Dr. Dever addresses an audience of faculty, staff, and special guests during his Inauguration Day celebration in the Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium, Templin Hall.
In a nearly 50-minute interview, John Dever refers to his “classic liberal arts background” multiple times. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from Bellarmine (Ky.) College, a master’s in English from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia.
That education pointed him toward a traditional university career as a professor until he accepted a job offer from Parkersburg Community College (W. Va.) in 1974 while he was completing his master’s. It was his first experience with a community college, but not his last. He has worked at several institutions since - as an English professor, a department chair, a chief academic officer, a student affairs officer, and a president - but always at a community college.
“It got in my blood, frankly,” said Dever, whose community college career will come to a close in early January when he officially retires as Thomas Nelson’s eighth president. “It wasn’t what my career path was.”
He found he enjoyed the work along the way, and truly believed in the mission of community colleges.
“I liked it because I believe all ought to have an opportunity to reach their full potential,” he said. “And that’s what I see community colleges doing.”
He enjoyed the mix of traditional age and adult students and how they benefited each other.
“The adult students would often raise the standards because they’ve been through the school of hard knocks,” he said. “They knew what they wanted, and why they were here. They expected a lot of themselves, of their fellow students and, of course, the professors.
“I loved that environment.”
Because he believes so much in the mission of community colleges, he has established the “John and Peggy Dever Changing Lives Fund” with a donation of $100,000.
“I wanted to make a contribution to the institution upon departing from it,” said Dever, who has been Thomas Nelson’s president since Oct. 1, 2011.
The reason for the donation is simple, Dever said, and it comes from his varied experiences at community colleges.
“We’re about making a difference in our students’ lives,” he said, noting that is done through scholarships, relationships and programs.
That final category is of particular interest to Dever, an avid supporter of Thomas Nelson’s Ballroom Dance Club, performing arts, Student Government Association, honor society, and so many more clubs and organizations.
“Those are very, very important as well,” he said.
Dever, who was involved in student government and other organizations while an undergrad, is a strong believer that an education is about more than what is taught in a classroom.
“We have a vibrant campus life that assists our students develop the full range of their personal capabilities, and prepares them for civic participation, service leadership and the larger community,” he said.
That is one reason his fund will not offer traditional scholarships. His goal is for the money to assist various clubs and organizations, along with supporting students who have identified barriers or specific needs as they try to complete their education.
“They include veterans, foster care youth, including our Great Expectations program, students with disabilities, first generation, low income, the Bridge the Gap program,” he said.
His professional experiences didn’t follow the traditional route, so why should the fund he has started? He’s asking others to contribute to the fund, which is being handled by the Thomas Nelson Educational Foundation but will not be an endowment. Dever’s goal is for a bigger immediate impact. He wants the Educational Foundation to work with Student Affairs, Academic Affairs and other College offices to determine the best use for the money.
“My experience has been there are immediate needs here that private giving can make a difference in to support need and opportunity,” he said.
The fund will make sure Dever and his late wife, who passed away in 2016, will continue to have an impact on current and future students.
It’s hard to calculate how many people he already impacted in his 45-year career in higher education, but one is Dr. Patrick Tompkins, who has known Dever for more than 10 years. Tompkins served several years as dean of Communications, Humanities and Social Sciences at Thomas Nelson and was later provost at the Historic Triangle campus before departing recently.
“I wasn’t a particularly good dean my first year. John knew that,” said Tompkins, who now is the vice president of Academics, Workforce and Student Programs at Eastern Shore Community College. “He was a great coach and mentor with a light touch. He never called me in and said, ‘Patrick, you’re doing something wrong.’”
Instead, Tompkins said Dever would stop by his office to chat, but then deliver subtle words of advice.
“I called it a bomb of wisdom because it had a delayed timer on it,” Tompkins said. “It was nice and I appreciated it (in the moment), but the impact was after he left. I thought, ‘Oh, I think I know what he’s trying to say. I know what I can learn from this.’”
Tompkins said Dever had that effect wherever he worked, including four Virginia Community Colleges (VCCS).
“He always left a position better than when he found it, and an organization better than when he found it,” Tompkins said. “And he had bettered himself in each of those. That’s really admirable … He worked at very different institutions, in very different parts of the state.”
Others said much of the same:
Larry Dotolo, president of the Virginia Tidewater Consortium for Higher Education. Dever served as the board chairman from 2014-19.
“The primary mission of the Virginia Tidewater Consortium is to promote ‘regional cooperation in higher education.’ Dr. Dever has been a strong advocate for cooperation in higher education in the Hampton Roads area. As president of Thomas Nelson, he signed a multitude of cooperative agreements with the various institutions in the consortium. His strong personal belief in working together has long been a hallmark of his tenure as both the president of Thomas Nelson Community College and chairman of the board of the Virginia Tidewater Consortium. Dr. Dever has the great ability to bring people together to address issues of importance.
"On a personal note, I have found Dr. Dever to be an unassuming, quiet individual with a great intellect and an ability to focus on the essence of a topic or issue. His liberal arts background also makes him a great conversationalist on various issues. Dr. Dever and I often share books on a variety of topics, and I always look forward to receiving one of his books for my reading in the mail. His soft-spoken, kind conversation has always impressed me, along with his ability to interact with people in a very respectful manner.”
Dr. Gene Wingo, former colleague of Dever’s at Thomas Nelson. They have known each other since Dever joined the school in the mid-1970s as an English professor.
“He had a very honest and ethical manner when he dealt with other people, especially colleagues, and I always admired his stand on ethics. I think he was a tremendous friend, a person that students could look up to, and I think they did. He was an excellent academic administrator. He knew his job very well.
“He has been an excellent president and has led the College into a lot of new programs. The industrial complex has benefited greatly on the Peninsula from the new programs started by Thomas Nelson. John has to be recognized as a leader of that surge in programs, and the work that he has done with the local industries.
“Obviously, John is one of the most informative and dedicated administrators that I had the opportunity to work with, no question.”
Dr. Turner Spencer, Thomas Nelson faculty emeritus and charter Educational Foundation Board member. Turner, who joined the College in 1968, was in the biology department while Dever was in the English department.
“He was very distinguished, very sophisticated and very quiet but very thorough. He was very serious, at least it seemed to me, at that time. He had all the qualities of a good leader when he was on the staff. He was very stable, very steady. Just very quiet, forceful but very conscientious and quite adept to leadership.
“He didn’t overpromise. Sometimes you can get overenthusiastic and promise more than you think you can do … He was very realistic, but he was very positive. He was very hopeful. He exemplified all those nice leadership traits that we need.
“At any college, there’s always going to be some difference between the administration and the faculty, and the students sometimes. But he’s been able to keep all the elements working together and still maintain a kind of professionalism that is required.”
Glenn DuBois, VCCS chancellor.
“When I arrived in Virginia as chancellor in 2001, John was seen as a thoughtful leader among his academic peers. I worked closely with John when he was executive VP at Tidewater Community College and when he moved over to Northern Virginia Community College as their executive VP, and, of course, during his tenure as president at Thomas Nelson.
“One thing is for certain with John: He works hard and he works smart. John is one of those leaders who is always prepared, professional and positive — and I can’t think of anyone who loves the VCCS as much as John.”
Ellen Davenport, VCCS assistant vice chancellor for governmental relations, and former interim VP of Finance and Administration at Thomas Nelson.
"I worked closely with him in many sessions of the Virginia General Assembly and witnessed his skill in being a champion for the College and navigating the political landscape to advance Thomas Nelson’s priorities with influential legislators. In addition, I was honored to work in an interim capacity as VP of Finance and Administration under his leadership this spring and summer. It was a wonderful opportunity to be part of his management team, and experience his open, inclusive, and transparent management style.”
Yvonne Blow, education support specialist at Thomas Nelson.
“I met Dr. Dever in 1979 when he was an English faculty member. He was always pleasant to work with. His energy exuberated love. Dr. Dever is a kind and genuine person. I have fond memories whenever I see him.”
Fred Henny, a former teaching colleague.
He professed (early on in his career) he only wanted to be a teacher. That’s all he ever wanted to be. Several of us encouraged him to be a program chairman in the division and then become department head for English. He’s really a great person. He’s just delightful to talk to and be with. I have nothing but high regard for John. We've been friends a long, long time. He’s a terrific guy and he’s done a terrific job. Thomas Nelson has benefited immensely from him being president.
HIS LEGACY, HIS FUTURE
How does he want to be remembered? What does he consider his legacy?
“It’s hard to say. I just believe so strongly in our mission,” he said. “I believe that this community and its residents, and so many individuals, from all circumstances and backgrounds, their lives have been transformed because we’re here.”
Tompkins said those aren’t just words for Dever.
“His commitment to the mission of the community colleges is very, very deep,” Tompkins said. “He fundamentally believes in what we are doing. It’s more than a job. It’s more than a career. It’s more than a profession. It’s more than something he enjoys. It’s something that he understands very comprehensibly and feels very deeply, more than many.”
Dever also realizes whatever success he’s had were because of great teachers, mentors, colleagues and friends. He didn’t do it alone.
“I’ve worked for some of the very best, I believe, community college presidents – Jim Perkins at Blue Ridge, Debbie DiCroce at Tidewater, and Bob Temple at Northern Virginia Community College – of whom are very different but who have been very, very successful,” he said. “Their mentoring and modeling was very important for me.”
He’ll continue to serve on some community boards, but spend a lot of time with his two children and seven grandchildren. He will catch up on some reading, and organize more than 50 years’ worth of letters, papers, photos and mementos. He’s looking forward to it all.
“What I’d like to leave, it’s just support for our students, both to meet their needs but also to help them grow and develop, and make the full use of their time here at the College.”
And just maybe a few of those students will get that community college feeling in their blood, as well.
To contribute to the John and Peggy Dever Changing Lives Fund, go to tncc.edu/donate.