Editor’s note: We’re grateful for the following comments from former VCCS college presidents Charles King, Thomas Hatfield, Edwin Barnes and John Cavan.
Dr. Charles King, president at Southwest Virginia Community College from 1967-2007 (yes…that’s FORTY years!), speaks from the perspective of being the only VCCS president who has served under all six of the system’s Chancellors.
“We chased the cows off the hills and started from scratch,” said King. “This was a new beginning in Southwest Virginia. It was a time when only about 30 percent of Virginia’s high school graduates had any chance at a higher education. To go to college, you had to be wealthy and/or well connected.
“Community colleges changed all that, and Dana Hamel brought a missionary zeal into promoting the system. He also had high expectations. When he said ‘jump,’ we jumped…we didn’t even ask, ‘how high?’
“Dana instilled important principles in all of us: values, vision and vitality. And our colleges had a mandate to demonstrate that they were community based, comprehensive (something for everybody) cost effective, career oriented, and provided a caring environment. Those ethics directed everything we did.
“There’s no question community colleges transformed Virginia and sparked new economic vitality. Dana Hamel’s DNA is still in our colleges, in their commitment to help all Virginians reach their potential.”
“Dana Hamel was the right person at the right time in the right place to establish the footprint of the Virginia Community College System,” said Dr. Thomas Hatfield, who served as first president of John Tyler Community College 1966-1970.
“The genius was his leadership, coupled with the confidence and tangible support that Governor Mills Godwin gave him and the community college movement in those crucial early years, the late 1960’s.”
“Dana was always in a hurry, making decisions quickly, desperate to create a comprehensive system of community colleges that would serve the needs for industry and job training as well as of students intent on transferring to universities.
Those purposes too, were the brilliance of the VCCS, enabled by Dana Hamel’s dynamism. And in the 2019-20 academic year, our community colleges served more than 270,000 students. These days it is difficult to imagine Virginia without community colleges.”
When Hatfield arrived in Virginia, he was a self-described 1960’s idealist, greatly influenced by the civil rights movement. He was keenly aware that by design, community colleges would be open to all students regardless of race, a remarkable fact in a state that only recently had officially clung to segregation and “massive resistance” to mixing the races in classrooms.
“I knew that, especially in Virginia’s many conservative areas, promoting community colleges in terms of their economic benefits was more likely to be positively received than by explaining how they would change society, but the effect was the same,” said Hatfield.
“We were well aware that employers wanted educated workers and that business leaders played a huge role pushing Virginia forward during this era.”
Asked to sum up his thoughts about Hamel, Hatfield said, “He was energetic, idealistic, and ethical. He knew his window of opportunity was limited and he made the most of it, establishing a system of community colleges that have enhanced life for millions of people in a half-century of extraordinary changes.”
“Dana Hamel believed in human potential, and he saw community colleges as the avenue for the maximum number of Virginians to gain a handhold on the wall of life, to make careers and livelihoods for their families.”
“I’m glad I was here to help Dana launch the VCCS. It was the right thing to do for the whole of society. If I could live those years again, I would do exactly the same thing. I only wish I could have helped him more. ”
Thomas M. Hatfield, PhD, is Dean Emeritus of Continuing Education at the University of Texas at Austin, and President Emeritus of the Austin (TX) Community College District.
Dr. Edwin Barnes’ service to Virginia’s Community Colleges spanned nearly three decades, 1972-2000. Barnes was president at New River and Paul D. Camp, and interim president at Wytheville Community College, in addition to holding leadership posts with the system.
“I worked on multiple committee assignments in the VCCS, which brought me into contact with Dana Hamel in those early years,” said Barnes. “I admired his efficiency and organization, in addition to his energy and enthusiasm.”
“A handful of existing technical and junior colleges made their way into the new community college system, and Dana showed amazing skill siting the rest of the colleges, acquiring land and hiring initial staff. The system was fully functional in remarkably short order.
“Dr. Hamel had an extraordinary knowledge of organization and for developing a mission for the system. During his administration, he ensured adherence to that mission. He has an effervescent personality which was and remains quite contagious. His positive attitude made others believe that collectively, they could do anything to improve services for the residents of the commonwealth.
“When Dana Hamel was holding forth, It was always, ‘a great day to be alive in the commonwealth’, and we all believed it.
“Never have I known a person of greater character, integrity or compassion than Dana. He was a national leader in community college administration, a political genius and a role model for all. He is my hero and I love him dearly.”
“I came to Southside Virginia Community College after Dr. Hamel’s time as VCCS Chancellor, and I was so impressed that he still reached out and wanted to meet with me,” said Dr. John Cavan, president at SVCC from 1983 to 2014.
“Dana Hamel was a role model and mentor to me, always a great cheerleader for our programs, and a trusted advisor as well.
“Dana’s positive attitude never failed, even when he faced obstacles. And there were plenty of them to overcome as he set about to create a statewide community college system mostly from scratch.
“He built consensus at the local level and navigated the tricky political waters at the General Assembly to get the job done. Twenty three colleges all at once…nobody has ever done that!
“Because of what he did, and the expanded access to higher education that he provided to everyone, he was and remains an icon in the American community college movement.”