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Charlie White leaves retirement to help out New River Community College



Charlie White was recently called out of retirement and back to Dublin – back to New River Community College where he spent 35 years of his life as a teacher and administrator.

He returned last week as interim president to keep things running smoothly while the college searches for its next lead administrator. Jack Lewis, who served as NRCC’s president for 16 years, retired last month.

This wasn’t the first time White, 76, failed at retirement.

“Retirement bored me to death,” White says. “You know, you run out of something to do. And I’ve painted everything that won’t move, and whatever would move I’ve fixed or worked on.”

He almost retired after leaving his post as interim vice chancellor for academic services and research at the Virginia Community College System’s central office in Richmond. But two community college job openings sparked his interest – one at Wytheville and one at Southwest.

“I said I’m going to apply for them, and if I get either one I’ll work a while longer.”

“A while longer” turned into nine years after he got the president’s post at Wytheville Community College. Retired or working, he was glad to be back home in his native Southwest Virginia.

White was born in Dickenson County, where his father was a coalminer. He and his 17 siblings were raised on a mountain farm. “If we didn’t grow it, we didn’t eat it,” he says of life then.

He and his brothers still own the farm that White frequently visits.

He says he had two options after graduating from high school. “There was only two ways for upward mobility then. One was to join the military, and the other was to go to Detroit and get a job in a car factory.”

His brothers decided on military service, but he headed for Detroit. After arriving in the Motor City, he discovered that auto manufacturers preferred older workers since they thought younger workers would head south as soon as they earned enough money.

White ended up working in a plastic factory for a year. “Then I decided I wanted to make more than 90 cents an hour for the rest of my life but, you know, that was good money then, minimum wage.”

That’s when he met his wife, Peggy. He also met a recruiter from Hiwassee College, located in Madisonville, Tenn. He decided to go to college, but he continued to work at the plastic factory in the summer.

He also worked on a diary farm while he was a student at Hiwassee. A work-study program helped to pay his tuition, and he left not owing any money.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s and then a doctorate at East Tennessee State University, teaching biology at two different high schools between degrees.

After earning his Ph.D., he began teaching biology at NRCC. A few years later, he became a division chair, then a dean, and then a vice president.

The Whites have two living children, Henry and Emily.

Andrew passed a few years ago after a battle with cancer. “Sometimes you get stuff thrown at you that’s hard to adjust to,” White reflects.

Last week, just a year and a half after retiring from WCC, marked White’s official return to the campus where his collegiate academic career began.

“Everywhere I’ve worked I’ve loved it. The best job I ever had was teaching,” he says. “I’m happy to be back in the workforce. I’m happy to be back in education, especially back here at New River where I worked 35 years as a teacher and administrator.”

He’s an educator who steadfastly believes in community colleges, referring to them as a “stepping stone, the bottom rung, on the ladder of higher education.”

He explains, “It’s a heck of a place to start. A lot of kids that come out of high school are not ready for college, but they can come to a community college, where they usually have small classes, have teachers who really, really want to teach, and can get a lot of individual attention. I guarantee you can go down the hall anytime you want and find teachers there.”

White admits that he had some great teachers at four-year colleges, but adds, “They research a lot. Our teachers [at community colleges] are trained to teach rather than trained to research.”

White thinks numerous opportunities – whether it’s a new career or transferring to another college – await students who attend a community college. He doesn’t think everyone needs to transfer to a four-year college, and says there are plenty of opportunities to get well-paying jobs in careers after leaving NRCC. Those students usually major in health sciences, machine technology, instrumentation, electronics, or computer science.

He believes students who graduate from high school but don’t continue with their education are likely to end up working for minimum wage. He values programs at Pulaski County High School that prepare students for careers because “it gets their feet wet.”

“Those programs feed into the community college system. And the data and different numbers I’ve seen on this show that most of the jobs that will be created in this country from now on are going to require training beyond high school.

“The high schools do a good job of getting them to this level, but then they need to come into the community college or trade school and add to that. Once they do that they’re going to have skills they can make a good living at for the rest of their lives.”

White has certainly made a good living in his chosen field, one he likes so much he keeps revisiting it.   He thinks NRCC will have a new president within three months, but he’s been told it could be six months since they waited until he was in place to post the opening.

“They’ve got to find someone that knows the culture, that understands the culture, that appreciates it, and has a good personality, someone you can get along with,” he said.

And White says he’s ready to keep things moving smoothly until that person is found.

“My job is basically to keep things as they are. Now, if something needs changing, we will change it,” he says.

He’s obviously enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with a “super” cabinet and staff at NRCC. He says he will listen to them and “see if anything needs to be adjusted, but I don’t expect anything needs to be changed or changed much.”

The big focus for 2017 will be the Southern Association Accreditation review that comes around every 10 years. This is NRCC’s year to show they have the right stuff.

“I expect New River Community College to come through with flying colors,” he says.

Although community colleges are facing a 5 percent budget cut, he doesn’t think NRCC students or staff will notice, which he mostly attributes to the outgoing president’s mastery: “Jack Lewis is the best person in the community college system for managing the budget.”

While his interim post promises to keep him busy, White plans to still make time for his healthy pursuits. He plays golf twice a week and exercises six days a week at the WCC gym.

He likes to visit the family farm although a summer garden is the extent of his agricultural ambitions. “I’d start stealing before I’d farm,” he quips.

After his interim post ends, it remains to be seen if the failed retiree and dedicated educator will be able to stay away from academia for very long.



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