Stubbornly modest, the founding chancellor of Virginia’s Community Colleges prepares to mark his 97TH birthday

Home|Blog|Stubbornly modest, the founding chancellor of Virginia’s Community Colleges prepares to mark his 97TH birthday

You can try, but you probably won’t get Dr. Dana B. Hamel to take personal credit for his remarkable stewardship during the first crucial years of the Virginia Community College System.

“You can only do in life what other people allow you to do,” says Hamel. “And it makes all the difference to have the right people around you.”

“That’s how he is,” said Richard Hodges, former Director for Learning Resources at Thomas Nelson Community College. Hodges interviewed Hamel 17 times as he prepared his 2016 doctoral dissertation on the founding of the Virginia Technical College System, which evolved into the VCCS. Hamel was director of the VTCS and then tapped to lead the fledgling, sprawling community college system, serving as chancellor from the system’s creation in 1966 to 1979.

Image of Glenn DuBois and Dana Hamel

Glenn DuBois and Dana Hamel

“Dana Hamel’s leadership was essential in opening the door for countless Virginians to gain access to higher education and a better life,” said Glenn DuBois, VCCS chancellor since 2001. “Through Dana’s guidance and dogged determination, Virginia evolved from having a rag-tag collection of trade schools and university branch campuses to produce one of the country’s leading systems of comprehensive community colleges. Hamel’s basic plan includes the same 23 college-40 campus configuration we operate today.”

He started as a watch-maker:

Dana Hamel was born August 9, 1923 in Maine. The son of Canadian immigrants, Hamel learned watch-making and repair from his father. “I never expected to get out of that back room fixing watches,” he remembers.
Hamel had just started college in Pennsylvania when World War Two broke out. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving in the Pacific Theater. The G.I. Bill was Hamel’s ticket back to college after the war, with family members urging him to pursue the ministry, as his twin brother had done.

But at Ashland College and Ohio State, Hamel gravitated to teaching and history and went on to earn his doctorate in education from the University of Cincinnati.

After teaching and administrative experience in Ohio, Hamel was recruited to run Roanoke Technical Institute in the early 1960s. That’s where he came to the attention of top educators in Virginia.

Hamel still recalls the shock that he and his family felt to see “coloreds only” signs on rest rooms and water fountains when they arrived in Virginia.

By the mid-1960’s, the commonwealth was gradually, in some instances grudgingly, emerging from the socially and economically disastrous era of Massive Resistance to school integration.

Against the backdrop of Virginia’s segregationist history and political establishment, the creation of the Virginia Community College System — by design open to all citizens — is nothing short of a modern miracle. Hamel is quick to credit business leaders who recognized that Virginia’s future depended on training a better-educated workforce.
He also credits Virginia governors Albertis Harrison and Mills Godwin for building political support and securing state funding for the VCCS. The massive task of organizing, locating new colleges, staffing them and developing operational policies, fell largely to Hamel’s team.

“We’ve been blessed with some of the most wonderful people,” Hamel characteristically notes. The feeling appears to have been mutual. We were able to track down a few of the “old timers” who were presidents when Virginia’s community colleges were new.

“Dana Hamel brought a missionary zeal into promoting the system,” said Charles King, who led Southwest Community College from 1967-2007. “He also had high expectations. When Dana said ‘jump,’ we jumped…we didn’t even ask, ‘how high?’”

“Never have I known a person of greater character, integrity or compassion than Dana,” said Dr. Edwin Barnes, who presided over three Virginia community colleges during his career. “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.”

Image of Dana Hamel on the campus of John Tyler CC

Dana Hamel visited John Tyler Community College (note Hamel Hall) in July 2018

Hamel’s career of public service spans nearly 40 years. After his service to Virginia Technical Colleges and the VCCS, Hamel was executive director at the Virginia Center for Public/Private Initiatives, and played a leading role in securing the development of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, which hosts world-class nuclear physics research in Newport News.

Now well into retirement, Hamel says the secret of long life and success is optimism and faith. And he remains a strong advocate for Virginia’s community colleges.

“They are in a unique place to ensure opportunities for our people,” he said recently. “We’ve got to think about the future. I have stood on the shoulders of many people who allowed me to look over the horizon. We need to offer those possibilities to people who are coming along.”

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