The Gary Soto Literary Museum at Fresno City College
By Daniele Hagen
The year 2010 marks Fresno City College’s 100th anniversary. To commemorate this momentous occasion, the college has scheduled a year’s worth of celebratory events that will conclude with a Centennial Convocation on September 10. One of the highlights of the Centennial Convocation will be the grand re-opening of the college’s Old Administration Building. When it opens, this historic building will house a literary museum celebrating the life and work of award-winning poet and author and Fresno City College alumnus Gary Soto.
The Old Administration Building was completed in 1916, and was the first permanent building on the site of the Fresno State Normal School campus, now California State University, Fresno. In 1921, Fresno Junior College, now Fresno City College, relocated to the site and shared the campus with Fresno State until 1948. In 1956, Fresno City College purchased the campus and made use of the auditorium, offices, and classrooms of the Old Administration Building until 1976. The building, however, fell into disrepair and required extensive and expensive seismic retrofitting, structural, mechanical, and electrical upgrades, and fire/life safety and access code compliance.
Thanks to state initiatives (Measure E) and private donations, the Old Administration Building will finally be restored to its original splendor, just in time for Fresno City College’s 100th anniversary. In addition to the literary museum, the renovated building will provide improved classroom and learning space.
Gary Soto remembers taking classes in the Old Administration Building in the early 1970s. A Fresno native who grew up extremely poor, Soto never considered himself much of a student.
In 1969, when he graduated from high school with a 1.6 grade point average, Soto’s future looked pretty grim. America was still deeply involved in the Vietnam War, and because the draft was still in effect, Soto knew his number would eventually come up if he didn’t go to college. Soto also knew that if he didn’t earn a degree, he would likely end up poor and struggling like his mother (Soto's father died when he was 5 years old).
Despite his dismal grades, Soto enrolled at Fresno City College, avoided the draft, and took the first steps toward a better life. He spent a lot of his first year in the library, educating himself by reading everything he could get his hands on.
During his second year, at age 19, he came across a book that, although it sounds cliché, changed his life. Soto recalled the moment, saying, “I know the day the change began, because it was when I discovered in the library a collection of poems edited by David Allen … I discovered this poetry and thought, this is terrific: I’d like to do something like this.”
The book, The New American Poetry, featured works by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery—poets whose style was different from poets of previous generations and contradicted the notion that, as Soto put it, “poetry had to be about mountains, and streams, and birds and stuff.” After years of struggling to find his path, it was finally clear. Gary Soto wanted to become a poet, and that’s exactly what he did.
In addition to his 11 collections of poetry for adult readers, Soto has also written extensively for younger audiences. His books, short stories, and poetry for young adults have earned him critical acclaim and numerous awards including the American Library Association’s Best Book for Young Adults Award for Baseball in April. Soto has also been awarded both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and was selected as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for New and Selected Poems. His poem “Oranges” is the most anthologized contemporary poem in history, 48 million textbooks have featured his writing, and he is the only living writer with a museum dedicated to his life and work.
The Gary Soto Literary Museum, which has been located on a Fresno farm, will move to its permanent home in Fresno City College’s Old Administration Building when the building celebrates its grand re-opening in September. Soto’s motivation for opening the museum is not about him. There is simply no ego involved. He says, regarding the museum, “I’m championing books and reading.” While he recognizes that a museum dedicated to a living writer is a bit out of the box, and humbly deflects any comparisons that might be made between his “little museum” and the museums dedicated to other famous American writers like William Faulkner and Emily Dickinson, he is excited about what it will bring to the community.
In order to bolster support for the museum, Soto and his wife, Carolyn, invited members of the Fresno educational community to their farm house on a Sunday afternoon in late February for an open house. Local teachers, administrators, and librarians were all on hand to offer feedback about how the museum can be used as a teaching tool. The consensus was overwhelmingly positive, and ideas about building visits to the museum into the curriculum and grade-level standards abounded.
The museum will include, among other things, 50 photos from throughout Soto’s life, 12 original manuscripts, anthologies and textbooks, early typewriters and laptops, clothing and shoes, honors and awards, letters and other correspondence, and a chair and table where Soto used to write. Students will be able to look at the photos and see that Soto was once just like them. They’ll be able to see the writing process as they flip through the pages of marked-up manuscripts, and then come to see a completed work bound and published.
Soto, who lives in both Berkeley and Fresno, will make a point to visit the museum a few times a month and make himself available to students. He wants kids to become engaged with language and literature the way he did. He said, “Literature can offer a deeper life. I want people to come away from here with the idea, ‘Let’s read!’”
Soto is proud to be part of Fresno City College’s 100th anniversary celebration, and hopes that the opening of his museum will honor what the college gave him, by giving something back. Hoping to inspire future generations, he said, “I want kids to grow a little. That’s something.”