and McMahon both mentioned Oppenheim’s charm and disarming presence as memorable characteristics of his personality. “Bennett [is] the most articulate person on campus,” said McMahon. “He could talk you into anything.”

Always the storyteller, Kirshner reached into the past for a story to illustrate Oppenheim’s dynamic personality. Some time in the early years of the college, he explained, a contest briefly gained popularity at Ohlone. Styled after the bachelor TV shows at the time, it was made up of several faculty members standing behind a curtain, each vying to be the audience’s choice by answering questions. Every time, Kirshner recalled, the audience seemed to narrow the field down to him and Oppenheim. And each time, Kirshner remembered, chuckling, they picked the latter.

“He has a certain charisma, whether it’s in the classroom or behind a curtain,” said Kirshner.

Despite Oppenheim’s extensive work at Ohlone, he has also found time for other professions. A holder of a brokerage license, he owns Oppenheim Group Real Estate, which he established in 1982. The firm has developed many properties around the Tri-City area, recently selling a four-plex on Fremont Boulevard.

Oppenheim’s departure from Ohlone is not by any means complete—he will continue to teach Introduction to Sociology (SOC-101) online. The college currently has no plans to hire a full-time sociology instructor to replace him, but it will hire enough part-time instructors to ensure that the same number of sociology sections is offered next semester.

With the flexibility afforded by teaching only online courses, Oppenheim plans to begin a new full-time occupation: riding. Sometime this summer, he plans to climb on his Harley for a cross-country trip to see some friends; some time after that, he hopes to take a trip through South America. “I plan on gettin’ in the wind and spending a lot of time on the road,” said Oppenheim, smiling.

Even as he prepares to step down as a full-time educator, Oppenheim still has advice for those unsure about seeking higher education, as he once was. “Nothing is more exiting than learning if you find the area that ignites your passion. And if that light goes on, you will never forget it, and it will never go off.”

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