Spotlight on Community College Leaders: Caldwell CC & TI Trustee Jerry Church

Spotlight on Community College Leaders: Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute Trustee Jerry Church

By Ashley Blizzard, NCACCP/NCACCT Communication Coordinator & Events Manager

Having been a trustee for 24 years, Jerry Church believes the most important trustee attribute is having a servant’s heart. He said trustees need to remember they are there for the students. No matter what the situation is, people need to be treated with respect. “You owe it to hear everyone’s point of view. It’s okay to agree to disagree,” he says.

When he became a trustee in 1996 at Caldwell Community College, Church did not realize just how important the institution of the community college was. Of course, he was aware of the different programs they offered, but he did not realize what an economic catalyst the community colleges were. He had not given much consideration to the fact that community colleges help train employees of companies who move into the community or that they provide new training to those who want different careers. He was not aware of all the customized training community colleges provide to suit a company’s needs.

Church’s beginnings as a trustee were encouraged by his dad, who was a Caldwell County commissioner. His father wanted him to give back to the community, so Church told his father he would be willing to serve on the Caldwell Community College board if a position became available. To Church’s surprise, his father called him the next day and told him he was going to be a trustee. At the onset of his term, Church’s intentions were to serve his four years as trustee and then “ride off into the sunset.”  However, 24 years later, he was just reappointed by the county commissioners to serve a seventh four-year term. “I’ve enjoyed [serving as a trustee] immensely. Of all the committees that I’ve served on and boards and different things, this is the one I’ve enjoyed the most.”

Church has a longstanding connection to the community colleges and has many reasons why the community colleges are so important to him. Perhaps one of the most important reasons is that he met his wife, Amy (of 38 ½ years), at Caldwell Community College. He said community colleges are important to his whole family. Other than the fact that he, his wife, mother, sister and son have all attended and/or received degrees from the community college, he said, “The community college is one of the cornerstones of the community. It’s important for what it does to improve the quality of life for our citizens. The community college system, as a whole, is one of our hidden gems and sometimes, it’s our best kept secret.” He went on to say, “There’s a thin line between bragging and stating facts.” He says sometimes the community colleges do not profess how important they are and do not “toot [their] own horns enough.”

Improving quality of life is just what Caldwell Community College did for Church. After graduating high school at the age of 17, Church said his parents were adamant that he would attend college. However, as he puts it, as a “hard-headed 17-year-old,” he was going to do exactly the opposite of what his parents wanted him to do. So, he took a job as an upholsterer in an upholstery factory. Looking back, Church has proclaimed himself “the worst upholsterer in the history of upholstering.” The day he stapled his thumb to a chair frame was a turning point for Church! He realized then that perhaps his parents may have been onto something regarding college, so he went to the community college and applied. He got in and has been connected to the community college ever since.

Church would advise new trustees to trust their leadership team. He said if trustees do not trust their leadership teams, they need to replace them. Trustees are in an oversight position and are not there to run the day-to-day operations of the college. As he states, “We are supposed to be flying the plane at 40,000 feet. We’re not supposed to be on the ground with them.” He said trustees must know what their roles are. Trustees at his college are willing to remind another trustee if they are doing the job of the staff instead of the job of the trustees.

The two issues that really stand out for Church that community colleges are facing right now are inadequate pay for instructors and staff and enrollment growth funding. Church says there is no reason we should lose instructors that go to the public school system because they can earn more money there than at a community college. As to enrollment growth funding, he says he thinks community colleges are likely to see an influx of students this fall due largely to Covid-19. Businesses will have layoffs; small businesses may have to close, and people are going to need to retrain in something else. Additionally, he thinks families are not going to feel good about sending kids to live in dorms. “We are going to need enrollment growth funding to help answer that call,” he says. Referring to Covid-19, Church says, “If anybody is prepared to adapt to a changing environment, it’s the community college system.”

At Caldwell Community College, Church is proud that Caldwell is always evolving to meet the needs of the community—from recruitment to training to retraining. He is proud of the partnership the school has with Appalachian State University (ASU) and the public schools. Caldwell has two high schools on the college campus—one of a technical nature and one is an early college. He said that some of their students finish high school and get two, two-year degrees. Some students will do that in four years and then go to the ASU Center on the campus and become a teacher, which saves them a lot of money and time. Church is also proud of the school’s Cobra Care Clinic (named after the school’s mascot.) In partnership with the West Caldwell Health Council, the onsite healthcare clinic is a model clinic where students receive free healthcare. Church is also very proud that the school has started two new athletic programs for men’s baseball and women’s softball, in addition to having men’s and women’s basketball. These athletic programs have not only helped increase their school’s enrollment by about 150 students, but it has given students more of a college life outside the classroom.

Church noted that Caldwell is fortunate to have two campuses—one at Caldwell and one at Watauga. He said the Watauga campus needs to be fully developed, and they are making progress on that front. They have just opened a new building there to get student services in one location. Additionally, he said he would like to see the school do more with distance learning, and Covid-19 has certainly forced them to do more in that area. So far, the results have shown that the school has done a good job of that.

Delving into his personal life a bit, Church’s interesting “start” at the upholstery factory eventually came full circle. In his words, “I failed as an upholsterer, but succeeded as a pencil pusher.” He received a second chance of sorts at Broyhill Furniture Industries as a staff accountant and worked his way up to becoming the executive vice president of operations for the company. He worked for the company from 1980 until he retired in 2008.

However, after a few months of retirement, Church started his second career as town manager of Granite Falls, North Carolina, in 2009. He remains the town manager there and is really thankful for the town (population 4,652), which he equates to Mayberry. He classifies Granite Falls, his family, the community college and Appalachian State University in the “what-he-is-most-proud-of” category. Church and his wife have a son (Isaac) and daughter-in-law (Faith) who live in Boone. Between the four of them, they have seven ASU degrees.

The best advice Church has ever received came from his dad during his career at Broyhill. Church was telling his dad about a problem he was having at work. His father confided that the problem was the same problem many people had: he said his son had 12 pies and only 10 fingers, and yet he was trying to keep a finger in each pie. His dad told him to find out which pie was the most important one—not necessarily his favorite one—and to “eat the daylights out of it.”

Church says most people who really know him would likely call him a workaholic. He admits he is involved in a lot; he is on several boards and involved in many community and church activities. After he retired from Broyhill and went to work for Granite Falls, people told him that he would never retire. However, he said to give him a few years, and he’s going to prove them wrong. “I don’t think I’ll go on the inactive list and will continue to volunteer, but as far as a paying job goes, I think I’ll be able to retire this time successfully.”

As a hobby, Church enjoys playing golf. However, he says he spends more time watching ASU sports than playing golf. When it comes to truly relaxing though, he likes to sit on his screened-in porch at home with his wife and watch the fireflies.

His best vacation ever was spent with his wife and son when the three of them spent about 10 days in the Pacific Northwest. The scenery and food were “amazing.” (He also noted that there is nothing like coming face-to-face with an elk, especially after having had an elk burger for lunch that day!)

Church’s bucket list includes a bit more traveling. He would like to go on an Alaskan cruise (and perhaps reschedule the Canadian Rockies trip he had to cancel for this summer due to Covid-19.)  He would like to play golf with a group of his friends in Scotland. And once he does make that decision to retire, he would like for he and his wife to go on a barbecue restaurant road trip. (He fell in love with beef brisket in Austin, Texas.) Although he says his wife cannot eat it daily like he can, he says she will “tolerate it” for his retirement trip!