Dr. Thomas Jenkins was named the president of Thomas Nelson Community College more than 50 years ago, but the College still holds a spot in his heart.
The video celebrating Thomas Nelson’s 50th anniversary opens with words from the College’s first president, Dr. Thomas Jenkins. He discusses the goals for the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) in general, and Thomas Nelson in particular.
“A typical community college is not what we’re seeking to build in the Virginia system. We’re building what we hope will be a unique system of colleges, and I think probably Thomas Nelson Community College will very definitely give an opportunity for us to build a real comprehensive community college,” he said before the College opened in September 1968.
More than 50 years later, Jenkins remains proud of what he and his colleagues accomplished at Thomas Nelson.
“I think we did a pretty good job those first couple of years of meeting our goals,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Wimberley, Texas, where his lives with his wife, Nancy, of more than 14 years. “And I want to say right now that the reason Thomas Nelson continues to be great is because it started out great.”
The College opened in September 1968 with more than 1,200 students at its Hampton campus. It now serves more than 10,000 a year at its two campuses, the other being the Historic Triangle campus, and is one of the largest of the 23 institutions in the VCCS. Jenkins was Thomas Nelson’s president from 1967-71, and he looks back on those years with fondness.
“I’ve never been prouder of any institution I’ve ever been associated with than I was and am of Thomas Nelson,” he said.
Jenkins has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree (both in music education) from Sam Houston State University, and a doctorate (in higher education administration) from the University of Texas at Austin. He had never been on a community college campus until he was working on his Ph.D., and was one of the student life deans at Texas before beginning his long tenure with community colleges in Virginia and Texas. That more than 30-year association came about after often running into a former professor at civic events in Austin.
“Every time he saw me he would just shake his head. He said, ‘You ought to be out there in a community college where I trained you to be,’” Jenkins said. “I finally gave in.”
Jenkins’ first community college position was as the founding dean at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke. He was there for six months before being named the president of Thomas Nelson. He liked the VCCS’s goal of having a community college within a 30-minute drive of every resident of the state.
“That’s what drew me to Virginia. I was really enthralled with the idea,” he said. “Once I got there to Roanoke and got a chance to drive around the state, I knew where I wanted to be, and that was where Thomas Nelson is, in Hampton.”
He noted the opportunities with the local businesses, including Newport News Shipbuilding and NASA, provided unlimited potential.
“It was made to order for Thomas Nelson, and Thomas Nelson made to order for them,” Jenkins said of those great relationships, which still exist today.
Jenkins pointed out “the good Lord put me at the right place at the right time many, many times,” and with the right people at the right time. In discussing his start at Thomas Nelson, Jenkins is quick to credit the administrators, teachers, staff and students.
Among those mentioned in a 65-minute phone interview: Bob Frank (director of finance and administrative services), Bill Tank (math instructor), Dr. Gerry Cannon (the College’s first dean of instruction and second president), Gene Wingo (founding faculty member and head of the math department), Melvin Butler (chairman of Thomas Nelson College Board), Dr. Dana Hamel (director of the Virginia Department for Community Colleges) and Dr. Turner Spencer (a founding faculty member and former biology department chair).
“(Frank) was the best administrator I’ve ever known,” Jenkins said. “He set that thing up to where, administratively, that thing was perfect. That’s all there was to it.”
For Jenkins and Wingo, it was sort of a reunion as the two worked together in Roanoke.
Wingo remembers the humble beginnings at Thomas Nelson.
“We started from scratch,” he said. “We didn’t have any books when school started, or a week before school started. I had to order all the math books.”
Wingo credited Jenkins with his success as the department and, later on, division chair.
“He helped me learn how to be an administrator,” Wingo said of Jenkins. “As a matter of fact, I stayed a division chair for 30 years, and retired in 2000. … I held the job for a long time, and Tom was always supportive.”
Wingo said Jenkins’ leadership style was common sense: Treat people like you wanted to be treated yourself.
“He was laid back,” Wingo said. “He would come in your office and sit down and talk to you and answer questions. … He was just a very likable guy.”
Wingo also pointed out the quality of the administration and staff in those formative years.
“We had really great people,” he said.
Spencer, who spent more than 30 years at Thomas Nelson, said the College couldn’t have had a better person as its first president.
“He was a young man at the time, and just the right fit, I think, for the College,” Spencer said. “He had good rapport with the faculty, and good rapport with the administrators. I think he did very well.”
He, too, looks back on those years fondly.
“Those were some wonderful years. We were pioneers. We enjoyed it. We created a good college,” Spencer said. “We hated to see (Jenkins) leave, but he got a better offer.”
Jenkins returned to his native state, becoming the president at Alvin Community College in 1971. He was there until 1976, when he joined the Houston Community College System, where he stayed until his retirement in 1993. His retirement didn’t seem to slow him down, as he was a consultant to numerous community college systems in the United States as well as the United Kingdom. He also was a visiting lecturer at various graduate schools.
And of course, he continues with his hobbies of playing golf, the trumpet, and traveling. But at the age of 92, he doesn’t travel much anymore, especially with the restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic. (And he hasn’t been back to Thomas Nelson in more than 10 years.)
He has never forgotten Thomas Nelson. While he admits “you always feel like you had some space at the top of your goal that you didn’t quite reach,” it was a great time in his life.
As for what comes to mind when he hears the words “Thomas Nelson Community College,” he responded: “Joy, absolute joy. I enjoyed every minute I was on campus. Every issue that we faced, every problem that we solved, every fight we fought and won, just absolute, unabated joy.”