Memorial services for longtime educator Don Warkentin announced, including Celebration of Life

By Ed Martin, Editor
Memorial services for longtime educator Don Warkentin announced, including Celebration of Life

Services have been scheduled for Don Warkentin, the recently retired president of West Hills College Lemoore, who passed away suddenly on Monday. Warkentin was 69 years old and had been president of the college since 2004. He retired December 31. Family members announced that a viewing will be held on Friday, Feb. 5, from 5 pm. to 7 p.m. at South Valley Community Church in Lemoore. On Saturday, a public graveside service with full military honors will be held  at 10 a.m. at the Lemoore Cemetery. Finally, a Celebration of Life will be held following the graveside service, at the Golden Eagle Arena on the West Hills Lemoore campus. The Celebration is expected to begin around 12 noon.

(Editor’s Note: On Monday, February 1, the Lemoore community sadly lost one of its finest citizens when Don Warkentin suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.  He was 69 years old and recently he ended a long career in education when he retired December 31 as the president of West Hills College Lemoore. Prior to his retirement, The Leader published an article celebrating his accomplishments and his service to his country and community. It was well received by Don, his friends and his family. We think it best illustrates his accomplishments as a son, father, husband, friend, soldier, educator, Citizen of the Year, and all around decent human being. He will be missed.)

Don Warkentin has seen the world, and much more. As a fresh-faced Army Lieutenant, the young man from Reedley, California, found himself in an unfamiliar part of the world - the jungles of Vietnam, and as far away from the quiet main streets of the San Joaquin Valley that one can possibly get.

The young man, whose original goal in life was to become a dentist, was suddenly immersed in what many consider an unpopular war, a conflict that eventually took 58,000 American lives, all of them etched on a majestic black marble wall on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Vietnam Soldier Don Warkentin in Vietam was wounded twice.
Vietnam Soldier Don Warkentin in Vietam was wounded twice.

The experience, while far from the normality of a California upbringing, forged in Warkentin a sense of leadership and a sense of purpose. He returned after a year in the jungle, and the war, a more determined man, and despite two wounds suffered in the ongoing search for the enemy, has led a life of meaning, and one of accomplishment.

The longtime educator, former biology teacher, coach, high school administrator, college dean and finally college president, will end his long accomplished career on December 31 when he retires from his post as President of West Hills College Lemoore, ending an educational career that began when Richard Nixon was president of the United States.

Today, the soft-spoken college president is a confident gentleman of stature who looks as if he’s a good 15 years younger than his given age of 69. There are in fact more blemishes in his well-worn golf spikes than on his still youthful face.

The former high school and Reedley College football and baseball player, and the faithful son of Doris and Vern Warkentin, was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division as a platoon leader in Vietnam, where he saw the conflict’s dark side: the hurt, the blood, the loss of friends cut down in the prime of life in a war that still resonates 40 years later. And afterwards, as a teacher and an educator for the last 42 years, he experienced the satisfaction that comes with opening up the minds of young people through the power of education.

“I actually wanted to be a dentist,” remembered the affable Warkentin as he sat pondering in his wood-paneled office in the administration building at West Hills College, Lemoore, at a campus he helped to create, “because I knocked my teeth out at a local swimming pool.”

But it wasn’t going to be, though he held onto that early dream well into his college years at Chico State. He also attended Reedley College for two years before enrolling at Chico where he majored in biology in anticipation of entering dental school.

The young college student, during his senior year, twice received draft notices classifying him as 1A, earning him top status for the draft. He received deferments both times because he was in college. But he knew eventually he was bound to be drafted.

“A buddy of mine from Marysville (Harley Finley) and I were in the same boat; we were both getting ready to graduate, and he and I decided that since we were both going to be drafted why don’t we enlist and go for Officers Candidate School (OCS). So we decided to enlist in the Army, before graduation.”

The two were sent to the Oakland Army base for a battery of tests, which they passed with flying colors. The officer in charge had some good news and some bad news for the new officer candidates. “Well, I said sir, give us the good news. Well, he said you passed your tests with flying colors. He said the bad news is that the only school that’s open is the infantry, so you guys are going to the infantry.”

This was in 1968 so he proceeded to basic training at Fort Ord in Monterey, California, then was off to Georgia’s Ft. Benning for Officer’s Candidate School. After his August 1969 graduation he was off to Ft. Carson, Colorado as an infantry platoon leader. He was at Ft. Carson for 10 months and then it was off to Panama in May of 1970 for two weeks of jungle-school training and from there he was put on a plane to Vietnam in June of 1970.

“We flew from Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California” with stops in Hawaii, the Philippines and then Vietnam. “We were not allowed to get off of the plane in any of those stops,” said Warkentin.

“We landed in Tan Son Nhut Air Base, which is outside of Saigon.” Warkentin and his fellow soldiers were in the war.

“Nobody wanted to be the first one off the plane because when the pilot landed it wasn’t this gradual glide into a runway. This was a steep, deep descent and it took the wind out of us. The pilot landed, kicked everybody off the plane and took off because I guess they were afraid of being mortared or rocketed or whatever. Were we going to get shot at? We had no real vision of what to expect.”

After checking in, getting new fatigues and weapons, Warkentin was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, the same unit made famous in the award-winning Vietnam movie, “Platoon.” He was assigned to B Company, First Battalion, 5th Mechanized Infantry as a platoon leader for the 2nd Platoon.

What followed was a year in the jungle, three months at a time searching for the enemy. His platoon, numbered from 25 to 40 soldiers. “We never had 40,” said Warkentin. “The most we ever had was 25 soldiers.”

“I also commanded four armored personnel carriers which meant we would be out in the ‘bush’ for at least 90 days before we could come in back to base camp because we got resupplied every week. We were tramping through the jungle, from one location to another, always looking for trouble, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

“That’s where I really grew up,” said a confident Warkentin. “I had a great experience. It molded me and I became a leader… it was like one big camping trip if you will, but you were always looking for the enemy so we always had to be on guard night and day.”

Warkentin was wounded twice during his long forays into the jungle. “The first one was when we had just come off a daytime patrol.” An Army personnel carrier ran over an enemy mine, blowing up the vehicle in which Lt. Warkentin was riding. “I just had some head wounds and woke up in the middle of a rice paddy,” he said. “I guess I was knocked out. We had a couple of people medevacked out from that.”

The second would occurred in November 1970 when his platoon was patrolling around a VC village that was sympathetic to the Viet Cong. Warkentin joined a “booby trap” dog and his handler in a search for explosive devices. “The handler and the dog came up and they took about 15 steps and ‘boom’ the handler was killed, the dog was killed, and I was right behind him and I spent a week in the hospital.”

He was in many firefights. “I had three of my men killed one night in an ambush and that’s what it was like.”

Finally, his year in war was over and he was going home.

“I left in May of 1971. I had enough time in so I was discharged, I didn’t have to spend any extra time in the Army; I spent almost three years in the Army. I went back to Chico State in the fall of 1971.”

By this time his goal of becoming a dentist was behind him. He returned to Chico State and earned a teaching credential, got married to his wife of 43 years, Betty. He had met her initially on leave in 1969 when he returned to visit friends in Chico. The two corresponded while he was off in Vietnam. They married in 1972.

Thinking maybe he wanted to do something different, he continued with his biology degree, but for some reason he thought he might like teaching biology so he entered the teacher-credential program and did some time as a student teacher in Durham High School, about 10 miles south of Chico. He earned his credential in 1973 and began his search for a job, which eventually led him to Lemoore.

He initially tried to get a job at his old high school in Reedley in 1973, but there weren’t any openings. He then tried Lemoore High School. “I interviewed with (Superintendent) Neil Nordstrom and he hired me on the spot,” said Warkentin. “The first people I met were Gary Sedgwick (a longtime teacher and counselor at Lemoore High School), Ralph Peterson (principal), and Bob Clement (longtime teacher and coach and athletic director at West Hills College).”

The men remained friends of Don’s since that day so long ago. Sedgwick and Peterson unfortunately passed away recently. “Don and myself have had the great opportunity to have taught and coached together for many years at Lemoore High School,” said his friend Clement. “Later in our careers we reunited as administrators at West Hills College Lemoore. I highly value our 42-year relationship and consider Don and his family as best friends.”

Warkentin taught about 6 ½ years as a biology teacher before signing on as an administrator, serving as an athletic director, vice principal, and continuation school principal for his remaining years at Lemoore High. He also coached football and baseball for the Tigers, and as the school’s athletic director, he was instrumental in establishing the Lemoore Athletic Foundation, along with Speed Rhoads, which at its height brought in about $100,000 a year to the LHS athletics program.

 In all he spent 14 years at Lemoore High School before accepting a job at the West Hills College Lemoore Center, which was like going from the big city to the sticks, because in 1986 the West Hills Lemoore Center wasn’t much more than a couple of temporary buildings in a parking lot. It wasn’t much to look at, nor were students that impressed, often opting to attend other local community colleges such as Fresno City and College of the Sequoias.

The Lemoore campus had 50 full-time students enrolled in the fall of 1986, a far cry from the 4,300 or so that were enrolled in the fall of 2015.

Did he ever think that during his time as a soldier, teacher and high school administrator that he was destined to become a college president and help to create West Hills College Lemoore?

“No, not at all, never. What did cross my mind was that I wanted to emulate my dad, because my dad was a college administrator and I knew that somehow I eventually wanted to get into the community college system. I wasn’t sure what role but I had applied for positions at West Hills four times before I got a job.”

He started as an associate dean, became Dean of Community Campuses, and then Dean of Students.

“I never expected Lemoore to be a full-service campus, but I knew we had a tremendous potential to grow the center. I knew there was a demand for educational services over here. I knew students would come if we were able to add classes and programs. We grew like gangbusters.”

And what growth. Enter new West Hills College President Frank Gornick and his vision for a full-fledged Lemoore campus in his sights; nothing could stop them, and the voters of Lemoore signed on as well. It also helped that Gornick convinced a pair of local families, Bob and Mardelle Pederson and Lola and Lionel Semas to donate 100 acres of land west of Highway 43 to be used as the new West Hills College Lemoore campus.

In 1998 the voters approved Measure G to set in motion the college’s amazing growth. In all, Lemoore and district voters have passed several bond measures to build additional structures – the Golden Eagle Arena, a Student Center (a work in progress) and technology infrastructure.

“Opening the full campus in 2002 was a big accomplishment,” said Warkentin. “Getting the college fully accredited in June of 2006 by the accrediting commission was another. We are still the only college in Kings County that is full service and fully accredited. All the great programs we have both academically and athletically I take great pride in having had a part in making that happen. We have great staff, great teachers, great administrators and I think that is exemplified by the ratings we are given by our students.”

Recently USA Today reported that West Hills Lemoore is rated as the top community college in Northern California in a variety of statistics including staff, long distance learning and other factors.

Warkentin, after serving as the college interim president for one year, was appointed by Chancellor Frank Gornick as the permanent president, and when the national tenure of a college president is six years nationally and less than four years in California, Warkentin has remained in his post for more than 11 years.

Nobody is more pleased with Warkentin’s performance these past 11 years than his boss Gornick. “It’s almost incalculable the effect Don has had on that place,” he said.

“He was there in the beginning when it was just a bunch of trailers on Cinnamon Drive. He’s been a very effective leader. Imagine going from trailers on Cinnamon to this beautiful campus on College Drive. I’ve always had confidence in Don. He’s got his eye on every corner of that campus. He’s been a great leader and a great educator.”

Warkentin had equally kind words for his boss. “Frank is an innovator. He has great vision. When he first got here we spent the first couple of years driving around Kings County…looking for land for the future college.”

After a long search, they settled on the 100 acres donated by the Semas and Pederson families and the rest is history, much to the delight of educators and students in the greater Lemoore area. Once students ignored West Hills College. Now it’s the place to go if one wants a good, solid education.

What are Warkentin’s plans? “Betty and I love this community. We have no plans of moving. We’re going to stay here.” The Warkentin’s daughter Brooke is the principal of Lemoore Elementary. Son Steven works for Disney International.

His only immediate plans after his retirement on Dec. 31 is to spend a week or so in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai playing golf and relaxing.  He will continue his long relationship with the Lemoore Kiwanis and of course attend Golden Eagle basketball games in the Golden Eagle Arena, a women’s program he has fallen in love with.

And of course he is the team’s biggest fan, and always will be.

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