Dec.8, 2000-
Jan. 11, 2001
Back Issues
Arts & Sciences gets $20 million gift
Ernie Ern to bow out with the year 2000
After Hours - Off U.Va.'s clock, surgeon operates as sculptor

Not just small talk about the weather

Religious Studies has multiplied like loaves and fishes at U.Va.
Fogarty part of Vatican's study of pope's role in WWII
Ochs urges Jews to take a fresh look at Christianity
In Memoriam
President's Report now available
Hot Links - "Censored: Wielding the Red Pen"
President John T. Casteen III's Holiday Open House
Notable - awards and achievements of faculty and staff
Lemons' legacy: Wise leader with a personal touch
West's quest: cultural continuance of Native American peoples
Photos by Terry Ketron
L. 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.

Lemons' legacy: Wise leader with a personal touch

The University's changing leadership

By Dan Heuchert and Jane Meade-Dean

The 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 hour.

Once 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.

He 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.

There was stunned silence, and tears.

To 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.

Two 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.

From 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.

Lemons 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.

A few weeks later, Lemons casually asked what had happened with the Clinch Valley opening. "President Casteen said, I'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."

Lemons had read the book. "I knew then that we had come upon gold," Peake said.

Lemons, too, was delighted. He was raised in a small town, Scottsbluff, Neb., and had earned two undergraduate degrees at a small school, Nebraska Wesleyan.

"Coming 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."

"I think that's the key to it," said Crutchfield, who chairs the board's College at Wise Committee.

When it came time to appoint a permanent chancellor, Lemons was the first choice.

"I 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."

Over 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.

His 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.

Lemons' 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.

He 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."

There 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.

In 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.

For 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 colleges.

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.

Lemons 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."

He 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."

He 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."


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