Thousands of student volunteers have shown their pride over seven decades by creating an annual Cal Poly Universities Rose Parade float. But only Bob Pettis can say he rode atop one for five hours overnight in freezing temperatures while clinging to the leg of an 18-foot stork.
Pettis (’63, agronomy) still laughs about that experience, one of the many he treasures from dedicating more than 60 years to the Cal Poly Universities’ Rose Float program. As a student, alumnus and donor, Pettis always figured out how to get things done for the program over the decades.
“Working on Rose Float is a life-changing experience,” said Pettis, 80. “When there were lows, I learned how to handle them. I was so pleased by how I used those lessons throughout my career.”
In recent years, Pettis used his get-it-done skills to encourage alumni to donate to the new Don Miller and Ron Simons Rose Float Lab, which will open when COVID-19 health and safety protocols allow. Named after two alumni who jumpstarted the Rose Float Program, the new $5.5 million lab will provide 14,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor workspace including a fully enclosed float construction bay, design workspace, storage facilities and a courtyard to host large numbers of volunteers.
“Bob is a humble, can-do guy,” said Simons (’64, agronomy; ’69, food marketing and agribusiness management), his longtime friend. “He looks at something and says, ‘We’re just going to get it done.’”
Pettis, Simons and Bill Jacobson (’61, animal husbandry) organized gatherings in 2011, 2013 and 2015 of alumni at Jacobson’s ranch near Paso Robles to discuss their Cal Poly and Rose Float experiences. Through an ongoing letter, e-mail and phone campaign, Pettis provided updates on the lab construction and inspired more donations.
“I can’t take credit for all that happened, but I am pleased to say that several of those who were part of our gatherings became significant contributors to the building fund,” said Pettis.
The group was reinvigorated in October 2016 when Pettis and other Rose Float alumni met with Cal Poly Pomona President Soraya M. Coley at the Tournament House in Pasadena. Coley made a public commitment to have a permanent building for the Rose Float program.
“It was like a burst of energy filled the room,” Pettis said. “She told us what we had been waiting many years to hear. We now had an advocate in the administration that was going to make this happen.”
‘I Was Hooked’
Pettis first honed his can-do spirit for Rose Float when he needed to move the 1960 entry “Special Delivery” back to Pomona after the Pasadena parade. There was only one way to help the driver navigate — shivering from the top of the float and communicating with the driver through a headset.
“It was the coldest night of the year,” recalled Pettis, a self-described farm kid from the high desert town of Apple Valley. “I didn’t even have much of a jacket. Frozen I was! I’ve never been so cold in my entire life, but I was hooked.”
The following year he spent New Year’s Day tucked warmly inside the 1961 Rose Float entry but inhaled fumes from a broken exhaust line all the way down Colorado Boulevard.
“I decided right then it should never happen again, and I would do something to ensure it,” he said from his home in Coupeville, Washington, where he and his wife, Lynda Taylor, retired.
Pettis volunteered for construction chair for the 1962 “Man on the Moon” float, but when he returned to campus for fall quarter, Henry House, the dean of students, informed him that the float chairman was not coming back to campus because of an illness. Pettis was then put in charge of the entire operation.
“‘You guys are it,’” House told him and Simons. They donned white coveralls with official-looking Cal Poly Rose Float patches on the back to attract attention on campus and held a meeting for volunteers.
“The parade is happening on New Year’s Day and it has to be done so you get it done,” said Pettis, whose old coveralls now hang in the Rose Float advisor’s office in San Luis Obispo.
It was the same year Cal Poly Pomona began admitting female students, and an overwhelming 100 volunteers lent a hand to bring the float to life.
“Anyone who showed up with a smile on their face got to be chairman of something,” Pettis said. “We had titles like assistant to the welder’s assistant.”
Simons became an astronaut that year as the Man on the Moon, waving to the crowd as he ducked back into a sphere that spun around a crescent moon.
Pettis and Simons went on to co-chair the 1963 entry, working in the cold and wet outdoors. They made small improvements to the scant Rose Float shelter, but the volunteers’ vision was always bigger than their workspace. Over the years, the Cal Poly Universities’ entries won 60 awards from the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, including 10 Founder’s Trophies for the most beautiful float.
Cal Poly Commitment
At Rose Float’s 70th anniversary celebration in 2016, President Coley committed to Rose Float alumni that the university would build a new lab.
With the administration’s backing and the support of hundreds of donors —including alumni, students, staff and faculty — it happened.
“Few programs are as intertwined with the Cal Poly Pomona legacy or as emblematic of our polytechnic advantage than the Rose Float Program,” President Coley said. “And few people demonstrate as much passion for the Rose Float Program than Bob. It is this passion that makes this program such a success. Year after year, Bob and his fellow alumni provide not only critical financial support but also their experience, skills and labor in building a world-class entry that is the envy of the parade.”
Among the devoted group of Rose Float alumni who dreamed of a real lab for students to replace the shed used by generations of float-builders was Jacobson, chairman of the 1959 and 1960 floats and a longtime supporter whose name will be on the kitchen of the new Rose Float Lab. Jacobson, who died in February, hosted Rose Float students from both Cal Poly campuses during joint summer retreats at his ranch.
Pettis said seeing the students was inspirational.
“People used to talk about thinking outside the box,” he said. “These kids don’t see boxes, they see problems that need to be surmounted. They just think differently. It’s so fun as alumni to see what they’re doing.”
When Pettis was an undergraduate, if he wasn’t attending class or working on a float, he could be found at one of the many positions he held on campus—college police officer, janitor, rodeo rider, chairman of the tractor skills competition, student government representative, farmhand and student CPP fire chief. He said being on campus meant his boots were always muddy and his cowboy hat was always on.
“Cal Poly Pomona was an amazing place for me. You could just go crazy doing things,” said Pettis.
And his adventure did not end as a student. After he graduated, he worked as a farm equipment manager and dealer in the Central Valley after serving in the Air Force. The new lab has a tool crib named in his honor, because of his continued dedication over the years.
“The fact that my name is there isn’t important,” said Pettis, who has a son and four grandchildren. “It’s that I contributed.”
Pettis wanted to see the lab in person while he still felt comfortable traveling while managing health issues, so he and his wife made the trip down to Pomona in late January and toured the complex.
“I was just overwhelmed by it,” he said. “We got it done.”
Visit https://www.cpp.edu/rosefloatlab/index.shtml for more information on how to support the Rose Float program and Lab.