Reflections on John Dever’s contributions to Virginia’s Community Colleges

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Editor’s note: John Dever’s dedication to student success was unwavering. We reached out to some of those who worked with and alongside him, to share their thoughts on the man, his vision and the legacy he leaves behind.

Dever at his installation as president of TNCC in 2011.

Patrick Tompkins, Vice President of Academics, Workforce and Student Programs at Eastern Shore Community College

A Community College Evangelist

I met Dr. John T. Dever when serving under his leadership on the taskforce that led to the redesign of developmental education in the VCCS. We had a long committee discussion about whether to title our final report “A Turning Point” or “The Turning Point.” Words were important to John, and we opted for the latter to signal that the VCCS was going to decidedly turn around developmental education—we did and continue to do so.

A few years later, Thomas Nelson Vice President Lonnie Schaefer, under John’s presidency, hired me as a dean. John gently took me under his wing, never playing favorite, allowing me to make my mistakes, and delicately dropping little pearls of leadership wisdom. He once told me that instead of disagreeing, he would say, “I see it differently.” That’s where I learned it.

When Lonnie retired, I applied for the VP position, and John invited me to his office to personally inform me that I did not get an interview. John and I shared a Catholic background, and a certain melancholic humor. I said, “That’s okay, John, my parents believed in disappointment.” He lifted his head back and laughed heartily, though he was more generally given to the chuckle.

So many words of John’s run through my head and out my lips, but one Brocard is quintessential. At orientation for new full-time and adjunct faculty he would always say, “’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!’” That was also John’s faith.

John Downey, President, Blue Ridge Community College

So many titles come to mind while trying to describe Dr. John Dever: Teacher, Mentor, Leader, Guide, President, Colleague and Friend. He was proudest, of course, of his roles as a Father and Husband and spoke often of his children, grandchildren and his late wife. I had the good fortune to work for him for several years as he served as the Vice President of Instruction and Student Services at Blue Ridge Community College during the 1990s.

I always viewed John as 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.

He himself was taught by two great mentors during his career, Dr. Bob Templin and Dr. James Perkins. The servant leadership skills he learned from them, he generously passed on to those of us who worked for him. His work ethic and insistence on quality was the result of his focus on what outcomes were best for students.

For a man who loved the classics, I think he appreciated a good analogy. For me, he stood like a lighthouse in the harbor, constantly and steadily providing a steady beacon to help the rest of us navigate our way through the sometimes rough seas.

John was a man of principle, and his guidance will be sorely missed by those of us who he taught so well.

Robert H. Sandel, Ed.D., President, Virginia Western Community College

John Dever was a fine man. The community college system has lost one its favorite sons who exemplified all the characteristics of a leader. His academic background was in English, and he excelled in the classroom and later as a department head and dean. From there he became a vice-president of academic affairs in some of the largest colleges in Virginia where he excelled in every area with his academic expertise in working with faculty, staff, and curriculum development.

VWCC President Robert Sandel and Dever embrace at Dever’s 2019 retirement party.

As the senior president in the VCCS and the president of two colleges, I had the privilege of working with John on numerous committees and two major task force projects. These were important, system-changing endeavors. One in the late 1990s set the direction for how the system moved forward in the area of workforce development into the new millennium. Another task force was Achieve 2010 Strategic Plan on which John and I worked together to plan the future steps of our community college system.

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, and he and I shared many conversations about policies and procedures that affected our colleges.

I cherish that John and I had a conversation on Sunday before he passed on Wednesday. We talked about old times and how much we enjoyed our working together over the past years. John is someone I will sorely miss.

Dan Lufkin, President, Paul D. Camp Community College

I will always have a warm spot in my heart for Dr. 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. His commitment to better the lives of those around him and in the community was unwavering. For these qualities he will always be remembered.

Greg DeCinque, Interim President, Thomas Nelson Community College

John Dever was a true community lover. Every time I heard him speak of Thomas Nelson, you could sense that community college students and their success was his 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.

Charles Errico, History professor/Northern Virginia Community College and CFAC Chair

“’The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.’”

John loved that quote and it speaks volumes about this gentle, soft spoken man of integrity who touched so many lives. Kind, caring, and self-effacing, he was a college president who still remembered his high school Latin and liked to quote Shakespeare, especially Henry V. A former English professor, he built the honor’s program at NOVA, and always championed the interests of the faculty.

John had an incredible work ethic that he combined with high academic standards. Many of us had our emails, at times edited for punctuation, returned with thorough answers late into the night. At his NOVA farewell reception, a speaker thanked him for his regular attendance at the dinners of the Muslim Student Association. No one at the college knew that our Executive Vice President 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.

There are some people who, when lost, can never be replaced. One of my colleagues called John “’a magnificent man who influenced many,’” and another commented “’how fortunate I was to have a sprinkling of his spirit.’” A friend, mentor and role model, I described him at his retirement as the “heart and soul” of NOVA. As we deal with the health crisis facing our nation, and the uncertainty it brings, we all can gain strength from having known this gracious man who always saw the best in people.

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