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by Michael Buettner
No one could ever accuse Dr. James B. McNeer of being the "retiring type," but even for an irrepressible educator, administrator, volunteer and community servant like the longtime president of Richard Bland College, a half-century-plus of hard work is finally enough.
McNeer, who joined the state's only public junior college in 1968 and has been its president since 1996, has announced that he plans to retire as of June 30, 2012. In an interview last week, he said he gave the lengthy notice so the college would have “plenty of opportunity to look for someone else.”
It will be tough for them to find anyone as well-qualified for the job as McNeer was. At the time of his promotion to president, he had already worked for the school for nearly 30 years as a professor of government, provost, dean of faculty, director of admissions and financial aid, and assistant to the president.
Even before he joined Richard Bland, McNeer had built a resumé in education that could stand for a whole career for most people: teacher, coach, elementary school principal and supervisor, and high school assistant principal, starting in his home town, Bluefield, and continuing in his adopted home, Colonial Heights.
When McNeer started at RBC, the college - officially, a branch of the College of William and Mary - was just eight years old and served about 400 students. In those days, he said, "We thought that if we could just get to 500, we'd be a real college."
By that standard, Richard Bland today is a “real college” more than three times over: This year, about 1,600 students are enrolled. And McNeer's tenure has seen RBC add another major claim to “real college” status: the opening in 2008 of two residence halls, a $27 million project that made Richard Bland the only two-year college in Virginia with on-campus student housing.
McNeer points proudly to the fact that construction of the two dormitories, Freedom Hall and Patriot Hall, was financed not with taxpayer money but by the college's own foundation. And he's just as quick to note that although RBC's tuition rates have increased some in recent years, they haven't soared like those of other state-supported schools.
But keeping RBC affordable hasn't meant skimping on facilities or programs. Besides the new residence halls, McNeer noted, the college has completed a major renovation of its library and student center, added a health center, expanded its bookstore, built a 500,000-gallon water tower and created a campus police department.
Currently, the school's athletic center is getting a major upgrade, including new locker rooms and bleachers and a new floor for the gym. In addition, the RBC Foundation is raising funds to build a recreational complex that will include tennis courts, a softball field, and outdoor basketball and volleyball courts.
The library renovation in particular reflects big changes in the whole approach to education over the decades since McNeer arrived on campus. Back then, he said, the library was “just books. You went to a card catalog when you wanted to look something up.”
Now, he said, the first thing a student sees on entering the library is its 40-plus computer stations. During the renovation, he explained, the second-story's floor had to be reinforced so the library's 75,000 books could be moved upstairs.
Computers and related technology are among the most noticeable changes in education over the past five decades. Another significant shift is the major expansion of the college's course offerings in health-related subjects, matching the explosive growth of careers in that industry.
One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the quality of the people Richard Bland attracts, both its students and its faculty.
“One constant has been our caring faculty," McNeer said. "We have a faculty that still recognizes that we have many first-generation college students who might need a little more nurturing than students whose parents are college graduates.”
As for the students, McNeer noted that currently 24 of them have perfect 4.0 averages. And the college is so pleased with the success of the residence halls, which house about 250 students, it's talking about raising funds to build more in a couple of years.
The school has expanded its offerings of extracurricular activities to help those students stay busy outside class hours. That’s something McNeer himself has excelled at during his tenure at RBC: His own extracurricular activities have included terms on the Colonial Heights School Board and Public Library Board, including serving as chairman of each. He also was mayor of Colonial Heights from 1984-96.
In addition, McNeer has served as chairman of the Crater District Planning Commission and as the Tri-Cities' civilian spokesman for three federal Base Realignment and Closing commissions, including the most recent one that resulted in a huge expansion at Fort Lee.
On top of all that, he has been active in his church, Highland United Methodist Church, for more than 40 years, and serves as a member of the board of directors of Southside Regional Medical Center and Virginia Commonwealth Bank.
McNeer said he plans to stay involved in community activities after he retires, but his wife, Nancy - herself a retiree from more than 40 years of teaching in public schools - will have first claim on his time.
The college provides an on-campus house for its president, which the McNeers will have to leave when he retires. In preparation, they've bought a condominium not far from the college, and McNeer said he expects that when first retires, “I'll be doing some work on the condo.”
- Michael Buettner may be reached at 722-5155 or email@example.com.