MERCED, Calif. – There was a moment that passed along Campus Drive at Merced College on October 17, when the fading light, the temperature and a gentle breeze worked in unison to spotlight, warm and lift an American flag to the sky.

The moment felt full of hope and possibility as Merced College music professor Alex Simon sang the national anthem, and, after raising Old Glory, members of the American Legion Post 83 Honor Guard and Riders Post 83 stood sentry.

It was the exact right feel for Merced College as it officially revealed the new campus flagpole and entryway.

“We hope that when students and community members pull onto campus, they recognize the quality of it,” said Merced College President Chris Vitelli, who began his third full academic year in the presidency in July. “This is just the beginning of so many projects like this. We are so proud to present this [to the community].”

Designed by Darden Architects in Fresno, the new entryway sits near the Gallo Veterans Resource Center and the southwest lawn. The American, California and Merced College flags line a curved patio. (The College received a flag, already flown above the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., from the office of U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA, 16th District) during the ceremony that can also be used.)

The entryway sports a new Merced College sign with the school’s logo imprinted in concrete at its base.

The Plaza Project is the Merced College Foundation’s first fully funded construction project, significant since it cuts a literal path onto campus, and a figurative one into a master plan to revamp the 57-year old school.

“It’s going to change our campus in a way we haven’t seen in a very long time,” said Jill R. Cunningham, the Associate Vice President of External Relations and Executive Director of the Merced College Foundation. “We haven’t had new construction; we haven’t had growth. … And our students deserve better.”

The Foundation managed to complete the work thanks to a generous gift from the Toney Family. Other major sponsors were Dignity Health Merced Medical Center, Joseph Gallo Farms, Jim and Carlene Cunningham, Merced Sunrise Rotary and UC Merced.

“This is a new staple project for us,” said foundation president Joe Doyland.

“The goal of the foundation will be to raise the money to complete the rest of it.”

The foundation will be in charge of raising private funds to add an outdoor performance area, trees, benches and other amenities. Doyland says the College would likely not receive public funds to pay for it.

Asked whether that prospect was exciting or daunting, Doyland replied, “Absolutely!”

He is right on either way—daunting because the administration has lofty goals; exciting since new construction will refresh the campus.

You could see the happiness for that prospect on Charles Fennessy’s face as he looked at the crowd gathered for the flag raising — Merced College staff, administration and faculty, as well as UC Merced Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Greg Canfield and Merced College Board of Trustees members Carmen Ramirez, Sue Chappell, John Pedrozo and Ernie Ochoa.

Fennessy had been enthusiastically hounding the school since 2013 to give the flag a more respectful home after being hidden by mature trees for years.

“I think we’re here, frankly, because we were tired of hearing from Chuck,” Cunningham joked at the flag raising. “I hadn’t been here three days when he came in for the first time and demanded, ‘When are you gonna move the flag?’ And I said, ‘What flag?’ and he said, ‘Exactly. It’s buried behind those trees!’”

Fennessy is an Air Force veteran who spent part of his career at the now-defunct Castle AFB in Atwater as the base director of education. Fennessy and his wife, Sylvia, who were married for 59 years when she died in 2013, were passionate Merced College supporters. Fennessy served as the college foundation president for 20 years.

To honor Chuck and Sylvia for their advocacy for local veterans, first responders and the school, the Merced College Board of Trustees voted to name the pole the Fennessy Flagpole.

“Míle Buíochas,” Fennessy said in Irish, meaning a thousand thank yous, during his remarks. “When you see this, it hits you. Bingo! And you want to come back.

“I wish [Sylvia] was here now. She was with me at that first meeting six years ago. … I appreciate this.”

Now Fennessy and his beloved Sylvia are a permanent fixture on campus.

Now all Merced College students, staff, faculty and visitors can see the American flag and contemplate its message.