College building offered

George Lester is shown at the former Tultex plan in the city.

October 29, 2004

From Bulletin and AP reports

Martinsville businessman George W. Lester pledged the old Tultex building and a $250,000 endowment to the New College of Virginia at Thursday's meeting of the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia (SCHEV) in Richmond.

Lester made the offer at SCHEV's headquarters at the organization's third and final town meeting which sought public input on establishing a baccalaureate-level college in this area.

About 50 people attended Tuesday's meeting in Danville and 250 were at Wednesday's session at Patrick Henry Community College.

Lester's pledge comes in addition to the $50 million challenge grant by The Harvest Foundation and a gift of 100 acres off U.S. 58, worth an estimated value of $1 million, by developers Bill Adkins and Earl Greene.

In making the pledge, Lester said, "The Lester Development Corp. acquired some of the assets of the former Tultex Corp. Accordingly, we are offering to donate the 185,000-square-foot facility located on Franklin Street ... to the New College of Virginia, so long as it is used for educating our people."

Also, "I pledge the first endowment of $250,000 to the New College of Virginia when it is accredited."

Upon returning to Martinsville on Thursday, Lester said the endowment was a personal gift from him and his wife, Lee, in memory of his parents G.T. Lester Sr. and Lottie Lester.

Since the proposal for the New College of Virginia was announced, Lester said he had thought about making some donation and discussed it with key officials of the company.

Lester said he, his wife and his staff came to the conclusion that it was right to provide support for the idea because the college "is such an important thing for the area."

Musing over what might be, Lester said a common joke in the 1950s through the early 1970s ? when some high school students elected to attend college while others went to work ? was "I'm going to Virginia U", I'm going VPI U" and "I'm going to Tultex U" when students were asked what they were going to do after high school.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, he said, if students might again say "I'm going to Tultex U" in the form of the New College of Virginia.

In supporting the New College of Virginia, the proposal spearheaded by Dr. Ronald Carrier, to SCHEV, Lester spoke of the area's economic devastation and residents' lack of education.

He also said that rising tuition and limited enrollment is rapidly making college off limits to all but the nation's wealthiest, poorest and brightest.

Among area residents making the three-hour trek to Richmond were Martinsville Vice Mayor Kimble Reynolds Jr; the Rev. John Tinsley; Rob Spilman, chairman of Bassett Industries; and Kelly Cain, a vice president of Stanley Furniture Co.

Reynolds expressed his hope for a better future for the young people he sees at the local car washes, "polishing on the new ride as if it was the Hope Diamond."

The car wash is a symbol of where many of the area's young adults are headed, Reynolds said, because they haven't been able to see the need to attend college.

"Why? Because he or she was just following the family cycle ? go to high school, possibly graduate, get a job at one of the local factories, buy a new car, find a spouse, have children and prepare them to perpetuate the cycle," Reynolds said.

Tinsley said a new college would help lift up the area's low-income and black residents, who used to be able to get jobs at the local furniture and textile plants ? but the factory system is no longer available.

"They are not lazy or shiftless," he said. "They simply need the opportunity to develop their innate skills."

Spilman and Cain cited the pressures of global competition as the main reason formerly thriving businesses have had to close or cut back operations. A new college would give local residents a chance to become qualified to work at technical and other jobs that require higher skill levels.

The other, more traditional, educational model would involve a partnership between Martinsville's Patrick Henry Community College, and Longwood and Old Dominion universities. Students would get a two-year degree at Patrick Henry, then transfer to the four-year schools.

In that proposal, students would complete all four years on the campus of PHCC, but enroll in their first two years in the community college and their final two in Longwood or ODU.

According to the AP, officials supporting that proposal did not speak in Richmond on Thursday.

While Lester said he also supported that plan, he said that the New College of Virginia already is having an impact on other institutes of higher learning in the region, as the Longwood proposal only came after that of New College was made public

If New College of Virginia was granted charter by the General Assembly, it would become the only four-year college established in the state since 1971 when Christopher Newport College grew from a two-year branch of the College of William and Mary. It became Christopher Newport University in 1992.


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