By Tami Shepherd
A Celebration of Life for Barbara Mertes was held on Saturday Sept. 26, 2015, to honor a woman who has done much Las Positas College and for the community that she lived in. The ceremony was a look back at Mertes, the college’s founder, and it was held in the Main Stage Theater of the building that bears her name.
The ceremony offered a look at Mertes from all angles, starting with her early life. Mike Fracisco, Mertes’ nephew, was one of several speakers who shared reminisces about Mertes, including stories of Mertes as a child.
She liked to wander around downtown Livermore without telling her parents and would often end up visiting the nuns at St. Michael’s Convent. Sometimes the police would see her wondering about downtown Livermore, and since they knew who she was, they would take her home to her parents. Mike Fracisco said that this curiosity for life and faith followed her through life and helped to shape the always caring and compassionate woman that she became.
Mertes’ parents provided a stable home full of love, faith and encouragement so that their children could pursue their goals, including, Fracisco said. She excelled in school eventually earning a Ph.D. in higher education with an emphasis on public policy.
With her background and education, Mertes saw the potential of what a college in the Livermore hills could do for the community. Where some saw a cow pasture, she had a dream of a hill sprinkled with beautiful buildings that would house proficient and capable teachers with the ability to excite and arouse the students’ curiosity and love of learning.
“Barbara and the board — just out their normal income, no bond issues or anything else — they built those first four buildings and opened in 1975,” said John Shirley, former mayor or Livermore. It’s just amazing how they got this campus started and all the good things she has done for it and the community.”
Mertes was the first dean of Las Positas College, a dream that came true when the first four buildings of the “Valley Campus” opened on March 31, 1975, with about 800 students. She helped to pick the teachers, and she helped to mold the college into a separate entity with its own degrees and majors.
“She (Mertes) was just a wonderful person,” said childhood friend Joe Medeirous “Just super.”
Mike Fracisco remembered his Aunt Barbara as a lady who always lived with enthusiasm and gusto, was always willing to listen to another point of view. She would not take no for an answer if she believed strongly in something. She had a creative mind and loved to solve a problem. She was always the same gracious and loving person no matter how many degrees, titles or awards that she earned during her lifetime, Mike Fracisco said.
Pat Coyle looks at photographs during Barbara Mertes Celebration of Life. The event took place
in the building named after her at Las Positas College, the Barbara Fracisco Mertes Center
for the Arts on Sept. 26, 2015
Don Milanese, a retired LPC administrator, remembers Mertes as a friend and colleague, a relationship that spanned more than 45 years. He said Mertes’ strong student focus always guided her throughout her career as a teacher, administer and board member. He remembers her as a bright, confidant and always thoroughly prepared with much energy and infectious enthusiasm. He said that it was always hard to say no to her.
Mertes’ colleagues, friends and family spoke of getting a hand-written note from her, always with a personal touch. Mertes was a master at always having the right words to say, Milanese said.
Milanese was with Mertes in 1975 when the school opened for the first time. She looked out the window of her office in building 100, toward the parking lot, wondering if students would come. Milanese remembered how excited she was to see that first car pulling into the parking lot.
One of Mertes’ passions was the performing arts. She was responsible for moving the performing arts programs from a small the multipurpose room to the state-funded theater in the 800-building complex. She was also a writer and director for many of the programs, such as the national award winning program of “Cowboy.”
Jerianne Warren, LPC faculty emeritus and author, said she felt the presence of Mertes in the new theater, the one that Mertes envisioned many years ago. Warren said she could almost see Mertes in her usual seat, she could feel her presence beaming through her smile and her laughter that would make all feel just a little bit better about themselves.
Warren remembered interviewing at Las Positas College when Mertes was in charge. She remembered walking up the stone and dirt path, where she attempted to be graceful in her three-inch heels. She remembered the cow pasture with those discerning bovines staring back at her at the edge of building 800, a building then under construction.
Warren said that she got down on her knees, and acted as though she was checking the bounce that the wooden floor would have for the dancers. Except there were no floors, just dirt. And what she was really doing was saying “Oh dear god.” But, Warren said that was before she met Mertes. Within ten minutes of meeting her, Warren felt as if she had known her for years, was a member of her family and was essential in changing Chabot College Valley Campus to Las Positas College.
Mertes was a visionary — she saw into the core of people and she believed in them, Warren said. With Mertes’ leadership at the college, the theater program thrived. In just four years, it became one of five college finalists in the American College Theater Festival.
Warren described Mertes as well-coiffed and deeply faithful. In closing, Warren said an Irish Blessing for Mertes:
May the trail rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine more upon your face;
The snow fall soft on the plains around you, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand
Barry Schrader, a retired district board member and journalist, called Mertes the godmother of Las Positas College. He said that she fought hard for every dollar and every building on campus. She raised millions of dollars for the district.
Schrader said that even though Mertes could have taken other higher education positions, she wanted to stay in Livermore and to nurture LPC until the finish. She stayed where she thought that she could do the most good. Much of her work was accomplished with her husband, David Mertes, who died last year.
Shrader said that like Frank Sinatra before her, Barbara did things her way. Others at the celebration concurred.
Patrick Fracisco, Barbara’s nephew, said that as a child, he told his aunt he had a prediction that one day she would be famous and have a Roll-Royce. He would be, her chauffeur.
But owning a Roll-Royce was not her wish. She preferred driving a yellow Volkswagen beetle. During her professional years, she owned a pale yellow Beetle, which was later replaced by a bold yellow one with complementary wheels to match. He would chuckle to himself when he would see her driving around downtown Livermore, barely seeing above the wheel.
Patrick Fracisco described his aunt as a consummate mentor, serving as mentor to friends, colleagues, staff, family and students.
One of the key objectives during Mertes’ tenure was to help guarantee that all students had equal access to college courses and programs. As one of the founders of LPC, Mertes focused her work on “students first,” a message that still resonates at the college as its motto.
“The work that Dr. Mertes did to establish the Valley Campus and then to move the campus towards Las Positas College is amazing,” Barry Russell, LPC’s current president, said. “It is amazing heritage, and I am honored to be able carry forward that heritage and to follow through with her vision of what Las Positas College can be.”