Nestled in the hills of the Moraga Valley lies what many considered to be an academic utopia. For more than three decades, Saint Mary's College was home to Ronald Eugene Isetti.

On the heels of the college's sesquicentennial, Isetti's book "On These Promising Shores of the Pacific: A History of Saint Mary's College" has been published, the product of five years of research and writing. The retired history professor will be discussing his book at 7 p.m. Jan. 27 on the Saint Mary's campus.

Isetti looks forward to visiting former colleagues and students, many of whom have become friends. A member of the Christian Brothers order from 1960 to 1995, Isetti taught at Saint Mary's from 1968 until 2000, teaching his last five years as a layperson after leaving the order.

"For 35 years I had a good life," said Isetti, now enjoying retirement in Palm Springs. "I just decided to change my life, move in a new direction."

While Isetti's original manuscript was more than 600 pages, the final publication was whittled down to a little over 200 pages.

"I still hope it tells a compelling and interesting story," Isetti said. "This book is a small part of my research."

Isetti's research spans from the college's inception in 1863 to the campus' move to Oakland 1889 and the events that lead to its present location in Moraga. The author highlights the campus' notable personalities and significant milestones, as well as the college's place in American history and popular culture.

But Isetti's own personal history at Saint Mary's was just as memorable. As a young man, Isetti described himself as "very idealistic and (I) wanted to be of service through education."

"I wanted to be in the religious life and teach but I didn't want to be a priest," he said.

Born and raised in Stockton, Isetti said that when he was a senior in college, a speech he heard by a Christian brother, Robert Smith, had an early influence on him. Isetti joined the Christian Brothers in 1960, obtained his doctorate in history at UC Berkeley and began teaching in Moraga in 1968.

"Saint Mary's was a fairly small school and the class sizes were small at the time," he said. "Interaction between professors and students was very close and it was easy for professors to be friends with their students."

Isetti, who lived in the dormitory on campus until 1995, said he would take time to get to know his students outside of the classroom.

"I loved to cook and I'm Italian so I'd invite students over to dinner for spaghetti," he said. "I'm very close to some of my students even to this day."

Ruben Castellon, who took history classes with Isetti in the early 1980s, remembers Isetti's dinners. He first heard about the professor from his sister, who suggested he take Isetti's classes.

"He was a very popular professor," said Castellon. "Ron was energetic and his enthusiasm about the subject matter was infectious. People became history majors just to take his classes. He was always well-prepared. History came alive with Ron."

Castellon, a practicing attorney in Alamo, said when he was a law student at UCLA experiencing some self-doubt, Isetti extended support.

"He came down to cheer me up and told me not to lose faith," Castellon said. "He went out of his way to encourage and remind me what I was capable of doing. He was genuinely interested in seeing his students succeed."

Isetti, who taught U.S., modern Chinese and modern Japanese history, said he was fortunate to see Saint Mary's evolve through the years. He remembers the time he gave a talk in 1969 on the topic "Should Saint Mary's Go Coed?"

"We were booed by some raucous college guys," he said.

Saint Mary's went coed in 1970; today, about 60 percent of the college's students are women, Isetti said.

Former colleague Dr. Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo said Isetti was a wonderful colleague, scholar and teacher and was fortunate to have him as a mentor and dear friend. His classes were always filled to capacity, she said.

"He spent countless hours refining, updating, and rehearsing his lectures -- all with the intention of making the past relevant to the present, modeling historical thinking, and igniting an enduring love of learning among students."

Book discussion
"ON THESE PROMISING SHORES OF THE PACIFIC: A HISTORY OF SAINT MARY'S COLLEGE" BY RONALD EUGENE ISETTI
WHEN: 7 p.m. Jan. 27
WHERE: Saint Mary's College, Moraga
INFORMATION: Call 925-631-4000 for event location