Just off the Logan exit, in two neat brick buildings overlooking the road that leads into downtown Logan, is the administrative headquarters of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, presided over by its dynamo of a president, Joanne Jeager Tomblin. And it's somewhat emblematic that like the roads leading to Logan, a big city girl full of energy and panache at first took a circuitous path that eventually led her to the college where she is making a difference by ensuring that quality higher education is available to those living in a less populous area of the state.
Joanne's marking her fifth year as president of Southern and if the glowing comments from throughout the college community and beyond its borders are any indication, she's brought energy, insight, compassion, and a razor-sharp intellect to the job and has turned an institution with a troubled past into a vibrant, burgeoning institution that's making an impact on the people and the area about which she cares so deeply.
To those who know her and her determined can-do attitude, the success isn't surprising. She's upbeat and optimistic with boundless energy that allows her to successfully juggle several roles at once, the most important being mom to 13-year-old Brent, she'll tell you up front. Besides being the community college's chief executive, she's the wife of one of the state's leading and busiest public figures, she's an accomplished hostess-she once treated the now British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family to a down-home cookout, a tireless participant in community affairs, a terrific cook, and a woman who takes great pride in making a comfortable home that is welcoming to family, friends and guests alike.
But hosting future Prime Ministers in the hills of West Virginia and heading up a sprawling four-campus college were the farthest things from the mind of the young Joanne Jeager as she was growing up in the peaceful enclaves of Long Island, New York, a "Happy Days" kind of existence which she remembers fondly. The only child of John, a chemical engineer for American Electric Company, and Margaret, she was born in Jamaica, Queens, and lived there until moving to Syosset, in Nassau County, a town named after one of the many Native American tribes that had inhabited that area 200 years ago.
"I had an ordinary, middle-class upbringing," Joanne, who was an athletic child, recalls. "I played stick ball in the street and did all the things kids do. I played ball, field hockey and volley ball, took gymnastics, and was a cheerleader. And since the area had once belonged to the Indians, we would go looking for arrow heads and other artifacts."
As a teenager there were carefree days with trips to New York City with her friends. They would ride the train into the city and then hop subways to explore the city. There was a delightful menu of activities to choose from -plays, movies, lunches, dinner, and of course, shopping, all the things so dear to a teenager's heart. They felt safe to roam most of the city pretty freely back then. It was a halcyon time before the urban ills of street drugs and violent random crime darkened the cityscape. She and her friends reveled in the heady experience of savoring the sights and offerings of Manhattan.
When it came time for her to enter high school, she was fortunate to be able to attend Syosset High School, an rigorous school in which academics definitely came first. With a student body of 3,500, her class of 900 had an astounding college-going rate. Only two of her classmates didn't go on to college -they opted to enter the military instead.
"It was a very family and academically oriented community and school. You would never find athletic events going on during the day. All of our events were in the evenings and on weekends," Joanne recalls. "Even though it was a large school, we were really a close-knit group. I still correspond with many of my classmates and I see them at reunions. Most of them have gone on to have successful professional careers. It was an extraordinary class of people."
After graduation, Joanne attended the University of Hartford for two years, majoring in science until an elective course in communications changed her major-and her life.
"We did all kinds of things in the class and I absolutely loved it. I knew this was something I could do but unfortunately Hartford, at the time, didn't offer a degree in communications, so I knew I would have to go someplace else," she explains. By coincidence, her father regularly traveled to the Huntington area to visit nearby power plants. On his visits he had heard good things about Marshall's School of Journalism, information he passed on to his daughter.
"He said if I was really interested in a career in communications, I should check out Marshall because he heard they had a great program. So I applied and was accepted and made my first trip to West Virginia. I came in the fall of 1973, and stayed in Twin Towers. I graduated in 1975 and my father was right, Marshall does have a great journalism program. Marshall is just a great place altogether. I wouldn't have had the career I've had if I hadn't gone through the program."
She excelled in her newly chosen field and her efforts paid off handsomely when she was named Marshall University's Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year in 1975. Her reporting skills, poise and confidence quickly earned her a job with Huntington television station WSAZ, where she was first a morning talk-show host and general assignment reporter, and later the anchor of the noon news.
"That was a wonderful place to work," she remembers fondly. "I covered all kinds of stories, from police matters to market-basket reports to interview segments and all sorts of features. It was a golden time at the station, with a group of exceptionally talented people."
And, she emphasizes, she would not have had the job had it not been for the training received at Marshall.
"With the skills and training I got at Marshall's journalism school I felt very comfortable and I had confidence that I could do the job. I owe that to my training."
Soon after receiving her bachelor's degree, Joanne entered Marshall's graduate program in communications and was awarded a diploma in 1978 while she was still at WSAZ. Six legislative internships were being offered through the graduate schools of Marshall and West Virginia University with three to go to each institution. Those selected would work at the Legislature and also receive graduate credit. It was too good an opportunity to pass up so Joanne applied, went through the screening and interview process, and was selected as one of the six.
Working at the State Capitol at the hub of state government and being part of the bustle and excitement of a legislative session was a heady experience for the young journalist. And although she didn't know it then, a man was about to enter her life and change it forever. She hadn't planned it but the hills of West Virginia were about to become her permanent home.
When Joanne Jeager and Earl Ray Tomblin met, he was an up-and-coming freshman legislator, a savvy young businessman serving his first term in the House of Representatives, representing a region of southern West Virginia. They met when he called and asked her to write a press release to send to the folks back home. It was a case of big city girl meets cool country guy and the romantic sparks flew.
"We hit it off immediately," she says. "Back then, interns weren't supposed to date anyone at the Legislature so we waited until the session was over and then began dating. We got married in 1979 so it was a long courtship. I traveled from Huntington to Logan to Charleston while going to school and working at WSAZ and he was running a business in Logan. I originally had planned to move back to Long Island or to move to a bigger television market, but when I met Earl Ray, that definitely changed the course of things!"
Following her marriage and a move to Logan, Joanne quickly landed a job working half-time as the managing director of the Logan Chamber of Commerce and half-time at Southern working with continuing and community education. In 1981, she was asked to run the aging program in Logan, a job which meshed perfectly with her communications background and her journalism degrees.
"When you have journalism and PR skills, you can tackle almost anything," she says. After a successful two-year tenure with the program she returned to Southern in 1983 as a full-time media specialist and has been there ever since. It was the beginning of an ongoing relationship that would culminate in her taking over the reins of the institution she had served so faithfully for two decades and fiercely defending the role of the college as a valuable educational and economic development tool for southern West Virginia.
She tackled her duties with her usual energy and verve and with each success her responsibilities grew. "I did all kinds of jobs at Southern," she recalls. "I taught classes in communications and speech; I did administrative work as the campus director at the Boone campus; I oversaw the television,graphics and human resources departments; I was interim dean of the Logan campus for a while. Later I was assistant to the president for Dr. Greg Adkins and served as associate vice president while Dr. Harry Bowyer was here. I became a vice president for economic and community development working for the next president, Dr. Kirkland. I worked as hard as I could in each position and tried to learn as much as I could."
Although Joanne had done all of her jobs well, the 1990s brought about acrimonious turmoil for the college and there were tumultuous times ahead. Two presidents came and went relatively quickly, but not before several unpopular administrative decisions from their offices had polarized the faculty and staff and news of the college's problems spilled out to the press. For a while it seemed there were almost daily negative stories appearing, which further demoralized the staff. By the late 1990s the college that had begun so proudly was listing badly under the weight of bad decisions and bad press. If one thing was clear, it was that a firm hand was needed to change course. And it became more and more apparent to many people, both inside and outside the college, that the firm hand needed to steer the now-struggling institution in a new direction belonged to Joanne Tomblin.
But first she had to be convinced to become a candidate. "I never would have dreamed about becoming a president of a college," she emphasizes. "But we had very serious problems at the college. The faculty and staff were upset and there were so many barriers between all of the constituents. We were the center of attention with stories about our turmoil in the media. The North Central Association did an accreditation evaluation of us in 1997 and told us we were in big trouble. When people started encouraging me to apply for the position, I was reluctant at first. But then I started thinking, 'maybe I can do this.' It seemed [as if] all the circumstances came together and led me to consider it. I knew the position needed someone who knew the area, who had been with the institution and knew its inner workings, and who had good rapport with both the staff and the community. It would take a lot of time and effort to bring the institution back to the way it was years ago but I thought I would take a stab at it myself. It wasn't an easy road."
If Joanne at first had doubts about becoming Southern's next president, Shelley Huffman, currently chair of Southern's Institutional Board of Advisors and a member of the search committee, had none.
"I have known Joanne for a number of years and I've worked with the college over the years and I have always felt that support on the committee was very strong for her," Huffman says. "And time has proven that our choice of supporting her for the presidency was not only right at the time, it has proved every day to be even more right for southern West Virginia."
Irene Murphy, an administrator in the Jackson County School System who is a longtime friend of the Tomblins, knew from the beginning that Joanne was the perfect choice for the role. "She is talented, she is bright, she is skilled, she is a leader among leaders," Murphy says.
Once appointed to the post, Joanne, with her characteristic energy and her finely honed communication skills, lost no time in doing what she felt was most crucial at the time: listening to all kinds of people, faculty, staff and members of the community, all those who had a vision for the future of Southern and had ideas on how to fix past ills. For many of the faculty and staff who often had found themselves at odds with previous administrations, it was a time of healing. In listening to them, she became a unifier.
"I spent my first several months doing one-on-one interviews with everyone in the college. I told them I wanted them to tell me what we needed to do to improve. I said if there is one thing that you want to see happen, what would it be. Interestingly, so many of the people were saying the same things. I took all the information and basically started implementing things that people said we needed to do. I believe strongly in consensus building and doing things as a team. Now the staff trusts me to do those things. Within a year we were beginning to get ourselves on a positive path."
Shelley Huffman agrees that the team approach works. "It's more than just her leadership abilities. Joanne brings out the best in people. When she not only listens, but buys into your ideas, that makes people know that they are valued. She meets with faculty and staff on a regular basis and tries to find out how they feel about things and tries to implement their ideas."
"President Tomblin not only envisions the growth and development of the college, but of the entire community," says Debbie Dingess, chair of the college's Classified Staff Council. "I have experienced the true camaraderie between Joanne as president and the classified staff as a whole. She listens and takes into consideration their concerns. She encourages suggestions and assistance in issues that affect classified staff. She is involved in several different community projects, functions and events."
And, she continues, "It has been said that leaders keep their eyes on the horizon, not just the bottom line. This is certainly true of Joanne for she leads our institution with a vision. She stands behind her work and if she says she will do it, then she will do it."
Pamela Alderman, who is the administrative vice president and dean of Southern's Allied Health programs, concurs with the success of the president's consensus building.
"She's the best thing that has ever happened to Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College," she says adamantly. "I worked with her here at the college for several years before she became president. She has the institution and the people who work here at heart ... She'll have an idea today, or someone else will, and tomorrow you'll see it form and in two or three months or a year you'll see the fruits of the ideas. She's not just a talker, she's a doer."
And, Alderman adds, "I worked here under several presidents before her. Some of them were here for a short period of time and it seemed like years. Joanne has been president for nearly five years and it seems like yesterday. She has pulled everyone together."
Joanne's attention to detail is legendary She put together a team, which included Alderman and other staff members, to make regular trips to high schools and other schools in their service area. They visit students in an effort to increase the college-going rate. "We tell them we hope you'll come to Southern, but if you don't, we want you to get an education," Alderman says.
The team wore a uniform of sorts - neat black jackets and slacks and a shirt topped off with a scarf that bore Southern's insignia, all very sharp and official looking. "Joanne had the idea that we needed to get down to these kids' levels to reach them so last year we bought polo shirts with our logo on the sleeve and we wear them with khaki pants. She wears them, we all wear them and the kids love it. So far she's made 94 school visits."
When it comes to Southern, Joanne champions her institution with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader and the fervor of an evangelist.
"We have a wonderful staff here, a great faculty and administration," Joanne says. "They got behind me and supported the efforts I was making and we forged ahead. I am such a believer in community colleges and their missions and what they can do in the community. We support baccalaureate institutions and universities completely, but we have a big rate of illiteracy, a poor economy and the community college is going to be the option in this part of the state to train and educate the workforce. I believe that education and economic development go hand in glove and that you've got to educate people and bring them to a skill level necessary to build the economy and bring business and industry here to southern West Virginia. That's what we're trying to do, but it's not something that's going to happen tomorrow."
It's a continuing process, one that requires great commitment and determination from everyone involved, she firmly believes. "We're going to have to be continually working on making things better. Most people who work here believe that the college is going to be the catalyst that is going to turn southern West Virginia around. Education is the hope. A lot of people here can't afford to go anywhere else. They're close knit, they have family ties, and they can't easily leave the area so we have to provide that opportunity to them. I love what I do and I always believe in pushing the envelope!"
Although the administration is housed in Logan, SWVCTC actually has four campuses spread through southern West Virginia that serve graduates from nine West Virginia counties as well as eastern Kentucky. In addition to the Logan site, there are campuses in Williamson, Pineville and Danville that altogether employ 65 full-time faculty, about 75 adjunct instructors per semester, along with 125 classified staff spread throughout the system. Southern will be part of the new higher education complex now being constructed in Beckley. Most campuses have a manager who takes care of custodial matters and events, and works with students and recruiters. Each campus has an academic chair who looks after academic affairs. The courses run the gamut from general education and technical to non-credit and community education classes.
"One thing about community colleges, we adapt to whatever the community may need," Joanne says. "We're very flexible; we try all different types of formats and delivery. Our faculty is so innovative and cooperative. We're doing distance learning; we have electronic classrooms that hook our campuses together."
Probably their most popular degree are those in the allied health areas, which include training in nursing, radiologic technology, paramedic science, and surgical technology. They are rigorous, much-sought-after programs with selective admission requirements. "This year we had 150 slots for 500 applicants," Joanne says. "They're excellent programs."
In fact, the success of the course offerings at Southern, including the Allied Health program, got national attention when the Discovery Channel did a laudatory report on its "Champions of Industries: Focus on Education" segment. With on-location filming, the program featured interviews with several staff members, including Joanne.
Joanne brims with her trademark enthusiasm not only for her college and its programs but for the state as well. The transplanted New Yorker is one of West Virginia's biggest boosters, a proud one-woman Chamber of Commerce touting the state's natural assets, particularly its people.
"West Virginia has been absolutely wonderful to me and I want to give back to the state. It has been a blessing for me to be here. I've met wonderful people in West Virginia and made wonderful friends. I think it would be more of a shock for people going from West Virginia to New York. When you live and grow up with that pace, you don't realize how fast everything is going. And this is really nice," she says with her warm laugh.
But it was something of a culture shock when she made that first trip to Marshall. She came as a junior and fortunately her first roommate was from Manhattan. "We had a learning curve together," she remembers. "But I believe that you can make the most of wherever you live. I got involved in everything and went out and met people. At first I missed having the conveniences that a big city offers but I think the quality of life is better here. I would never want to go back ... this is my home and I've been here since 1973," she says proudly.
Both Tomblins take immense pride in their son Brent, who despite being the only child of two high profile parents, has remained above all an unflappable and down-to-earth young man. A gifted athlete who excels in both baseball and basketball, he has handled his parents' public life with aplomb and maturity beyond his 13 years. Joanne is very proud of the modest 7th grader, a hard working student who wins praise from his teachers and is popular with classmates. In fact, at one time there were three presidents in the Tomblin home when Brett was serving as president of his fourth-grade class. Needless to say, Joanne and Earl Ray are avid fans at his games.
"We've tried to raise him so that he has a normal life," Joanne says. "He knows we both have jobs and they're important, and he understands. But we're so pleased that teachers consider him to be a great kid. Right now his 'profession of the month' is to be a pharmacist."
Entertaining is a large part of the Tomblins' life. A variety of people from all walks of life stream in and out of their home - political figures and many of Earl Ray's colleagues, people from the college and the community, friends, relatives and neighbors - all find a warm welcome.
But it's not a chore for her; quite the contrary, in fact. "I love to entertain," Joanne says with her customary enthusiasm. She's not daunted by playing hostess to high profile visitors either. The Tony Blair family is a good case in point.
"They were visiting West Virginia several years before he became England's Prime Minister and while he was a Member of Parliament," she recalls. "We invited them to our home for a cookout and they were the most down-to-earth people you would ever want to meet. They had their two children with them. His wife Cheri was a lovely person. We have a lot of West Virginia crafts in our home and she really loved them. She has a great appreciation for crafts and she admired the quilts. Her attention was taken by a hand-crafted pillow. She liked it so much I gave it to her as a gift."
Irene Murphy never ceases to be amazed at her friend's versatility. "She is just a jack of all trades," she says with admiration. "She can do anything. She loves crafts and she can sit down and make anything. She's a crafter of beautiful things but she's also very down to earth. She likes to can and she and Earl Ray love to garden. If you go to her pantry, there will be shelves full of canned goods she put up herself - green beans, relish, tomatoes, juices, all kinds of sauces. And when you walk into her home, there's always something good cooking - we all love to smell the aroma of her cooking."
And, she adds, "You can walk into her house on a Saturday and you might find her painting a bedroom or wallpapering. This lady really does it all!"
Joanne has been in the public eye almost since she first came to West Virginia but she's unflappable when it comes to fulfilling her duties as a wife, mother, college president, and wife of one of the state's most powerful public figures.
"Being the wife of a senator and being a college president can be good and bad," she says frankly. "I've always felt I needed to prove myself more than other people. I work twice as hard to prove that I'm here for what I can do and not because of who I am married to. People think we go home at the end of the day and talk about all kinds of professional things in private, but we don't. Even if we wanted to, we don't have time!"
Her friends know her as loyal and devoted, someone who is always there for them. Irene Murphy says, "She is a person who knows how to treat people and knows how to bring out the best in them."
Her television career has helped Joanne cope with being in the public eye. "Having a background in journalism and public relations enables you to take on whatever job you want to take on. You know you can do the work and your training gives you the skill to do it," she says.
Actually, with her burnished good looks, she would be just as much at home today sitting at a television anchor desk as she was nearly 30 years ago. And no matter where she goes, she knows she's representing Southern - she's its best ambassador of good will.
Her rapport with the community and her successful tenure at the college is helpful to a new avenue Southern is exploring. Under Joanne's direction, Southern is currently putting together an ambitious endowment campaign, something that is somewhat atypical for a community college, but necessary she feels in these days of shrinking budgets and rising costs.
"Colleges all over the country are struggling with budgets," she says. "In the past community colleges didn't do fund raising because they were publicly funded and really didn't have to worry as much about money. But as time has gone on and budgets are decreasing, the need for the president to be a fundraiser is becoming more and more necessary and that includes community colleges. You've got to have that type of skill or personality and a rapport with the community to enable you to do that kind of work."
She's looking forward to the launch of the campaign, probably next year. "We've never done anything like this and it's going to be a big job."
Shelley Huffman has no doubts at all that the campaign will be successful. " Last year Southern was the only community college in the state that did not raise tuition. That was because of her leadership and her commitment to cut costs and to do things without having an adverse impact on the students. We raised tuition this year, about $30, after a lot of thought."
Since her first day in office Joanne has maintained an open-door policy to faculty and staff. Her office is furnished with warm jewel-like hues, flower arrangements, lots of treasured family photos and an eclectic collection of objects ranging from a prized basketball autographed by Jerry West, who grew up just a few miles down the road, to a whimsical glass hat filled with candy. She doesn't eat the candy, but it's there for any and all to come and sample, and the staff feels free to do so and to stop and chat. It's a friendly tradition, a symbol of her openness and her desire to keep communication lines open to all those around her.
"We have good people who manage the campuses and they're very aware of what the college is doing and where it is going and what's going on at the other campuses. We try to hold to a one college concept even though we have four locations."
Joanne's dedication not only to Southern but to the community as well has earned her accolades from community groups. In 2002, she was awarded the Logan County Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Award and in 2003 she received the Distinguished Service Award from the Regional Assistance Center.
It's not easy for the Tomblins to carve out personal time, but they make time for travel whenever they can eke out a few days from packed calendars.
"We both love to travel; it's kind of a passion for us and we take Brent with us so he can see other places, and it's a time for us to be together as a family," Joanne says. They've traveled all over the state and the country and to other parts of the world as well. They particularly like Scotland.
"There is a lot of similarity to West Virginia," she recalls fondly. "The country with its hills and with the way the people are, it's almost like you're at home here. The Scottish people are very laid back and they remind me a lot of West Virginians. That's not too unusual as West Virginia has a large number of people who are of Scottish descent."
The church is an important part of the Tomblin family's life. They're active members of the Presbyterian Church of Logan. "My faith has definitely guided me through many days of turmoil here at the college and in seeking direction for our future," Joanne says.
While she's created a comfortable niche deep in the lush hills of West Virginia, it's for sure the dynamic and innovative college president will never settle for the status quo. She found the work she loves, a mission to use her skills and abilities to help people and most of all an enriching and enduring marriage.
"I couldn't ask for a better person to be married to," she says quietly. "We've been married 25 years and we have both been devoted to public service. Both of us have a passion for this area and as a team we can do great things for southern West Virginia. Together we have accomplished many things."
And even with all those accomplishments, for those who know Joanne Jeager Tomblin and her dedication, determination, boundless energy, optimism, and a passion for excellence in whatever she does, there is little doubt that the best is yet to come.
Pat Dickson is coordinator of media and community relations at the South Charleston campus of Marshall University.