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A History of Success, A Future of Promise

​​Alumni Hall of Fame

Denise S. Spooner​, Ph.D.

The Professor

Denise Spooner has always been a self-proclaimed book worm who loves learning about people. “I was always fascinated with the stories of famous people, especially women like Juliette Gordon Low, the Founder of the Girls Scouts of America, and Clara Barton, the nurse who launched the American Red Cross” says Denise of her thirst for history as a young girl. Maintaining good grades was a mandate for Denise and her two sisters growing up in their small town outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “A’s and B’s were expected, or there would be trouble.”

Luckily for Denise, academic excellence was no trouble at all. “I always did well in classes that required reading, which I guess laid the foundation for my interest in history.” In addition to discovering the world through checked-out library books, Denise delved into the past by pouring over encyclopedias. She enjoyed the volumes so much, that she would wake up before her parents and siblings to pour over stories about classical greats like Mozart and Beethoven, and military men including George Armstrong Custer.

In 1966, when she was a junior high schooler, the trajectory and account of Denise’s world shifted. Her father uprooted the family from Iowa to Orange County, California in search of better job opportunities. One of the benefits of relocating to the West Coast, says Denise, was attaining access to the extensive system of community colleges. Though her parents were not knowledgeable about the ins and outs of higher education, it was expected that Denise and her sisters go farther than their parents, educationally.

In high school, Denise had thoughts of becoming a dancer, but that idea butted up against the images of the empowered and independent women she saw on her television screen. There was the show about an Audrey Hepburn character who wanted to become an interpreter at the United Nations; another featuring Doris Day and her adventures as a New York City secretary. Though those images intrigued Denise, she soon rejoined the reality of her world, focusing on her studies, and her academic future. She took summer classes while at Orange High School in order to graduate early. In January 1973, she received her diploma a full six months before her classmates.

A year earlier, in 1972, Denise had already begun taking introduction to college classes at Santa Ana College with a friend. Altogether, Denise spent a total of seven years at Santa Ana College before graduating, due in large part to family and health issues, long struggling with an incurable diabetic-related illness, diabetic retinopathy, which impairs her vision.

Despite her challenges, Denise’s time at Santa Ana College forever sparked her desire to dig deeper into the world of history. She credits SAC history professor Harold Forsythe, with lighting the match. “He revealed to me, aspects of American history that I had no ideas existed,” says Denise of the African American-centric classes Forsythe taught. “I took every history class there was to take at Santa Ana College after that. SAC really opened my world up to ideas. All the people that proved to be instrumental in shaping my interest in the world of ideas, my intellect, I met at Santa Ana College.”

By the time her 1978 SAC commencement drew near, Denise was considering the next step in her college career, a four-year university. She first considered the University of California, Santa Barbara, but Professor Forsythe suggested she set her sights higher, on the University of California at Berkeley, a top-ranking school with a renowned history program.

Denise applied to Berkeley, and was accepted. Though Denise did not have to worry about paying for her education since the California State Department of Rehabilitation picked up the tab for her schooling due to her eye disease, she did worry about measuring up academically. Berkeley was a hotbed for high-achievers, but because of SAC, Denise felt prepared. “The professors at SAC provided a great foundation for going to Berkeley,” says Denise.

After obtaining her undergraduate degree, Denise headed to the Ivy League, earning a master’s at the University of Pennsylvania in American Civilization. She then followed her passion for the past all the way to a Ph.D. “I strongly believe that we can’t understand what’s going on in the present, without knowing about the past,” says Denise, about why she chose to pursue a career focused on history.  

For Denise, history is all about community. “By studying it, especially social topics, you’re paying respect to the people that created this world,” says Denise. Community, says Denise, is what made her who she is today. It shaped her, invested in and encouraged her, especially the community at SAC. “In so many ways, SAC laid the foundation for me to have the career, educational and life experiences I’ve had. “I would not have done so many fantastic things if it weren’t for SAC.”

Before retiring in 2015, Denise enjoyed a long history of professional accomplishments, including lecturer at California State University, Fullerton, the University of Southern California and The University of California, San Diego. She headed and participated in numerous panel discussions, and penned many journal articles about California history,  her research interest, including “Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars,”  “Migration, Politics, and the Growth of Suburban Southern California in the Post-War Years,” and “A New Perspective on the Dream: Midwestern Images of California in the Post-World War II Decades.”  Her professional affiliations include the American Studies Association, California History Society, Los Angeles History and Metro Studies Group at the Huntington Library and the California Preservation Foundation.