Downey nationally recognized with award: Students nominate for Shirley B. Gordon Award

Blue Ridge Community College President Dr. John Downey stands in the college’s new BioSciences building with his 2019 Shirley B. Gordon Award of Distinction on Friday.

WEYERS CAVE — Blue Ridge Community College President Dr. John A. Downey is a recipient of the Shirley B. Gordon Award of Distinction in 2019.

Fifteen to 20 community college presidents received the award this year, but Downey was the only college president from Virginia.

“The great thing about the Shirley B. Gordon Award is that the students nominate [recipients],” Downey said.

The award is given by Phi Theta Kappa, a national honor society for two-year colleges.

In early April, Downey attended an induction ceremony in Orlando in which he accepted the award from PTK. Downey said that he was going to attend the ceremony anyway, and was surprised to receive the award.

“It was cool to be up there on the stage with everyone else that got [an award],” Downey said. He added that the award is named after one of PTK’s original board members.

BRCC’s PTK chapter is called Alpha Xi Xi. The chapter’s advisor is Abby Montgomery Sloan.

Sloan and Alpha Xi Xi’s former chapter president Loretta Wenger nominated Downey for the award. 

Wenger said that she attended PTK’s national convention in Kansas City, Missouri in 2018, where she saw several community college presidents receive the Gordon Award. When she returned to Virginia, she told Sloan that Downey deserved to receive the award.

“He is just like a super down-to-earth person, and puts himself on the level of the students,” said Wenger.

As president of BRCC, Downey is “super involved” and always asking students about their future plans.

“He’s great at putting you in touch with the right resources,” Wenger said.

In PTK’s online description of the Gordon Award, recipients are selected “on the basis of outstanding efforts given toward promoting the goals of Phi Theta Kappa,” and have demonstrated during their time as president “a strong level of support for Phi Theta Kappa.”

“I just felt he embodied all of those hallmarks and qualities,” she said.

Wenger said that Downey worked hard to become president of a community college, yet, as an administrator, he has remained humble and approachable.

“I just feel like he’s one of those people that we need more like him,” Wenger said.

Downey, 57, began at BRCC as an academic advisor 27 years ago. He aided students with career development and served as a disabilities services coordinator.

“So I would help people figure out what they wanted to do and the steps they needed to take to get there, and then if students had a disability I would help them get the accommodations that they were entitled to,” Downey said.

After several years, Downey worked his way up to academic dean at BRCC, then vice president under Dr. James Perkins. Perkins served as president for 20 years and retired in 2009, when Downey took over the presidency.

“My predecessor, Jim Perkins, just gave me tremendous opportunities,” Downey said. “And Blue Ridge is the type of place where I think the students are remarkable, the faculty and staff are remarkable. So, if you’re passionate about what you do, I think it’s the type of place where your passion can meet the opportunity. And that’s what happened. I was just very fortunate.”

BRCC, founded in 1967, serves 4,500 students, and an additional 3,000 non-credited students.

Downey grew up in Syracuse, New York, a middle child of 10 children. His father was a repairman for a telephone company and his mother was a homemaker.

Downey’s first job was delivering newspapers when he was 12 years old.

He attended Le Moyne College in Syracuse and majored in psychology because he knew he wanted to help individuals.

A faculty member at Le Moyne got Downey thinking about graduate school, an option he did not think was financially possible given that he came from a working class family.

But he was accepted to Boston College and earned his master’s in counseling while his wife pursued a master’s in counseling from Northeastern University.

Downey said that when he moved from Boston with his wife and two daughters to work at Blue Ridge in September 1992, he had no idea he would end up becoming president years later.

The Downeys moved to Virginia because the cost of living to raise a family in Boston was too expensive. Downey submitted job applications, “and was lucky to get the job here.”

Downey and his wife, Sandy, had a third daughter, who just graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University. The couple lives in Harrisonburg.

At the 9th Annual Valley Business Summit on Aug. 8, Downey received a proclamation from the Virginia General Assembly that he had been honored with the award.

“We wanted to recognize John because of his specific distinction and designation that he just recently received,” said Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, at the summit. He said that as a delegate he enjoys recognizing community members like Downey “who represent this community so well.”

According to Landes, he, Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, Sen. Mark Obenshein and Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, all voted for Downey to receive the proclamation from the House of Delegates.

Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society chose Downey as one of 18 community college presidents in the U.S., and the only college president in Virginia to receive the award in 2019 “which recognizes individuals who have fostered academic achievement, leadership and service among the students on their campuses.”

“John has done an exceptional job not only for Blue Ridge Community College, but his also deep involvement in the community. It is a community college,” Landes said to the summit’s audience.

Landes added that Downey is “an all-around great guy.”

He added that after leaving the House of Delegates in November’s election, Landes is most worried that a governor will pull Downey away from BRCC to become a chancellor of the community college system in Virginia.

“I think, for me, the Gordon Award represents the sacrifices our students make in order to make a better life for themselves,” Downey said. “So the hallmarks of PTK are leadership, scholarship, service and fellowship.”

Through PTK, students are acknowledged for their academic success but also learn to give back to their community.

“So, to me, as a president just to be able to foster an environment that supports that kind of leadership development is what makes this place special.”

Receiving the Gordon Award, Downey said, is a celebration of what PTK accomplishes in the community, and he only has to provide the environment that allows them to give back.

Downey said he has seen students go through BRCC that began classes with no confidence and who were overcoming life obstacles such as divorce or raising a child alone, “and they gradually gain confidence as they’re here and realize that they have leadership qualities that they didn’t think they had.”

PTK is one of many ways that BRCC helps students gain confidence and become aware of their leadership skills.

“And to see that transformation over time is just the best part of my job,” Downey said. “Is just seeing how a student gains confidence, and not only becomes skilled in their profession but becomes skilled in being a better person and a better member of society.”

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