LUMBERTON — Tears welled in the eyes of Robeson Community College President Charles Chrestman as he was honored recently at a reception held in honor of his retirement.
“This was absolutely awesome,” Chrestman said after the two-hour reception on Sunday at the college’s Charles V. Chrestman Workforce Development Center, which was recently named in his honor. “I’m just humbled. I didn’t know there would be so many here.”
On Friday, Chrestman’s 10-year tenure as RCC’s third president ends when Pamela Hilbert, the current vice president of academic affairs at Pitt Community College in Greenville, becomes the college’s fourth president and first woman to hold the position.
“She has some big shoes to fill …, “said Vicki Locklear, Robeson County’s register of deeds. “She better take off her heels and start running.”
One by one, educators, public officials, members of the business community, and others came to the podium to thank the “Miracle from Mississippi” as he was fondly referred to by Johnny Robertson, chairman of the RCC Foundation Board of Directors, for his leadership both at the college and in the community. Participants in the reception program included Scott R. Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College system; state Sen. Michael Walters; DeRay Cole, project manager for the N.C. Advanced Manufacturing Alliance; Patrick McMurray, president of RCC’s chapter of the National Technical Honor Society; Sybil Boone, president of the RCC Association of Educational Office Professionals; George Pate, president of the RCC Faculty Association; Johnny Robertson, chairman of the RCC Foundation board of directors; Harvey Godwin Jr., owner of Two Hawk Employment Services; George D. Regan, chairman of RCC’s board of trustees; and Alphonzo McRae, vice president for institutional services at RCC.
Chrestman’s tenure has been one of college growth.
“He is truly respected statewide,” Ralls, the community college president, said. “It is his type of leadership that has propelled the state’s community college system into the future.”
Walters commended Chrestman for both representing the college and Robeson County well. His efforts to bolster businesses and industries in Robeson County have not gone unnoticed in other parts of the states, Walters said.
“To me, advanced manufacturing, job recruitment and economic development will all always have his name stamped on it,” Walters said.
Fred Williams, Chrestman’s predecessor at RCC and a retired top official with the N.C. Community College System, commended his successor.
“Dr. Chrestman has done a great job,” he said. “He was truly the right person at the right time to lead this institution. That is evident in the support and help the faculty, staff and community gave him in his efforts to move the college forward.”
“He has advanced and raised this college to a new level,” said Regan, the trustees chairman.
During Chrestman’s tenure, RCC underwent a 10-year reaffirmation of accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Several educational programs also became nationally accredited, and others are completing self-studies for national accreditation.
The number of credit programs now offered by RCC is 34 — 14 more than when Chrestman arrived 10 years ago. Enrollment has increased during the decade from 2,361 to 4,148.
RCC’s budget has increased since Chrestman’s arrival from $18 million to $42 million. Total full-time employees have grown from 176 to 193, with the number of part-time employees increasing during the past 10 years from 291 to 340.
In the past decade, three new buildings were constructed: a Continuing Education building located in COMtech Park; and a Health Science building and a Workforce Development Center, both located on the college’s main campus. Two other buildings were completely renovated, aging roofing systems replaced, and parking areas expanded.
During Chrestman’s tenure, RCC began offering the ACT’s WorkKeys Assessment, which leads to a Career Readiness Certificate. Today, Robeson County ranks in the top three among the state’s 100 counties with more than 5,000 individuals holding the certificate
The college also landed one of the state’s NCCCS Biotechnology Network regional centers that now serves a statewide role in advancing bio-agriculture.
Chrestman recently told The Robesonian that as he prepares to retire, RCC is in “pretty good shape.” He said that there will have to be some changes in the way business is conducted because of changes in higher education in general.
“You will see more effort on seeing a greater number of students complete programs,” he said. “There will be a lot more emphasis on graduation.”
Chrestman said that as he leaves the presidency, the opportunities for economic growth, job creation and workforce development that brought him to Robeson County 10 years ago remain.
“The county just needs to take advantage of these opportunities,” he said.
Chrestman said that he is uncertain what he will do after he returns to his home in Pontotoc, Miss.
“But I plan to keep working,” he said. “It may not be in the field of education. I’m looking at other opportunities.”
At the close of Sunday’s program, Chrestman thanked college trustees, staff and community members who supported his efforts to move the college forward, as well as supporting his efforts to help improve the economy and work environment of Robeson County and the surrounding region.
“Thank you for letting me do something I love for 10 years,” he said. “This has been a super team effort. I will always feel that this (Robeson County) is part of my home.”