Earlier this month, the Virginia Community College System lost a friend and tireless advocate. John Dever, the former president of Thomas Nelson Community College, passed away at his home in Newport News. He was 74.
It was not the first time Dever had faced adversity. Just a few short years ago, he lost his wife of 39 years. The two met at Parkersburg Community College in West Virginia where his career in higher education began. At the time, Dever was working on his master’s degree in English at the University of Kentucky.
With his master’s in-hand, Dever would join the English Department at Thomas Nelson Community College one year later. It was there that he began and completed work on his Ph.D. from UVA.
Dever had believed he would teach at a four-year institution. But, his experience at Parkersburg had pointed him in a different direction.
“It got in my blood, frankly,” Dever said of the community college mission. “It wasn’t what my career path was.”
That career path would feature stops at three more of Virginia’s Community Colleges before he would ultimately return to TNCC.
In 1995, after serving as an English professor and chair of the Communications and Humanities Division at Thomas Nelson, he took on the role of Dean of Instruction and Student Services at Blue Ridge Community College. Five years later, he found a new home at Tidewater Community College where he served as vice president for Academic and Student Affairs. In 2004, he left to become executive vice president for Academic and Student Services at Northern Virginia Community. It was there he would remain until 2011 when he was named the eighth president of Thomas Nelson Community College.
It was during his tenure at BRCC that Dever and now-president John Downey crossed paths for the first time. Downey, who worked with Dever in the mid-to-late 90s, describes him as “a man of principle” and an “ethical compass for his colleagues.”
“He was hyper-focused on doing the right things, at the right times, for the right reasons. If our task, purpose, or mission strayed at any time from any of those three guideposts, it would be a reason for John to have us all step back and reconsider the direction we were headed.”
Robert “Bobby” Sandel, president of Virginia Western Community College, who worked with Dever on several systemwide initiatives, says he will always be grateful for the conversation he had with his colleague the Sunday before he passed away.
“John was a true gentleman, an academic, and a person of integrity. He set a high standard for those around him, and we were all so excited when John became President of Thomas Nelson Community College. He was always someone you could count on.”
Paul D. Camp Community College President Dan Lufkin says he will always have a warm spot in his heart for Dever.
“He hired me into the VCCS and willingly shared his knowledge of the system, which helped me transition into the position of president at Camp Community College. His passion for teaching and learning was contagious.”
Patrick Tompkins, vice president of Academics, Workforce and Student Programs at Eastern Shore Community College, knew Dever well, having worked with him at TNCC. Words mattered to Dever, who Tompkins says would frequently offer “pearls of leadership wisdom.” One of those “pearls,” Tompkins notes, would regularly surface during Dever’s introduction to incoming faculty members.
“Our students have as much potential as you’ll find anywhere. We need you to meet them where they are, bring them along, and then—watch out!”
Greg DeCinque, interim president of TNCC, says he always felt that community college students and their success was Dever’s true calling.
“His contributions to higher education, and especially Thomas Nelson Community College, were significant and many. He will be missed by his Thomas Nelson family.”
Northern Virginia Community College History Professor and CFAC Chair Charles Errico describes Dever as a friend, mentor and role model; a college president who still remembered his high school Latin and liked to quote Shakespeare.
At his NOVA farewell reception, Errico recalls a speaker thanking Dever for his regular attendance at the dinners of the Muslim Student Association. According to Errico, no one at the college had any idea that Dever attended those after-hours events.
“John never asked for fanfare or special recognition, he attended because he cared for our students and they loved him for it.”
Upon his retirement, Dever established the “John and Peggy Dever Changing Lives Fund,” making a personal donation of $100,000.
“I wanted to make a contribution to the institution upon departing from it,” he explained. “I’ve spent a lot of my time asking others to contribute. I have contributed over the years myself, of course, but I wanted to use the occasion and I particularly wanted to honor my wife as well.”
Given Dever’s affinity for the students he served, we have no doubt his legacy will live on in perpetuity.