by Terry Ketron
Jay Lemons, above, will assume the presidency of Susquehanna
University next month. (Below) Lemons' departure announcement
brought tears and a standing ovation from the Wise community,
who were joined by University President John T. Casteen III,
front left, and Lemons' wife, Marsha, center.
legacy: Wise leader with a personal touch
University's changing leadership
Dan Heuchert and
word spread quickly through the close-knit campus of the University
of Virginia's College at Wise, and 200 faculty, staff and
students gathered in a lecture hall Sept. 15 at the appointed
assembled, the college's popular young chancellor, L. Jay Lemons,
stood before them and said, "I wanted you to hear of this development
from me." The following week, he would interview for the presidency
of Susquehanna University.
declared his love for the Wise community, his home for the past
eight years with his wife, Marsha, and their four children, all
of whom were born during their time there. "I can tell you without
question that in eight-plus years, this is the hardest day for
me on this campus," he said.
was stunned silence, and tears.
see the expressions of grief and emotion of people in that room
was something that I never experienced in my 57 years," said
U.Va. Board of Visitors
member William Crutchfield, who accompanied Lemons to the announcement.
weeks later, Lemons told a similar assembly that he would indeed
leave for the Selinsgrove, Pa. university, one of the top liberal
arts institutions in the country, at the end of the fall semester.
The opportunity, he said, was too good to pass up.
the beginning, Lemons and Wise were a natural fit, although the
circumstances surrounding his arrival at Southwest Virginia's
only four-year, state-supported college were improbable.
was U.Va. President John T. Casteen III's chief of staff in 1992,
a 33-year-old up-and-comer who had just a year earlier completed
his Ph.D. in higher education administration at the Curry School.
One summer day, Casteen dispatched him to find out what the college's
board and administration sought in an interim chancellor, as the
leader of then-named Clinch Valley College was leaving.
few weeks later, Lemons casually asked what had happened with
the Clinch Valley opening. "President Casteen said, ŒI've been
waiting for you to come back to talk with you about that,'" Lemons
recalled of the day he was offered the interim job.
"By the time I reeled my jaw off the table top, I found my head
nodding," Lemons said.
Wise faculty member Richard Peake, now a professor emeritus of
Appalachian literature, recalled his first meeting with Lemons.
He asked Lemons if he was familiar with James Still, author of
River of Earth, a book Peake considers "the basic course in Appalachian
studies for those encountering the region."
had read the book. "I knew then that we had come upon gold," Peake
too, was delighted. He was raised in a small town, Scottsbluff,
Neb., and had earned two undergraduate degrees at a small school,
to Wise County and Southwest Virginia for me was a very wonderful,
unexpected homecoming," Lemons said. "It was coming home to a
place I'd never been before. The tempo of life, the values of
the people, the commitments of maintaining a sense of community
were remarkably similar."
think that's the key to it," said Crutchfield, who chairs the
board's College at Wise Committee.
it came time to appoint a permanent chancellor, Lemons was the
sent him to Wise to deal with an emergency need, and he met it,"
Casteen said. "The interest in having him become chancellor came
from the faculty and the board there."
the years, Lemons has invited every student to have lunch with
him, where he has asked what attracted them to the college, what
they like best, and what they'd change if they were chancellor.
He greets students by name and asks them specific questions about
their studies and extracurricular activities.
legacy, though, goes far beyond making friends.
To those outside Southwest Virginia, Lemons may best be remembered
for spearheading the school's controversial 1999 name change.
Some U.Va. alumni ‹ some unaware of the long affiliation between
the schools ‹ groused that closer identification with the Wise
campus would diminish the prestige of the University. Lemons argued
that the renaming was an important reaffirmation of the University's
commitment to its country cousin, and would boost the quantity
and quality of applicants there.
arguments carried the day in the Virginia legislature, and though
there had been some opposition from members of the Board of Visitors,
relations between the schools never suffered ‹ and, in fact, have
improved, Lemons said.
credits Casteen and the board with helping put the controversy
to rest, but Crutchfield pointed to Lemons. "He gets along extremely
well with the Board of Visitors," he said. "Everyone has a great
deal of respect for Jay, as a person and a professional."
are more quantifiable elements to Lemons' legacy. A more selective
admissions policy has led to a more talented student body, and
faculty salaries have risen well ahead of the state average. Academic
programs have been enhanced and student life programs overhauled.
eight years, the college has spent over $40 million on capital
improvements, including a library expansion and construction of
a new classroom building. Lemons led the school's first capital
campaign, which may end up exceeding its $13 million goal by some
$5 million, and has presented a 10-year plan that calls for spending
some $76 million more.
two consecutive years, U.S. News and World Report has recognized
the College at Wise as one of the South's top public liberal arts
In early November, there was another room filled with emotion
as the Board of Visitors met in the Rotunda. It was the group's
final session with Lemons, and they unanimously and emphatically
passed a formal resolution of commendation.
then thanked the board members, singling out Executive Vice President
and Chief Operating Officer Leonard W. Sandridge as "a great teacher
and a great friend."
turned to Casteen, whom he said was "more than a boss, more than
a teacher, more than a friend. Thanks for making Marsha and me
part of your family, and making the college part of the University
family in a very real way."
spoke of what an honor it was for "a country boy from Nebraska"
to have been given the opportunities he had. He concluded, "I
will always be a very grateful son of this University."