Malibu resident Jim Wilburn tells the story about how his grandmother came to teach in Malibu’s first school, and his journey ending up as dean of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.
By David Wallace/Special to The Malibu Times
In 1912, after years of abuse from her husband, Harriett Downing, a 42-year-old housewife living in central Kansas, bundled up her five children and headed to Los Angeles on the train. Soon after arriving, she dropped her married name so her husband couldn’t find her, adopted her maiden name of Wilburn for herself and her children, and started looking for a job.
“It was rough in the beginning,” said her grandson, Jim Wilburn, Dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.
Harriett had a teaching background, so that was the obvious job choice.
“Because she couldn’t go to school (to earn a California teaching certificate) and also take care of the kids,” Wilburn added, “my father, who was seven when they came west, told me he was in a foster home or orphanage for a while.”
By 1914, Harriet had earned her certificate and landed a job teaching at Malibu’s Decker Canyon School. Unlike the specialization that today permeates nearly every career, to be a teacher at the beginning of the last century required the ability to be a jack of all educational trades. That talent was clearly demanded at the Decker Canyon School. Until a larger school opened years later, all grades from kindergarten through eight were taught in the one-room, wood-framed schoolhouse built on property homesteaded by the Decker family some two miles up Decker Canyon. (The site is now a parking lot for county equipment).
“My grandmother was a very strong lady,” said Wilburn, who, despite being born in Texas and raised in San Diego, knew her well. “Not only did she raise five kids (Wilburn’s father was her son James), she had been a postmistress and the family’s breadwinner.”
After teaching at the Decker schoolhouse for two years, Harriett moved on. “She taught all over,” Wilburn said, “and was later the principal of a school in Westminster. Other than for a stint teaching in Kern County, she stayed in the Los Angeles area until her death in the mid-1960s, well into her nineties.”
Wilburn’s father had many memories growing up in early Malibu.
“I recall my dad told me when I was quite young, maybe 10, about seeing cowhands with guns guarding the entrance to the (Rindge) Ranch,” Wilburn said. “He told me that he had heard tales about people who weren’t supposed to be here wandering onto the ranch who were never heard from again.” (Until she lost a 20-year legal battle in 1929, May Rindge fought to keep the public off her ranch comprising much of present day Malibu). Wilburn also recalled his father reminiscing about spending the two summers he lived in Malibu working on the ranch chuck wagon.
And so the story might have ended except for a series of events that would, generations later, bring Wilburn back to his family’s early California roots.
“I never was close to Los Angeles until I came to UCLA to get my doctor’s degree (in economic history),” Wilburn said, “and that’s when I hooked up with Pepperdine.”
It was 1971, and the college, originally located in downtown Los Angeles, invited him to join a planning group for a “small, experimental campus in Malibu.”
“I agreed to be a consultant for a year, and had no intention to stay,” Wilburn said. The next year Pepperdine started the pilot program that would become the sophomore class in Malibu, and convinced Wilburn to be part of that for one more year.
After teaching for only two months, Wilburn was asked to switch to the administrative side of the college where, for three years, he was the chief operating officer of the downtown campus before moving to Malibu as vice president of the university.
“Then they asked me to be dean of the business school; I agreed to do that for three years and stayed for 12,” he laughed. “Then I decided I didn’t want to be an administrator ever again, and wanted to write.” (Wilburn has authored several books on American history, management and leadership).
“There were other things I wanted to do, too,” Wilburn added. “I wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I wanted to go down the Amazon River.” For two years he did just that, climbing Kilimanjaro in 1994, and exploring the upper reaches of the Amazon in 1996 where he met his wife, Gail, vacationing from her White House job (on Barbara Bush’s staff) and the Empower America think tank.
Then fate struck again. “Pepperdine wanted to start this new school of public policy,” he said. “I tried to talk them out of it, before agreeing to serve on the planning committee. Then they asked me to be dean, and I turned them down. Three times. Finally, they asked me to be dean for one year to get it up and running. That was six years ago and I’m still here.”
“Some might attribute it to fate,” Wilburn said. “Perhaps. But it certainly is ironic that today, 90 years after my grandmother worked as one of the first teachers in Malibu, I ended up here, too.”