Shakespeare once observed that “All the world’s a stage”, and for the late Robert “Bobby” Harrell, public service was his window on the world, the stage where he played major roles in business, education and government.
According to Bobby, “what you see often depends on where you look.” He looked for opportunities to serve others, and around his home town of Suffolk and across much of the Commonwealth, people looked to Bobby Harrell for leadership in support of projects that promote education, economic growth and citizenship. Virginia’s community colleges benefitted from his leadership role.
He would often tell others that he made his debut in public life while still in diapers when he was named the inaugural “king” of the Suffolk Peanut Festival shortly before America entered World War II. From then on, Bobby never left the stage.
He believed in the value of education and after receiving his master’s degree in business administration from Old Dominion in 1971, he pursued an Education Specialist (Ed.S) degree from William and Mary. In between those two milestones, Bobby taught business classes at John Tyler Community College and created the school’s Beverage Marketing Program. He was ever the teacher.
A Man of Action
A prolific fundraiser, Bobby Harrell spent more than 40 years serving on multiple business and educational boards, including his long service on the board of the Virginia Community College System. I saw firsthand the impact of his persuasive leadership and service after his appointment to that Board in the 1980s.
While Bobby came from a family food and beverage business, he found time to step onto another stage as regional director of technology transfer for the Commonwealth’s Center for Innovative Technology, based in Northern Virginia. Not only did he help develop new products and create new companies, he also led the group into winning 11 national technology awards. “To make a difference, you’ve got to be where the action is,” he once explained. He was all over the stage.
Bobby Harrell spent his final years helping the Suffolk Salvation Army raise money for a sorely needed and an ambitious facility expansion. He was the driving force behind that successful effort to provide a wide-ranging host to needed services in his community. In 2014, he was named First Citizen of Suffolk.
Bobby was also committed to the more recent launching of the Virginia Community College System’s Rural Horseshoe Initiative. He realized that the community colleges were uniquely positioned with their decade-long project to help transform the lives and the economy of the citizens of the State’s rural region by cutting in half the number of citizens without a high school education and doubling the number of college degrees or workforce credentials.
Keeping the Legacy Alive
Those of us who continue this Rural Horseshoe work are grateful for the financial contributions received in honor of Bobby’s public service, and we hope others will step forward to support it. It’s important to the future of all Virginia.
Child advocate and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund–Marian Wright Edelman–has noted that “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”
Suffice it to say that Bobby Harrell “paid his rent” a thousand times over. He found purpose in life of serving others while also serving as a fiercely devoted father, husband, grandfather and friend.
While he strode across the stage of life, Bobby was not an actor. He was the real thing, a public servant and a believer in the value of education and our community colleges.
Gerald L. Baliles
Chairman, Virginia Foundation for Community College Education
Former Governor of Virginia (1986-90)
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