Alumni Hall of Fame
Denise S. Spooner, Ph.D.
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.