On April 17, 1964, nearly 2,000 people climbed a grassy hillside at the former Cowell Ranch to witness the dedication of the University of California’s newest campus at Santa Cruz.

Girl Scouts handed out programs, and UC Berkeley’s famed Straw Hat Band played peppy tunes for the throng. Then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown stood against a backdrop of ocean and redwoods to declare the campus’ innovative approach to education — small residential colleges under the umbrella of a large research institution — was “already regarded as one of the most exciting in the history of the U.S.”

Thursday, more than 100 people — including local officials and founding and current faculty — gathered in Cowell Courtyard and at Founders Rock to mark the day, exactly a half-century earlier, when the UCSC campus and its colleges could only be imagined.

Surrounded by Cowell’s cream-colored buildings and with a hazy view of the bay, Thursday speakers extolled the vision of UCSC’s founders and faculty, celebrated the the risks they took, and promised many more years of innovation at a spot where, five decades earlier not a single classroom wall had yet to be erected.

Ted Foster, now 95 and Santa Cruz mayor from 1960-64, waited for Thursday’s ceremonies and remembered how the city had fought to bring UC’s newest campus to town.

“If not for the university, Santa Cruz might have been a bedroom town for over the hill,” he said. “It was a recreation town, a beach town. Now it’s a university town and that’s a real step up.”

UCSC’s tenth Chancellor George Blumenthal remembered “the wonderful moment in our history” when the campus was dedicated, along with then-UC President Clark Kerr and founding Chancellor Dean McHenry’s “vision for a new kind of university, a university for the 21st Century.”

The work of a university is never finished, however, he said. This year, for instance, the university has declared its first comprehensive fund-raising campaign “in order to build for our future,” he noted.

The 74-year-old Rev. Herb Schmidt, who gave the invocation during the 1964 dedication — which included the Christian hymn, “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past” — told the crowd, “as we stand here today, we know all of our dreams and visions have far surpassed our imaginations.”

While current students wandered by and then stopped to listen, founding Vice Chancellor Hal Hyde reminisced about how the campus’ first administration operated out of a rented chemistry building at Cabrillo College, how he and a handful of people had only six weeks to prepare for the dedication ceremony, and the fears they quelled as they looked around the forested site and realized there was only 15 months between the dedication and the arrival of the first students.

Other speakers included Cowell College Provost Faye Crosby, Professor Joe Konopelski, chair of UCSC’s Academic Senate, and Shaz Umer, chair of the Student Union Assembly, who read a congratulatory letter from Gov. Jerry Brown, whose father, then-Gov. Edmund Brown, was at UCSC’s 1964 dedication.

Led by a bagpiper, the crowd — which included current Santa Cruz Mayor Lynn Robinson, Vice-Mayor Don Lane, Councilmember Cynthia Mathews, Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson with his wife Mary, founding history professor John Dizikes and founding director of UCSC’s Institute of Marine Sciences William Doyle, along with other early faculty — then gathered around the greying Founders Rock, a thigh-high piece of limestone set with a bronze plaque marking the historic dedication that had been a centerpiece of the original ceremony.

For McPherson, whose father, Fred McPherson Jr., was publisher of the Santa Cruz Sentinel and who was editor of the newspaper before going into public service, Thursday’s ceremony was an emotional moment.

He remembered how his father, along with Editor Gordon “Scotchy” Sinclair, worked hard to convince UC Regents that Santa Cruz was the perfect place for a new university.

“It was one of the most significant things that happened to Santa Cruz,” McPherson said.  “And just as we as a community have grown up, the university has grown up too. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t read about an award or research the university has done.”

Thursday’s ceremony was the first official event leading up the campus’ 50th anniversary celebration, which begins January, 2015.

With more than 100,000 alumni, a distinguished research faculty and majors that range from the humanities to digital media and environmental studies, Chancellor George Blumenthal summed up Thursday’s feeling: “This is a moment to take pride in all that’s been accomplished at UC Santa Cruz. The work of building a great university is never finished, and we rededicate ourselves today to the grandness of our founders’ vision.”