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Sister Kathleen Ross reflects on, collects history of Heritage University

Nov. 2, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 2, 2022 at 6:11 p.m.

By Joel Donofrio Yakima Herald-Republic

TOPPENISH – Heritage University co-founder Sister Kathleen Ross began her education career teaching – and learning – about history. Since retiring as the university’s president, she has done much to catalog and preserve the institution’s early history.

And on Thursday night, Ross will make history as she receives the 2022 Ted Robertson Community Service Award at the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce awards celebration.

“The obvious answer is shock. Surprise,” Ross said of learning earlier this year she would receive the award. “I was partially surprised because I think I’m the first person from the Lower Valley (to receive the award).

“And I’m also pretty sure I’m the first person connected to a religious entity. I’m a Catholic sister. And I don’t hide that fact,” she added.

The Ted Robertson Award was established in 1989 by the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to the betterment of the greater Yakima area, said Kris Dawson, operations manager for the chamber.

Dawson noted Robertson, former publisher of the Yakima-Herald Republic, held a strong belief that good fortune earned in a community should be shared with that community.

Ross said more than three decades ago, she and other Heritage University officials had the chance to honor Robertson.

“We (at Heritage) have a very early history with Ted Robertson,” she told the Herald-Republic during an Oct. 27 interview in the building that bears her name, the Kathleen Ross Academic Skills Center.

“I found a photo of myself and a couple others presenting Ted with the first honorary doctorate degree that we awarded, at his home, with his wife (Dorothy “Bill” Donelson Robertson) there,” Ross said. “I’m honored that his name is on the award.”

Wanting to be an educator

Born July 1, 1941, and raised in Seattle, Ross attended Gonzaga University in Spokane for one year before making her final decision to enter the Sisters of the Holy Names novitiate.

She spent two years in the order’s training program near Portland, attending Maryhurst College as part of that training, then finished her four-year college degree at Fort Wright College in Spokane in 1964. Ross then began teaching history at Holy Names Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school located near Gonzaga.

“One of the reasons that I chose the Sisters of the Holy Names as the order to join was that they were very good educators and well-known educators in Seattle, where I was growing up,” Ross said. “And yes, I wanted to be an educator.”

After about six years of teaching high school students, Ross said she was encouraged to get a master’s degree. She chose a program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., which echoed her beliefs about what “history” truly is.

“My bachelor’s degree was in history, so I was teaching history classes. One of the history classes was world history, and I was given the textbook,” Ross said. “I noticed after they did the very first part about Mesopotamia and Egypt, at the beginning of so-called history, everything else was about Europe, and Europe coming to America.

“There was nothing in that book about China, about Asia, about Africa. Hardly anything about South America. I thought, ‘This isn’t world history.’ So I wanted to learn about those other areas so I could make the world history class what it says it is,” she added.

The Georgetown University program required two classes from each of the doctorate programs they had in non-Western areas, Ross said.

“So I chose sub-Saharan Africa, the Islamic world, Russia and China. I took two advanced classes in each of those. It was a very hard program,” she recalled. “But I loved it because it gave you a view of what was in the rest of the world.”

Starting Heritage University

Ross would soon get a view of another part of Washington. She was hired as the vice president for academic affairs at Fort Wright College in 1973. She was there about a year when two Yakama women showed up to talk.

“I’d never been down here,” Ross said. “They said they had started a Head Start program, the new federal education program, for little kids in the area, especially the Yakama Nation.”

The two women were Violet Lumley Rau and Martha Yallup, and they came to Ross asking how their Head Start teachers could earn four-year degrees to be better educators. The issue was most of the Head Start teachers had families and couldn’t move away to attend college, Ross said.

Fort Wright began a weekend program where faculty members would come to the Yakima Valley and teach Friday afternoon, all day Saturday and part of Sunday, about one weekend per month.

“With that, we could give the equivalent number of classroom hours that they needed to get college credit,” Ross said.

She spent two years, from 1976-78, earning her doctorate degree at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.

“When I came back, Fort Wright was beginning to struggle with enrollment, and there were more financial issues,” Ross said. “In April 1980 the board of Fort Wright College made a decision that they were going to close Fort Wright in the next 18 months. And what happened in May of 1980?”

After Mount St. Helens erupted, it was six more weeks before Ross could travel to the Yakima Valley and deliver the news about Fort Wright College’s closing to Rau and Yallup.

“Basically, over the next several months, they said to me, ‘You can’t do that!’ Violet said, and I’ve never forgotten this, ‘You brought hope down here and you can’t take it away!’ ” Ross said.

Ross went to several other colleges to gauge their interest in taking over the Fort Wright program for the Yakima Valley, and none were interested due to its small enrollment of about 50 students.

“So Martha and Violet eventually said to me, ‘We have a new idea. Why don’t we just start our own college?’ I said ‘you guys are crazy.’ And Martha said, ‘Tell us one thing we can’t do’,” Ross recalled.

“I tried to think of the hardest thing I could, to get across to them there’s no way we could do this. I said we’ll need a whole new board of directors,” she said. “It has to be important people with influence in the community, money, experience being administrators and things. How would we ever get that?

“Before I knew it, I was back down here for a meeting where they handed me a sheet that said, ‘We the undersigned have agreed to be the board of a new college in the Yakima Valley.’ That included two of the three county commissioners. It included the superintendent of the Toppenish School District, the director of Toppenish Hospital, the manager of a local bank, as well as a couple of tribal people,” Ross said.

“When you had that kind of support, I remember saying in my heart, “God, you can’t be asking me to do this,” she said, laughing. “But I could tell (God) was asking us to get together and do this. That’s really how I got down here.”

After a transition period with Fort Wright supporting and expanding their program in Toppenish, on July 1, 1982, the newly incorporated board opened what they decided to call Heritage College. Ross would serve as its first president, and oversee the school’s growth from 85 to more than 1,200 students before retiring in 2010.

Not really retired

Retirement from her presidential role has given Ross a bit more free time to pursue hobbies such as birdwatching (“I’m a longtime member of the Yakima Audubon Society”), origami and playing the violin. She remains an active member of her religious order, the Sisters of the Holy Names, based in Quebec.

And although Ross retired as Heritage’s president, she remains present on campus and involved with Heritage University.

During the 2010s, Ross worked with students and faculty to identify techniques for working with students whose family backgrounds do not involve college or higher education, which she estimates is the situation for about 80% of Heritage students.

She and others established the Institute for Student Success, which produced a series of videos on the subject. That eventually led to a book, “Breakthrough Strategies,” published in 2017 by Harvard University Press.

“If you look at the statistics, you see there’s a growing number of younger people who are from low-income families, that haven’t had opportunities to go to college,” Ross said. “They are exactly the kind of students that Heritage is becoming an expert in dealing with and really caring about.

“There’s a tremendous amount of untapped genius, untapped talent, that is very important for our society in the next generations,” she added. “I think Heritage will continue to be a small institution that will do a good job, and continue to learn from our students, the best ways to reach them and to pull out all their potential and motivate them to develop. And then share that with other institutions around the nation.”

Currently Ross is writing the “memoirs of Heritage,” noting details and collecting and labeling photos from the first five to six years of the university.

“I’ve set up an archives for Heritage. Once you’re 30, 35 years old, you better start preserving the documents,” Ross said. So I organized, with help from students and staff, and digitized about 10,000 documents from the history of Heritage and they’re all part of the archives.

“We had everybody go through their closets around the campus and pull out photographs. We had like 7,000 photographs. We went through them and picked about 2,000 that we thought could be added to albums for the archives.”

Her love of history has continued, even in retirement.

“I’ve thought of that several times,” Ross said. “Some people, it would drive them nuts to do that (organize an archive), and that’s not a problem for me. I’ve always been fascinated by history.”

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