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James Brooks

Dr. James Brooks (far right) and the Board of Trustees for Central Washington State College, 1962


Dr. James E. Brooks (1925-2017) was among the most influential people in the history of Central Washington University. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Central and the returned to serve as a faculty member in the Department of Geography and president of the university. After retirement, he and his wife Lillian became two of the most important benefactors for the university, helping to fund the library and scholarships in Geography in particular.

Dr. Brooks was born in Lewis County, Washington in a small house south of Chehalis. While in a junior high school in Mossyrock in 1943, Jim volunteered for the Navy and spent two years as a Combat Air Crewman in Patrol Bombing Squad 145, which saw service in the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil.

Having earned enough educational credits in the navy to complete his high school diploma, Jim enrolled at what was then called the Central Washington College of Education. He studied geography under Professor Reginald Shaw (Shaw and Brooks are the two geographers for whom buildings are named on campus: Shaw-Smyser Hall and the James E. Brooks Library). While at Central, Jim married Lillian Literal who was from the same area of Washington State and whom he had convinced to forego a scholarship at Western Washington State College (now WWU) to follow him to Central. They lived in Kamola Hall (the only housing for married couples on campus at the time) and would go on to have five children and enjoyed nearly seventy years of marriage.

After graduating from Central, Jim went on to the University of Washington where he earned his Masters and then Ph.D. In the midst of his dissertation research on the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, Jim was recruited to fill a sudden faculty vacancy at Eastern Washington College of Education (now EWU). After five years there (during which he completed his dissertation and became Dr. Brooks), he left to take up a teaching position at Portland State College (now PSU) because it was closer to his family and Lillian’s than faraway Cheney.

It was at Portland that Jim’s long career in university administration began. Less than a year after arriving, he was tapped to be the assistant to the president. Almost immediately, he was nominated to become the president of his alma mater. Jim did not think the nomination would go far (he was only 35 at the time), and so he was stunned when in December 1960 while at a party for Portland faculty, a call came that he had in fact been selected by Central’s Board of Trustees.

Dr. Brooks would serve as president of Central for 17 years. It was a tumultuous time in the country and in higher education and time of great change for Central in particular. Jim piloted the transition from what by then was called Central Washington State College to Central Washington University. There was a vast expansion of the arts and sciences, the proportion of faculty with doctorates jumped, enrollment grew from 2,300 when he arrived on campus to 7,500 when he stepped down in 1978, and the footprint of Central was enlarged enormously (from 113 to 300 acres) as a campus once sliced in two by the old Milwaukee Road became a large consolidated institution.

After finally getting the Board of Trustees to accept his decision to step down, Jim moved to the Department of Geography and taught courses in Geography and also occasionally in Geology for another thirteen years before retiring. Near the end of his career, Jim served briefly as interim president of Yakima Valley Community College.

After retirement, Jim remained very active in the affairs of the university (e.g., he was a leader in the Friends of the Library) and the community (e.g., as a longtime Rotary Club member). He and Lillian established large endowed funds to support the library and students in Geography. In the latter case, the Brooks-Shaw Endowment has funded more than one hundred scholarships for the best students in the department. Ever the leader, Jim coordinated monthly meetings of retired geographers in Ellensburg up until the end of his life, often recruiting speakers to meet with the group at Hearthstone.

Through a long and distinguished career Dr. James Brooks profoundly shaped the university and the community, but what he most treasured about his work was the role he had played in the lives of individual students.

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