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A Gift of Commitment

A Gift of Commitment
Mardell Pedersen and her parents, Lola and Lionel Semas, were honored during dedication ceremonies for West Hills College Lemoore in Oct. 2002. Mrs. Pedersen and her late husband, Bob, and her parents donated the land for West Hills College Lemoore.

That West Hills Community College District opened a first-class campus in Lemoore in December 2001 is a testimony of commitment.

More than 30 years ago, West Hills' administrators and trustees began examining ways to better serve their students from Lemoore and surrounding Kings County. Student populations from these areas were swelling and a commitment was made to provide quality education opportunities through the extension of a West Hills campus in Lemoore.

That West Hills College Lemoore was constructed on a gift of land off of Bush Avenue also is a testimony of commitment. It's a commitment that began more than 50 years ago, when a tall, strong football player was introduced to a friendly smiling cheerleader. That meeting not only led to a wonderful 42-year marriage, but a life-long legacy and tribute to Bob Pedersen, when the Pedersen/Semas family gifted the college with 107 acres on which to build its Lemoore campus.

The Gift

While West Hills College Lemoore had been on the minds of college officials for many years, it began to take shape in 1995 when the State of California extended the new route for Highway 41. Running along the west side of Lemoore, the improvements included an exit on Bush Avenue. The extension and exit required the purchase of private property owned by the Pedersen/Semas family.

Pedersen Farms and its owners, Bob and Craig Pedersen, were no strangers to West Hills College. Bob Pedersen met his wife, Mardell Semas, there, and enjoyed a successful athletic career that led to a full scholarship at the University of Nevada in Reno. His son Craig attended West Hills and Pedersen Farms remained committed to the college over the years, participating in activities and supporting fundraisers.

The Pedersen/Semas-owned property near Bush Avenue was very appealing to college officials. With an exit in place and a convenient highway location, West Hills' administrators met with the Pedersen/Semas family to discuss their proposal to build a Lemoore campus on the family's property.

"It was a natural thing for us to consider this gift of land," Craig Pedersen said. "My dad had a strong connection with West Hills. He and my mom met there. Plus he had a great time there as a college student.

"It was very easy to make the decision to give the property to West Hills," Craig continued. "A campus was needed in this area and our property offered a great location. It was a perfect fit. Our family is very proud to have contributed to the Lemoore campus in this way."

The Pedersen Legacy Begins - Coalinga College

Robert Vernon Pedersen, "Bob" for short, was born in Guide Rock, Nebraska, in 1935. His grandparents settled in the Midwest after emigrating from Denmark. The son of a Nebraska state senator and one of eight children in a blended family, Bob learned early in life that hard work was essential to success; Bob maintained this ethic throughout his life.

After attending elementary school in Guide Rock, he graduated high school in Wichita, Kansas in 1953. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served his country for four years, with his last station of duty in Hawaii.

During high school and his tour in the Navy, Bob's penchant for hard work began paying. Always active, Bob's skills in football and basketball began to attract attention. While in Hawaii, Bob was approached by a college recruiter who told him about a community college in Coalinga, California. In addition to a great sports program and quality education, the recruiter said, California was a land of opportunity for hard-working men, such as Bob.

Ready to continue his education after his military career, Bob traveled to California in 1958 and enrolled at Coalinga College, which would later be renamed West Hills.

Mardell Semas was born in Lemoore in 1940, the oldest of three children born to Lionel and Lola Semas. Mardell's grandparents came to the Lemoore area after emigrating from Portugal in 1909.

As Mardell was growing up, her father Lionel operated a variety of businesses to support his young family. One business - land leveling - became key, both for growers and for Lionel's transition to farming. As the land-leveling business grew, Lionel began buying land. After acquiring a hundred acres and a couple tractors, Lionel tried his hand at farming and a family enterprise was created.

Mardell attended Armona Elementary School and graduated from Lemoore High School in 1958. The pretty local girl of a prominent farming family decided to continue her education and immediately enrolled at Coalinga College.

It wasn't long before a mutual friend of both Mardell and Bob introduced them to one another.

"Bob and I met at West Hills College in September of 1958," Mardell remembered. "Bob was on the football team and I was a cheerleader. Need I say more?"

By May the following year, Bob and Mardell became engaged and were married Nov. 21, 1959. The young couple continued their studies, plus worked full-time to support themselves. Bob, who played football, also became a member of the college's track and field team. Both sports easily proved his natural athletic abilities.

As a member of the track team, Bob's incredible strength helped carve his niche as a shot putter and discus thrower. Bob set a new record for the shot put - a record that stood for more than 40 years.

On the gridiron, Bob's prowess continued. In 1959 he was part of the only West Hills football team to complete a season undefeated. The team defeated many nationally-ranked teams and became the Central California Junior College Association champions. As a result of its tremendous season, the 1959 football team was invited to play at the prestigious Potato Bowl in Bakersfield.

To Reno and Back Again

The Pedersens graduated from West Hills in 1960 and from there, they moved to Reno where Bob received a track scholarship from the University of Nevada. The couple managed the housing complex for married students and Mardell also worked at the university's bookstore.

Bob worked 40 hours a week, carried 15 units each semester, competed in sports and provided for his family, which welcomed son Craig in December 1960.

"We had our son Craig while we were in Reno," Mardell said. "And Bob worked, studied, competed and cared for us, and managed to stay a top student."

Indeed, Bob's accomplishments in the classroom were as incredible as his victories on the sports fields. At UNR, Bob graduated in 1963 with top honors and received the Outstanding College of Agriculture Student Achievement Award by Alpha Zeta Fraternity.

On the field, his accomplishments speak for themselves:

  • 1961 - broke the UNR discus record held by Max Dodge for 14 years; ranked third in the nation for discus; held school and conference records in shot put and discus; Pacific Coast Small College champion in shot put and discus; eighth place in national collegiate meet; considered 35th best discus thrower in U.S. history.
  • 1962 - Recruited by four professional football teams - Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Colts and Denver Broncos; Honorable Mention Little All Pacific Coast - tackle.
  • 1963 - Named the Greatest Weight Man in UNR history; Awarded the J.E. Martie Award, presented to the senior athlete who has done the most to further Nevada athletics; Honorable Mention Little All Pacific Coast - tackle.

"My husband was committed to his family, his education and his sports and he excelled in all three," Mardell said. "He turned down the professional football opportunities because at 28, he felt he was getting too old, plus wanted a stable environment for his family."

After Bob's graduation in 1963, the Pedersens moved back to Lemoore and Bob joined his father- and brother-in-law in the Semas family farm. In the 1970s, Steve Semas, Mardell's brother, left the farm and Lionel and Bob created SPS Farms. In 1980, Lionel retired and Bob became the sole proprietor of the now 2,200-acre Pedersen Farms. Bob's son Craig, who also attended West Hills College, became a partner in 1986. The farm grows crops for livestock feed, such as safflower, alfalfa, wheat and some cotton.

The Pedersen Legacy

While the Pedersen/Semas family's gift of land led to the construction of West Hills College Lemoore, Bob Pederson died unexpectedly in December 2001 just weeks before the school welcomed its first students. His family attended the dedication ceremony, including wife, Mardell; son Craig and his wife Kris, and their triplets, Katelyn, Lauryn and Nolan; and daughter Cheryl and her husband Bruce Bennett, and children Riley, Nathaniel and Jonah.

Bob Pedersen's example of hard work and commitment will live on in another way, as well: His 1959 championship football team was inducted into the West Hills Community College's Athletic Hall of Fame in November 2002.

"All in all, my dad's experiences with West Hills have been outstanding," Craig said. "Education was important to him, especially providing opportunities in our community and in this area. Dad saw that agriculture is changing - the changes he made on our farm demonstrate that. Dad also believed that education will be a key to success, especially as the landscape in our area continues to change. He believed the Lemoore campus would be a great asset to our community, in terms of preparing people for a future that may or may not remain agricultural. At least with the opportunities offered at West Hills, small communities like this will be prepared for the transition."

Mardell echoes her son's comments. "Bob always believed that because of the faculty and sports program at Coalinga College, he received the start he needed to further his education and to succeed in life," she said. "Bob always attributed his success in academics and sports to Coalinga College."