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The Malibu Miracle

In his new memoir, President Emeritus Bill Banowsky remembers the triumphs and tragedies that brought Pepperdine University to Malibu.

During the historic decade from 1968 to 1978, George Pepperdine College grew from a small, inner-city Los Angeles school to a major university on the rim of the Pacific Ocean. At the helm of this transformation was then Pepperdine president William S. Banowsky. In his new memoir, The Malibu Miracle, Banowsky tells the story of how Pepperdine University came to be where and what it is today.


“Millions of words have been written about the Malibu miracle, but no one has told the inside story,” pens Banowsky, sharing his unique, eyewitness perspective on this critical period in Pepperdine history. “Few are left who know it. The circle of ‘miracle makers’ has dwindled to a dot. I tell this story because if I do not much of it will die with me.” In the following excerpts, Banowsky offers a glimpse into the confluence of circumstances that brought the miracle to pass.

Bill Banowsky was just 22 years old and three months from graduation at David Lipscomb College in Nashville, Tennessee, when he first met Norvel Young, 42, then the new president of George Pepperdine College. It was February 15, 1958. After hearing Banowsky’s speech at the annual convention of Church of Christ college presidents, Young immediately took to the young man and began recruiting him to Pepperdine.

Through the months, Norvel and I got acquainted. His constant calls and correspondence pictured California as a veritable cornucopia. But occasionally, his guard came down enough to give me a glimpse of a grim reality.

His guard came all the way down when the time came for our second face-to-face meeting. That was on December 1, 1958—10 months after our first meeting in Nashville. Norvel traveled to Albuquerque “to address a leadership dinner for Churches of Christ of Northern New Mexico at the University of New Mexico student union,” the Albuquerque Journal announced. As master of ceremonies for the occasion, I introduced him and we sat together at the head table.

After the dinner, he went home with wife Gay and me to spend the night. He kept us awake half the night closing the deal for us to join hands with Helen and him at Pepperdine. We agreed to do so, beginning just a few months away in August 1959. Then, he completely shifted gears. He kept us awake the other half of the night pouring out what he called “my three big Pepperdine problems.”

Norvel was renowned for combining a sunny smile with a stiff upper lip. But on this night he lost both. His sales pitch was punctured by expressions of discouragement concerning those three big problems. For months he had needed to talk to someone outside the tense situation. Once he started talking he couldn’t stop. It was a catharsis.

Norvel went to Pepperdine, as he so often put it, “to save the college for the church.” He arrived to discover that what he thought was the major challenge had tripled. In addition to the problem of church alienation, which he anticipated, he was also confronted with a virulent faculty revolt and a desperately threatening financial crisis.

The first two of those three big problems, church alienation and faculty revolt, seemed to have developed directly from George Pepperdine’s uncertainty about the nature of the college he would create. The third problem, the college’s threatening financial crisis, developed primarily as a result of his catastrophic personal bankruptcy

Racial tension brewing in Los Angeles also threatened the future of George Pepperdine College. On August 11, 1965, the Watts Riots erupted on the school’s doorsteps. Campus was evacuated, and more than 400 National Guardsmen bivouacked in the Pepperdine dorms. The whole country watched on television.

Rioting died down. Death and suffering stayed south of the campus. Other than massive cleanup, Pepperdine sustained no loss of life, injury or property damage. The damage was psychological. James C. (Chip) Moore, later Pepperdine’s director of human resources, had lived across from the campus for many years. Then an awed eyewitness student, he reported broken windows in all of the buildings along Vermont Avenue leading up to the campus. If the students and faculty were frightened, the trustees were terrified. One Dallas trustee simply mailed in his resignation and never again came to the campus. The escalated fear level would never subside to pre-riot days.

Students and faculty returned to the disheveled campus in heightened anxiety. Many feared that it could all blaze up again on any given day. Every day something burned at Berkeley or Columbia and many wondered how Pepperdine could avoid being next. To reassure worried parents, President Young took several security measures. He doubled campus security, which meant growing the staff from one full-time officer to two. Prior to the rioting, campus security was managed by one lone guard. That highlights how unprepared the college was for what was coming. To discourage students from leaving campus after dark, President Young kept the popular Oasis snack bar open until midnight. To keep all others out, in 1969 he erected a six-foot chain-link security fence around the campus. If nothing else, it symbolized the escalating fear.

After the Watts riots President Young redoubled student recruitment. But it grew difficult, and expensive, to coax parents in the Midwest and South to send sons and daughters to a campus many considered to be at the center of America’s racial woes. The smoke in Watts cleared but Pepperdine’s pathway darkened into months of confusion. Was the college dead in Los Angeles? Or, with renewed resolution, could it continue to fulfill its mission in the inner city?

Amid accusations of “white flight” and a serious enrollment crisis, Young proposed building Pepperdine’s residential, undergraduate experience in a new location, while maintaining important programming and administration in Los Angeles. After a year of searching, the site committee narrowed their choices from more than 40 to just three: Calabasas, Westlake Village, and Palos Verdes, a beautiful but too-small property offered by Mrs. Blanche Seaver. On the morning of September 18, 1967, Norvel Young phoned Banowsky at his home in Lubbock.

“Bill, we’ve just been offered land in Malibu!” A long pause followed his shouted exclamation. I wasn’t sure what I had heard.

“Whad’ya say, Norvel?” I stumbled.

“I said, we’ve just been offered land in Malibu. I know that’s a shocker. But it’s for real!” Another long pause.

“It’s right on the ocean. It’s in the heart of Malibu!” he continued. “I first saw it only yesterday and couldn’t sleep all night. Helen and I stayed awake rejoicing. It’s just beautiful. It overlooks the Pacific. Huge mountains rise up behind it. Catalina floats like a fishing cork way out in front of you. Bill, God has answered our prayers. This Malibu site will solve all our problems!” Norvel seemed over the top.

“That’s crazy. Malibu? Nobody’s gonna give us any ocean property in Malibu. Why would they? We don’t even know anybody in Malibu!”

“George Evans knows these people,” he explained. “They’re his clients. It’s a family named Adamson. They’ve been in Malibu forever. They own lots of ocean land. They’re proposing to give us the most beautiful spot of all.”

Hearing the name George Evans, I straightened up in my chair. I had known him briefly during my 1959-1962 Pepperdine sojourn and my assessment was that George was a man of few words whose promises could be taken to the bank.

“But why, Norvel? Why would this Adamson family give us priceless ocean property?” I questioned.

“George’s proposal came so fast I have few details,” confessed Norvel. “And there’s one huge negative. It’s rough and mountainous without any of the basic utilities whatsoever. Some trustees already say site development costs are prohibitive.”

My red flag flew up. I pressed to learn how unbuildable this site was. Norvel conceded we’d have to move hundreds of tons of dirt. “There are no roads or sidewalks. Only snakes, coyotes and contented cows grazing in a meadow,” he chuckled. “It’s rough, but beautiful. You won’t believe it ’til you see it, so come now!”

Tuesday, September 19, 1967, I flew out to see the Malibu land for the first time. Norvel met me at LAX. We drove 20 winding miles north along the ocean. Talking non-stop, we sped past Sunset Boulevard, Topanga Canyon, Big Rock and La Costa and Carbon beaches to Malibu’s civic center. The highway’s tight topography then blossomed wide open into a spectacular three-dimensional landscape for miles around. On the left, the regal Malibu Colony spread movie-star mansions along the beach. But Norvel turned my attention to the right, pointing up to the mile-wide opening of Malibu Canyon soaring up through the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Well, Bill, there it is,” he said softly.

“Where?” I puzzled, with a high-up and far-away squint. “Is that it?” pointing to a big white building on the high skyline.

“Oh no, that’s the Hughes Research Laboratory. Look further left.”

I looked, and found the center of the Malibu miracle: tall rugged mountains meandering gracefully down across the verdant meadow and melting into the sea. Point Dume and the Santa Barbara Channel Islands sparkled in the distance. In the soft foreground were the 138 acres destined to be Pepperdine’s home. The creative canvas defined my career.

The car rolled up to a ramshackle gate girded by a cattle guard. Norvel set the brake and rolled down the windows. Two spectacular canyons framed the scene, right and left, like a dreamy early-California landscape. I broke the silence to ask about the specific boundary lines for those 138 acres.

Norvel suggested a quick hike. We stepped out into an exhilarating ocean breeze wafting from northwest to southeast across the picturesque ranch scene of cow licks, water troughs and barbed wire fence. Facing the ocean, Norvel swept his right arm from Santa Monica on the left toward Ventura on the right. “Bill, those 138 acres start down here and run along the highway to Marie Canyon,” pointing northwest.

“How far do they extend up into the mountains?” I asked.

“Not all the way to the top, but that’ll never pose a problem,” Norvel answered. “No one will ever be able to build in the precipitous mountains above us. We’re protected above by rugged peaks and below by the highway. Hughes buffers us on the east and the Adamsons’ luxury houses will buffer us on the west. We’re nestled into a topographical haven of safety, comfort and beauty.”

It was beautiful, indeed, but very rugged. It was dramatically apparent why it would cost extra millions to build here and why some trustees already opposed it. Norvel lamenting the costs, pointed to the complete absence of roads, water, gas and electricity. Then came the clincher: “Bill, there’s no public sewer system anywhere in Malibu!”

“Come on Norvel,” I pointed down to the beach. “How do all those movie stars live in those million-dollar houses without a sewer?”

“Every residence and business in Malibu must operate its own private septic tank,” Norvel explained. “We would have to gain government permission to build the biggest private sewer system in all of Malibu and face horrendous costs of construction and perpetual operation. Little wonder some trustees are spooked.”

“Can we walk up there?” I asked, pointing almost straight up the central mountain to the soft plateau flattening out above the cows.

“Sure,” Norvel said. Apologizing for no key to unlock the gate, he pulled the barbed wire fence apart, eased through and I followed suit.

“Bill, watch out for cow dung. It’s everywhere, especially where you’re not looking. You’ll stink for a week!” Norvel led in his trademark tractor-tread shoes as we picked our way across the meadow and up the hill. We puffed to the first plateau and paused where Stauffer Chapel now stands. We spent quiet minutes drinking in the scene. We walked 50 yards further to where Tyler Campus Center now stands and edged to the bluff, pausing where the big fireplace now rises in the corner of the dining room. We were silent again.

“Norvel,” I asked, breaking the reverie and turning to look up the steep hill behind us, “can we go up there?” I pointed to the jeep road that wound up the hill to the rocky bluffs where the big flagpole now stands.

“Sure,” Norvel shouted, charging ahead in those tractor-tread shoes.

Halfway up I puffed, “Is this all still part of those 138 acres?”

“It sure is!” Norvel huffed. “All of this would be our new campus.”

The steep jeep road, curving right, circled straight up to the top of the mountain where the Brock House now stands. This was our third level since starting at the car. We had ascended to the central plateau where Seaver College now stands and then on up to the sweet spot destined to become the Banowsky family residence. The most spectacular panorama on the planet swept out across the ocean for a hundred miles from right to left.

“Norvel, this is the place,” I quietly said. “I think God is calling us to build Pepperdine here.”


When Pepperdine began its move to Malibu, the new campus site featured no roads, water, gas, electricity, nor any public sewer system. More than 3 million cubic yards of earth and rock had to be moved—an impossible undertaking now given ecological protections along the coast. The Malibu miracle makers tackled these problems and more, giving the 830-acre campus the special features it has today.

In an interview with Pepperdine Magazine, Banowsky reveals the story behind some of Pepperdine’s best-known landmarks—the Phillips Theme Tower, Alumni Park, the flagpole at Brock House, and more, as well as how the intersection at Malibu Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway came to be.

READ MORE OF THE DISCUSSION, and watch video of a conversation between longtime colleagues Banowsky and School of Public Policy dean Jim Wilburn: magazine.pepperdine.edu/banowsky

RESERVE YOUR COPY of The Malibu Miracle:magazine.pepperdine.edu/malibu-miracle