by Giovanna Zeloni Rinaldo
photography by Nadira Fatah
Corlan Harrison scans the room from left to right and back left again. Her eyes zigzag away, following the people making their way in. She simultaneously checks the status of the meal preparation. Her mind races ahead, formulating different strategies: positioning, distribution, portion calculations—there are many variables to consider. It is a big day. Guests keep coming, yet the scene is comforting. Corlan is in charge in this busy environment. She is the maestro behind the scenes who directs the controlled spontaneity. Her family heritage, a newly renovated church kitchen facility and her intuitive talent are all in place for a familiar challenge as Corlan Ortmayer Harrison kicks off another University of La Verne Food Network event at the Church of the Brethren.
The dinner, which started as a one-time Thanksgiving feast for international students, has taken off as a once a month academic year food social event. It opens the Church’s door to the University community; Corlan and her volunteer alumni leaders have made this a looked forward to tradition. Taking La Verne students under one’s wings was something she grew up watching her father and mother do. Roland “Ort” Ortmayer was the celebrated University of La Verne athletic professor and long-time football coach. Ort passed in 2008, but his legacy is not only preserved, but also very much alive through his daughter as she nurtures the same student body.
Corlan began her job as Church of the Brethren kitchen and special events coordinator 10 years ago, following her work as retail developer for the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. Her success at the Church job has led to the renovation of the once antiquated kitchen to restaurant code standards. And it is because of Corlan’s leadership and adept food preparation skills that the University students now have a new tradition. “When my father started aging, and my daughter Rayna needed more from me, my husband and I decided that I would quit that [Botanic Garden] job. An opening came up here, and I found an opportunity to be their kitchen and special events coordinator. It is just a part-time job, but it’s the kind of job that nurtures your soul. I work with people I love, I serve people I cherish—what really could be better than that in any occupation?”
Corlan’s relationship with the La Verne Church of the Brethren and the University community guided her decision to take on a challenge that was new in essence but familiar in nature. The University has been home to Corlan from the moment she left the hospital as a newborn in 1956 and was taken to Woody Hall, then a men’s dormitory and also the place of her parents’ apartment since they served as dorm parents. Along with older sister Susan (a brother died in a 1953 tragic drowning accident at age 6 in Puddingstone Lake), she grew up in the shadow of the University through most of her father’s 43 years of teaching and sports leadership. Corlan herself attended La Verne, pursing studies in HPER—health physical education and recreation, but she says she preferred art. At the time, her future husband Robert Harrison was majoring in HPER too. Corlan says a rebellious stage led her to quit her studies in the late 1970s, with about half a semester to finish her degree. She launched out to search for her identity and discovered the fashion industry in Chicago. “I didn’t want to go to La Verne. I felt like I had been going to La Verne my whole life,” Corlan says. In retrospect, she has second thoughts on leaving, but says the experience was not wasted despite her not getting to wear her graduation cap in 1979. “While I was there, I had tremendous friends, and the only thing I didn’t leave with was a diploma.”
Her connection to the Church of the Brethren was built over time. It backtracks to her father, the son of a Methodist minister. Ort was a Heisman Trophy football finalist from Northwestern University who served as a conscientious objector in Civilian Public Service during World War II. Following the war, Ort and wife Corni wanted to show their gratitude to supporters of the CO cause. First, the couple invested two years in the Quaker faith at William Penn College in Iowa. Next came La Verne College, tied to the Church of the Brethren, another peace church denomination. Their visit lasted longer than the planned two years, for in La Verne was the match environment where they raised their children, trained and advised students and associated with members of the Church of the Brethren who mentored the College.
Upon accepting her job as kitchen and events coordinator, Corlan decided to act on her belief that the link between the Church and the University could be more viable. “The Church has almost always held all of the special events for La Verne College, and then we had a period of time where La Verne got big enough to handle it separately,” Corlan says. “In fact, the Sports Awards Banquet was held here the year that the football team and athletes presented my parents with a new car. They hid the car up on the Church stage, and so this place is hallowed ground for me. I had been struggling the last few years not understanding why the Church and the University didn’t have a stronger relationship. And I know that there has always been mutual respect, but we’ve gotten further and further away. I felt as though there wasn’t a connection at the student level that I thought needed to be there.”
Strategically, Corlan welcomes many volunteer Food Network staff who are ULV graduates, strengthening the mission of bringing tradition and history to the very core of the event. “We encourage alumni to come and sit and be in conversation with students. I think the purpose of this event is so that ULV students know their roots, the University roots, and sharing a meal is so Brethren. It’s just so Brethren; it’s what we do,” Corlan says. “It’s a little hard for me to tell you, but it really is not about the food. It’s about the opportunity to sit and be in communication and in a shared community, and if the food tastes good in the process — that’s just a bonus.”
Initially, when the idea for a Food Network started, Corlan provided a Thanksgiving meal for all the University’s foreign students. A Church member hosted each table, and students were invited to become part of a family—closer in distance than their own—to celebrate the traditional American holiday centered around gratefulness, bonding and hospitality.
Corlan knew she could do more. Gone are the days when her ability to provide meals to an audience of considerable size was questioned. The number of attendees varies each month, but the count has gone as high as 400 people. The Food Network gained a major boost with the recent renovation of the Church kitchen in summer 2016. It was completely remodeled, and its $500,000 cost in upgrades brought the structure—and consequently the event—to restaurant standards. The changes to become a commercial kitchen were needed to meet the Church goal of becoming more involved in the community, since the previous infrastructure could only legally accommodate two potlucks per year. At first glance, the kitchen looks the same, since effort was made to keep the original appearance intact. For example, the original natural wood cabinets hand built by Wayne Hanawalt are still there and preserve the antique look and feel of the place.
“I think the fastest way to get to know someone and to be in fellowship is to share a meal. I have always felt that way. My parents always had their house open to any college student who needed a meal; my mother would make food for hordes of students who would come and eat tacos or nachos, and even my dad’s classes sometimes would end up in our house having a meal,” Corlan says. “I don’t know any other way. The ULV Food Network was born out of that tradition that is very strongly part of my family origin, my relationship with my Church, my love for the job I hold, and my appreciation and actual devotion to the University of La Verne because it is home for me. Always will be. This community, La Verne, is my bloodline.”
Corlan’s passion for cooking stems from both her grandmother—whose handwritten 1915 cookbook she still uses for some recipes—and mother Cornelia, who she says could make a meal out of nothing, and friends out of a meal. “My parents did Easter trips, so we’ve done everything from hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with 90 people, and floated rivers with 120 students. We’d climb Kolob Arch near Zion National Park; we kayaked to Todos Santos Island in Mexico—we did so many things. But one constant: my mother always organized meals for very little money. I don’t think students ever paid more than $20 for transportation and food for that week, and often it was less than that. But she could organize food to feed 100 people for a week, for three meals a day. And I marvel at that.”
“My Ortmayer grandfather was a Methodist minister, and my grandmother did everything she could to support the church. She would organize fundraisers, and one of the things she writes is they went to the county fair and had a booth selling barbecue sandwiches for 10 cents a piece and made a mint. Those were her notes— “and we made a mint!” So I love to serve that sandwich. It’s fun for me, and it’s family for me.”
Corlan says there is strength in networking, and she cooks with the confidence of someone who sees food as nurturer of the soul. She shares that her grandmother’s pancakes were nicknamed “Peace Pancakes” by her grandfather. “He said that if he could gather the decision-makers in the Vietnam War and have them eat the pancakes, conflicts would be resolved and end the war. Every time I think about making a meal for people, it’s an opportunity for conflict to be resolved, because sharing a meal makes you a friend or a family, and it’s easier to resolve issues. That may sound like making too much out of a meal, but I’ve just seen it happen. I see regular faces and new faces every month. For me, if a student is feeling like they’re in need of a little bit of loving, they can come here and get that. They absolutely can. I don’t care who you are, don’t care what you do; just come and have a meal. We try to fill it with love every time we make it, and I will never profess to be a chef of great distinction. I am a cook who likes to cook for family, and I like to expand my family to include anybody who walks through the door.”
The serenity and openness to accommodate everyone mimics her father. His definition of success completely overlooked titles, records and numerically measurable accomplishments, instead focusing on what cannot be displayed at a trophy cabinet: touching people’s lives. In a 1989 article for Sports Illustrated, writer Douglas S. Looney said, “To say Ortmayer is a coach diminishes the man—it’s like praising Picasso for knowing the primary colors.” Throughout his 43-year career at the University, Ort made such an impact that the football/soccer stadium was named after him. There have been coaches with better winning records at La Verne, but there is consensus that there has not been a more inspirational and impactful La Verne coach. “Some people say we don’t take winning seriously enough, so a lot of high school coaches don’t want their players to come here. But I noticed that fathers want their sons to come,” Ortmayer once said. He had the reputation of being loud without saying a word, of giving his players complete autonomy of choice and thinking, of accepting individuals as they were, and of looking at them as people first, students second—and maybe athletes third. “He was a peacemaker and a peacekeeper and a brilliant athlete in his own right, and an amazing coach,” Corlan says. “And his coaching career should never be judged by the wins and losses. When I introduced Dr. Lieberman to Ortmayer Stadium, I said, ‘The reason that the Ortmayer name is on there is because of love, not because of money. That stadium was built by people who loved him, respected him. For some people, it was dimes and nickels; for others, it was thousands. And that experience was tremendously humbling to my parents.’”
Corlan’s name is a combination of her parents’, Cornelia and Roland. She holds dear the impact they had on her life philosophy and values. “I learned from my dad the importance of relationship and perspective, and to try to understand or to learn others’ perspective. My dad was a great man; he always knew how to put others first, and maybe that was his way of being selfish. He was a storyteller. He loved to challenge religion. He was unique and very special; I wouldn’t put myself there. But I’m a pretty good combination of the two of my parents. I think I have a fairly decent sense of humor. That is certainly something that my dad had, and my mom appreciated. I like to feed students, which my mom did regularly. I love adventure—and that was them in a nutshell; they would go anywhere.”
Ort’s image, so celebrated and admired, would not have been the same if not for Cornelia’s efforts in ensuring whatever adventure that awaited was carefully prepared, says Robert Dyer, University of La Verne alumnus and Board of Trustee member, and Elric Boardman, adjunct professor at La Verne. Both met Roland and Corni as students before Corlan was born and are witnesses to the effect the couple had on the University community. They are also volunteers at the Food Network. They agree that Corlan is a combination of both her parents but also resembles Corni in many ways. “She [Corni] was from the South, and you knew when she was around because she had a commanding voice, and she was kind of a firecracker; she was just a delightful lady, and Ort was more quiet,” Robert says. “I really first got to know her was when she had a cart at football games and sold soft drinks. We soon built her a wooden structure. Now there is a building on the field called Corni’s Corner, named in her honor.”
Elric says Corni would take charge in any situation, and that she was a natural leader. She complemented Ort, who was quieter and sometimes spoke more with silence than with words. Instead, Corni would step up to turn challenges into accomplishments and balance her husband’s character to make for unmatchable team work.
Corlan keeps the feeling of belonging in mind when preparing the recipes. She includes a vegetarian meal. “I live in a state of mind that says everybody gets to eat here.” Also included is the famous brownie, which is one of the main attractions and a magnet that keeps students coming back. “We have to have brownies every time, because I tried to do a different dessert once, and I think people cried. So they know they can count on brownies. If nothing else works for them, brownies are here. Even if I don’t want them, they’re here.”
As for the future, Corlan hopes to continue providing food and love in an environment that is safe and loving, and also ensure the bond between the Church and the University is strong and everlasting. “Food must be more than just throwing a homeless person a sandwich out of the car window. Food is love; it absolutely is when you make it with loving hands.”