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If you dream it, you can live it

Profile: COC Chancellor Dianne Van Hook is widely acknowledged as one of the SCV’s most influential

Posted: June 12, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 12, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Chancellor Dianne Van Hook of College of the Canyons in the atrium of Hasley Hall on the Valencia campus. (Right) The headline of the May 15, 1988, Signal newspaper announcing Van Hook’s appointment as the new CEO of COC.

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Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of profiles on “the most powerful women in the SCV.” The series will alternate with the companion series of profiles on “the most interesting man in the world — SCV edition.”

It was 1988, and the headline on the Sunday, May 15, issue of The Signal newspaper heralded the change soon to arrive at the tiny Valencia campus of College of the Canyons.

“COC to Have Woman President” was bannered at the top of the front page.

Dianne Gracia Van Hook, at age 37, had become the youngest CEO — and one of only five women among 70 to lead a community college district in California.

The newspaper article — a reflection of less politically correct times — was written by John Green, former Signal staff writer. Green now works for Van Hook as COC’s director of publications and reprographics.

“I send that story to John Green every couple of years, to remind him,” said Van Hook, displaying her impish sense of humor.

Van Hook said when she started her tenure at COC, she found her role models in Roberta Veloz of Aquafine and Ruth Newhall of The Signal.

“They were among the only females I saw out amongst the business leaders in the Santa Clarita Valley,” she said. “They were my role models. They were strategic behind the scenes, and strategic as part of the scene. They were very courageous at a time when, although much of the rest of the world had become more accepting of women leaders, Santa Clarita was not quite there yet. For me, it was a great inspiration to see both of them in action.”

Van Hook, named chancellor of College of the Canyons in 2008, is now the longest-serving CEO in the California community college system.

Among Van Hook’s most positive attributes, according to colleagues, is her hard-driving work ethic.

“I love to work,” she said. “My work ethic comes from how I was brought up.”

Van Hook, the daughter of Herbert and Mae Gracia Ohman, spent a childhood moving from city to city.

“My dad worked for a trucking company, and every time they opened a new terminal, he was brought in to open it,” she said. “As a result, I moved a lot as a child — from St. Paul, Minn., to Butte, Mont., back to Minneapolis, to Dayton, Ohio, back to Minneapolis to Illinois, back to Minneapolis then to Milwaukee, Wis., and also to Ann Arbor, Mich.”

When Van Hook moved to California at age 11, she had already attended nearly a dozen elementary schools in several states.

“I was used to constant change, and I was very self-reliant,” she said.

Adding to the development of her “can do” spirit was the time she spent with her grandmothers, Emma Ohman and Mata Ferrell, on adjoining farms in northwestern Minnisota.

“One house had indoor plumbing; the other did not,” she said. “Nothing was easy at Grandma’s. You had to work very hard, there was a wood stove, water was pumped from a well, there’s nothing easy about bringing in a crop, or getting up at 5 in the morning and collecting eggs and milking cows.”

 Van Hook said the lessons she learned on the farm were instrumental in developing her work ethic.

“There was no one to call. If something broke, you figured out how to fix it, or borrowed it from the neighbors,” she said.

“It was really about making your own way, being creative and industrious, constantly forming partnerships and relationships, because that’s how you got things done in rural America.”

One of the things Van Hook is most proud of is the New Horizons program, a re-entry program she envisioned as a doctorate student in the late 1970s. The state of California picked up her model to use at 60 colleges throughout the state.

However, her legacy to the future of education in the SCV is the Dr. Dianne G. Van Hook University Center, a facility that offers students a chance to earn a four-year degree without leaving the SCV.

Van Hook said her life philosophy is simply: “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; and if you dream it, you can do it.”

Her advice to students is to “believe in yourself. We give too much credence to other people’s perceptions of ourselves. The only person we go home with at the end of the day is ourselves.”

“If you tell yourself you can’t, then you won’t,” she said.

Van Hook has been married for nearly 40 years to Roger Van Hook.

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