50 Years of ExcellenceAug 26th, 2009 | By admin | Category: Alumni Profile
Richard Gordon ’59 Emphasizes the Importance of His Education at Wesley
By Elise Marie Knable ’09
“Those were pretty trying days at Wesley, particularly in the financial situation of the College, but the entire community was there to support Wesley and that shows even today,” Richard Gordon ’59 remarked about his time on campus. Gordon came to what was then Wesley Junior College after spending a year at Duke University. For Gordon, Wesley was not just a place of education, but one that changed him for the better and was an important stepping stone in his life’s journey.
Growing up in Frederica, Delaware, Gordon attended Caesar Rodney High School and then moved onto Duke University. After a year of school at Duke, Gordon realized “it wasn’t my cup of tea.” He signed up for the volunteer draft, although remembers being told he would never be drafted. Upon returning to Delaware from Duke, Gordon’s family adamantly insisted he go back to school, compelling him to enroll at Wesley. While attending his first semester there, he received orders that he was to be drafted and left school to serve two years with the United States Army. Once discharged, Gordon returned to Wesley in September 1957 to study liberal arts.
That year was a critical time both for Gordon, experiencing a new setting and adjusting to civilian life, and Wesley as an institution, almost closing its doors on June 15, 1957. Just one year prior, financial problems and dissatisfaction from the Methodists of the Peninsula Conference threatened the future of the institution. Fortunately, the Board of Trustees received approval from Bishop Oxnam to continue operations and President Slaybaugh announced the rousing efforts to save Wesley. These included a $10,000 challenge fund started by students, with $6,000 already raised with the help of parents and others; the creation of an Alumni Association corporation to raise additional funds among graduates and friends of the College; and financial sacrifices by faculty. Remembering the difficulties Wesley faced, Gordon pointed out the importance of “the camaraderie of the student body, faculty, Board of Trustees and the administration” at that time. He explained, “There were special things going on in and around the area of Wesley to help support the College…it became a family affair.”
As College alumni, students, trustees, staff and friends pooled resources with the Peninsula Conference and local government and community leaders to secure funds for a $1.5 million dollar redevelopment program for the institution, Gordon and his classmates were fortunate to be preparing for an upcoming academic year at the revived school. At this turning point for Wesley, the campus grew with the addition of several new buildings and a boost in enrollment over the next couple years. At the same time, the small class sizes and individual attention that Gordon remembers being given in his classes remained consistent characteristics of the College that still exist today.
“We were a close knit group and the communication was good in both ways. If we needed help, we got it. And if the professors needed something from us, they got what they needed,” Gordon explained. He observed how passionate Wesley professors were about their students’ education and success. “The teachers really cared. They were interested in you and your education,” he said. He remembers the general feeling on campus that each individual was a member of the family that existed there, unlike what he had experienced at a larger university. He reminisced, “You just felt a part of everything. You felt a part of the school just by walking down the hall. That surprised me to see.” Despite being a commuter student, Gordon joined his peers in enjoying many campus sporting events, dances and other student activities throughout the year.
For Gordon, Wesley successfully instilled a new desire for education that he did not have before. “It certainly changed my outlook on college,” he said. “It made me want to get a degree and finish my education.” After graduating from Wesley, he studied government and public administration at American University and after earning his degree there, moved down to Bristol, Virginia with his first wife.
Gordon found his calling while living there and became heavily involved with his community. From 1962 to 1972, he was a member of the Bristol Junior Chamber of Commerce, and in 1969 he was awarded the Outstanding Young Man of the Year award for his participation in numerous community groups and organizations. In 1974, he ran for city council and received the most votes among his 13 competitors. He ran for re-election in 1978 and again won, convincing the city council to elect him as mayor the following year.
During his term as mayor, Gordon was appointed to the Mount Roger’s Planning District Commission, a group which aided in numerous planning projects, from industrialization to parks, for an eight county area and two independent cities. From 1978 to 1994, Gordon served on the Commission in various roles, acting as chairman at one point. “We were involved with a lot of projects like water and sewer plans and had to work with the state and federal levels to attain the funds needed for the plans,” Gordon explained. During his time on the Commission, the group was instrumental in helping to modernize that area of rural Virginia with new roads and industrial parks, and move its economy from agricultural to industrial production. “Some of the parks have flourished over the past eight to ten years because of the continued support that we initially got,” Gordon stated.
Along with his community involvement, Gordon worked for the Electrolux Corporation for 291/2 years as a purchasing agent. Remarried in November 2007 and now living in Bristol, Tennessee as a retired member of the community, he spends time with his wife Doris, his son R. Burton Gordon Jr., the director of residential life at the Asheville School in North Carolina, his daughter Susan G. Henry and her eight-year-old twin girls Kristina and Diana. Gordon also enjoys playing tennis as well as his involvement with the Central Presbyterian Church and the men’s bible study group he attends weekly.
Gordon recalled a trip he made to Wesley’s campus four years ago and his overall amazement at the sight of his alma mater. He said, “It is remarkable to see what has happened at Wesley…the people at Wesley now should really have pride in what has been done around the campus such as building renovations and the College Center.” Since he now finds it more difficult to travel, he will be unable to return for his 50th class reunion but did advise his classmates, “If you can make the trip or live in the area, I would certainly encourage you to get up and go, not only to see your classmates, but to see the outstanding Wesley campus that most won’t recognize if they haven’t seen it in years.”
Gordon underscores the significance of education in today’s world and Wesley’s niche as a small, private liberal arts college. He said, “The school needs to remain a vibrant part of the community, and it needs the support of alums to continue. Whether it is monetarily or to attend functions at the College, go there and support Wesley.” With his experience in public service having shown him the importance of community support for educational institutions, he believes that local residents in a college town also should participate as much as possible and show their support “because as the college grows, the area around it will grow with it.” He continued, “It is important to see what has been done and what can be done to enhance the world that these young people are growing up in today.”
Wesley College will forever be significant in Gordon’s life, not only because of the drive for education he developed there, but also the valuable experiences he had. “Wesley taught me that camaraderie and association with a group of people which I later used in my career to get a job done. This is what life is all about. It’s a stepping stone; each level in your life hopefully prepares you for a better life ahead.” W