Bruce Kocher, a cornerstone in the foundation of Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) in its nearly half century of existence, will retire effective July 1.
Kocher has attended all of the college’s commencements (his 71st and last will be on April 28). He has witnessed an equivalent of Kalamazoo County’s population receive diplomas and certificates of achievement. He also helped forge the scores of academic, vocational and technical programs KVCC has offered over four-plus decades, and counseled thousands of students.
“I’m extremely proud to have been part of the growth and development of this college,” said Kocher, who was the second person hired by the KVCC Board of Trustees in 1967 – right behind the first, founding president Dale B. Lake.
“Just look around here,” he said in his Texas Township Campus office. “I know I’m biased, but I consider KVCC the best community college in Michigan, if not in the Midwest. Nothing changes a person’s life for the better more than education and training,” Kocher said, “and that’s what we have continued to do ever since that first batch of students walked on campus in the fall of 1968.”
And Kocher has been a part of it all -- from those pioneer students attending classes in modular buildings, to the growth and expansion of the Texas Township Campus, to the establishment of a presence in downtown Kalamazoo that is now the Arcadia Commons Campus, to record enrollments, and to innovative training programs such as the one symbolized by a 145-foot wind turbine that shadows the campus.
Over the years, Kocher’s titles have ranged from dean of students to vice president for student services to his current status as vice president for academic services. No matter what the office, Kocher said he mirrored the college’s prime focus – the students come first.
Raised in a single-parent household as the oldest of three boys, Kocher quickly learned a work ethic from his mother who had a full-time job to support her sons. Kocher became “a union man at age 14 earning a whopping 66 cents an hour” when he went to work at the local Kroger store. That employment relationship would hold throughout his years as a college student.
He graduated from Shelby High School in 1951 and shortly thereafter married the former Betty Kelly of Muskegon and continued to work for Kroger in that city. He volunteered for the draft and entered the army in December of 1953. And after his training as a tank gunner at Fort Knox, spent the next 18 months protecting the German-Czech border.
With Betty able to join him during that overseas tour, the Kochers took the opportunity to travel Europe including Great Britain. “What that did for both of us,” he said, “is expand our horizons and see the opportunity that education affords.” Once his hitch was over and the Kochers returned to civilian life in Muskegon, he took advantage of the Korean G I Bill and took his first post-secondary courses at what was then Muskegon Junior College, an experience that helped open the door to a career in higher education.
By 1957, Kocher had transferred to Western Michigan University (WMU) to enroll in secondary education with majors in history and political science and an English minor. A master’s there – and eventually a doctorate - followed his undergraduate degree, all of which led to a short stint as a teacher in the Kalamazoo Public Schools.
When Western saw the emerging trend of a growing population of community-college students transferring to four-year institutions, Kocher, whose background was known by WMU administrators, was tapped by the Office of Records and Registration to focus on that aspect. He had those duties for about eight years.
“One day,” he recalled, (WMU President) Jim Miller called me into his office and introduced me to Dale Lake, who had just been hired to be this community college’s first president.” That turned into a recruiting mission and Kocher accepted Lake’s invitation to join his “staff” effective July of 1967. At the time, Kocher was “the staff.” “I can remember in those early days sitting on a picnic table in Dale’s back yard mapping out the scope of a new college,” he said.
The commencement speaker at that first graduation was Gov. William Milliken. Kocher used his WMU ties to borrow a speaker’s platform, which was painted brown and gold to signify Western’s colors. “When we sent it back, it had been painted white,” Kocher recalled with laughter. “The good people at Western were not happy until I suggested that the platform needed to be repainted anyway and the white served as the perfect primer.”
“I don’t know how many people we’ve been able to assist over the years,” he said. “But I do know we have served those who needed special attention and a helping hand here and there.”
Kocher is proud of his role in helping “under-served students” and in establishing a prisoner-reentry program that was piloted in Kalamazoo County. “I believe all of this is an example of being true to our mission,” Kocher said. “Opportunity for all is what we are about – making a real difference in the lives of those we serve.”
Off campus, Kocher logged a “Who’s Who” of community service, including the American Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, the Hispanic American Council, the Poverty Reduction Initiative, the Van Buren Intermediate School District, the Oshtemo Rotary Club, Michigan Works!, the Douglass Community Association, Phoenix High School, The Michigan Youth Challenge Academy, and the Michigan National Guard. He’s been the recipient of local, state and national awards for that volunteerism.
Wife Betty is also in education serving as Secretary of the Board of Trustees at Western Michigan University. The Kochers are the parents of two sons – Michael and Thomas. Tom is a Prudential Preferred Realtor in Kalamazoo. Mike is leaving his position at the International Rescue Committee to become head of the Aga Kahn Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. Mike and his wife Soraya are the parents of grandson Ryan Kelly Kocher.
Other than trips to Geneva in the coming months, the Kochers intend to maintain their home in Kalamazoo. “It’s just too good a community to leave,” he said. “I also hope to keep up my community volunteerism and renew the ones that have become dormant.”
In making the announcement President Marilyn Schlack said, “Bruce’s 46 years of service have been an important part of KVCC's history and success. A number of activities to honor him are being planned in the spring with details to be announced later.”