It's hard to believe that 50 years have passed since Northern Essex Community College first cut its teeth inside a tiny Bradford schoolhouse.
History tells us this was the fourth community college established in Massachusetts, welcoming 181 students to its first campus, before launching a 106-acre campus at the other end of town a decade later.
Today, it stands as a prodigious educational complex at 100 Elliot St., home to more than 15,000 students, a strong and diversified teaching faculty, more curriculum than you can count inside a development that would rival any institution throughout the country.
To say that Northern Essex is a sleeping giant which has withstood the test of time is putting it mildly. It has broken its mold, like that tiny puppy you brought home from the pet shop one day which suddenly grew into a Marmaduke. You know, that Great Dane that looks more like a horse than a dog.
Three recent developments proved to be the coup de grace on this campus, with the appearance of a $9.5 million technology center, a proposed allied health and technology center and the NECC Riverwalk, a newly-renovated facility offering credit programs in business and technology.
Growth is great, especially if it's controlled. And Haverhill's own community college isn't about to rest on its laurels, always plotting and maneuvering toward a better end. What it does for young students it also has done for golden-agers and everyone in between, be it on the Haverhill or Lawrence campuses.
For me personally, it's been my panacea on a number of occasions, whether through stories and photographs of a human nature, teaching extension courses, exhibiting my photographs, lecturing to students and Life Long Learners, or teaching journalism when my good friend Betty Arnold was under the weather.
Betty was the consummate journalism teacher as many of her students who secured good jobs would attest. That might also be the case for other curriculums. Ask most any graduate what success is all about and they'll look back upon their days here with gratitude and conviction. Three NECC grads once shared the same Gazette newsroom with me.
One of my best stories to ever come down the pike was about the women's basketball team, where players were juggling their roles with motherhood, some even bringing their infants to the gym. It brought the sport to a personal level.
Back in my days as a sportswriter, when I think of coaches, the late Jack Wysong remains at the top of my list. His teams were gritty, calculating and always aggressive with victory upon victory. The Knights never saw their armor tarnished while holding court over the very best.
There was the mom who shared a classroom with her daughter, not to mention the octogenarian in pursuit of a degree to fulfill a lifelong pledge. The stories tend to manifest themselves here, be it the sightless and hearing impaired to the jobless looking to retool.
This is the school which produced one of the best pitchers in professional baseball. Steve Bedrosian gained his wings on this campus before moving on to the major leagues and a Cy Young Award in 1987.
The same could be said for others who've reached the apex of their individual mountains, including good friend Rod Doherty who went on to become a prize-winning editor of Foster's Daily Democrat.
I had the privilege of befriending three NECC presidents over my 40-year career, beginning with Harold Bentley and extending to John Dimitry and David Hartleb. All three carried their own weight toward enhancement, handing over the keys now to Lane Glenn, a former community college student who fills his own shoes with pride.
The student body represents a complex group — from high school graduates to working class, special interest studies and immigrants, all united inside an arena of flexibility.
Several activities are being planned for this NECC milestone. Fifty individuals will share in the Make A Difference Award given to those who have promoted the school in various ways.
Concerts, picnics, dedications, you name it — all leading to a 50th anniversary gala April 27 at DiBurro's function hall. That whole week will be laden with special activities, including the inauguration of Glenn as president.
At a time when private institutions are charging a king's fortune for tuition, it makes sense to ponder a community college education for two years before moving on toward a bachelor's degree. Consider ourselves fortunate to have such a facility in our back yard where, at times, it's been considered the best-kept secret in Haverhill.
The way it has collaborated with the city and other colleges throughout has been a credit to its own stature. For this, we must all raise a glass and salute a remarkable story in our midst.
Let the celebration begin ...
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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from the Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.