Paul Becker, a former Columbia College administrator who played a key role in the school’s early years, died on Wednesday at his home in Sonora surrounded by his three living children.
Becker was 97.
“He had a major impact not only in his role at the beginnings of the college, but as an active member of the community,” said Chris Bateman, a former reporter for The Union Democrat who wrote about Becker over the years. “I can’t remember anybody disliking Paul.”
Bateman wrote a story for Friends and Neighbors Magazine in 2011 that detailed Becker’s service as a fighter pilot in World War II, during which he flew 92 missions between 1944 and 1945.
The article stated that Becker, who served in the Marine Corps, earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 11 air medals, and “numerous unit citations and campaign awards.”
Becker wrote in his memoir that he learned combat flying in the same squadron at El Toro Marine Base in Southern California as future astronaut John Glenn, whom he named his only son after.
“You hear stories about the Greatest Generation, and his photo is right there,” John Becker, of Albany, Oregon, said of his father.
Paul Becker was born on Dec. 27, 1921, in Osborne, Kansas, and grew during the Great Depression on a 33-acre ranch in Hotchkiss, Colorado, that belonged to his grandmother.
A self-described “party animal” while in school, Becker said that changed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which prompted him to join the Navy with a friend to become fighter pilots.
After the war ended, Paul Becker went back to Colorado and played on the basketball team for Western State while earning his bachelor’s degree in education. He got a teaching job out of college at Westminster High School near Denver, in addition to becoming head coach of the basketball and football teams.
Paul Becker and his first wife, Jean, were married in 1946 and had two children, John Becker and Barbara Carberry, before moving with his family to San Jose in 1950 while he pursued a master’s degree in education from Stanford University.
The couple had two more children, Carol Armstrong in 1950 and Sarah Thule in 1959.
“He was a great father and enjoyed getting our family together for barbecues and took us on trips across the country in our station wagon,” Carol Armstrong said.
After earning a master’s degree from Stanford, Paul Becker became the athletic director and head basketball coach for San Jose Junior College in 1954. He coached the team to a California State Junior College Championship in 1960.
John Becker said he believes his own love of sports was instilled by his father.
“Sports was our connection throughout his life,” he said.
Paul Becker became registrar and dean of admissions at San Jose Junior College in 1962 before he was appointed as the school’s dean of students in 1966.
His children said their father was well liked during his time at the college, which was at a time of social upheaval on campuses across the United States due to the Vietnam War and cultural revolution among younger generations.
“There were Black Panthers, race riots, hippies,” John Becker said. “He loved the challenge of helping those groups find common ground.”
Growing tired of how urbanized San Jose was becoming, Paul Becker decided to apply for an opening as dean of students at Columbia College in 1971, three years after the school opened.
He was selected out of a field of 286 candidates.
“Columbia College was pretty new at that point, so he was instrumental in helping build it into what it is now,” said John Becker.
Paul Becker stated in his memoir his duties in the early days of the college included being in charge of admissions, records, counseling, learning skills, the bookstore, cafeteria, security, parking, student activities, discipline, athletics,” and more.
The school had fewer than 1,000 students enrolled when Paul Becker started working there, which grew to more than 2,000 by the time he retired in 1987.
John Minor, a close friend and former English teacher at Columbia College, said that Paul Becker was the type of administrator who would dig into his own pocket if a student came to him and didn’t have enough money to attend.
“He was a really dedicated administrator and very defensive in protection of the students, but he was a regular person, too,” Minor said. “He didn’t consider himself above everybody else.”
Minor also said Paul Becker served as a good ambassador for the school at a time when much of the surrounding community was resentful of the school’s existence, at a time when such institutions were viewed as bastions of liberal “hippie culture.”
Paul Becker got to know many people throughout the community as part of his efforts to bridge the divide.
“It was just not a really healthy relationship, but Paul was really the one instrumental in turning that around,” Minor said.
In addition, Paul Becker was viewed as being instrumental in building support for the Columbia College Claim Jumpers basketball program. He also was involved in advocating for the construction of a new gymnasium.
Paul Becker’s family said he continued going to nearly every Claim Jumpers home game until he was no longer physically able to about a year ago.
A bench at the school bears a plaque featuring Paul Becker’s name and tenure. He was also inducted into the first class of the school’s Hall of Fame, alongside Don Brady, Harvey “Dusty” Rhodes, Jack Eddy, and Marjorie Coffill, all of whom preceded him in death.
After moving to the area, Paul Becker met his second wife, Sunny, whom he was married to for almost 40 years until her death in 2015. He was also preceded in death by his daughter, Barbara Carberry.
Paul Becker is survived by his son, John Becker, and daughters Carol Armstrong and Sarah Thule, both of San Luis Obispo, stepson, Mark Leonard, and stepdaughter, Melinda Leonard Drown, as well as 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
The family is planning to hold a funeral with military honors at the Mountain Shadow Cemetery in Sonora at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, followed by a reception at the Elks Lodge.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.