By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
FULTON – David Cole knows when to fold ’em.
Effective June 30, he leaves 20 years at the helm of Itawamba Community College – once a small provincial school, known primarily for its unusual Indian name.
With Cole and his carefully groomed leadership team, ICC is nationally recognized for academic excellence and professional second chances for an under-educated regional workforce.
Cole, 65, announced his retirement plans Jan. 18, much to the surprise of almost everyone but his inner circle.
Longtime colleague Mike Eaton will succeed him, a transition plan under way quietly for months.
Still, it’s difficult for others who know him to envision his departure at the pinnacle of his life’s work.
“He had a vision,” said longtime friend and ally Windle “Buster” Davis. The impressive ICC Davis Event Center honors him and his twin brother, Kindle “Bud.”
Speaking at his Ford dealership just a stone’s throw from the Fulton campus, Buster Davis said he feels a deep loss at Cole’s impending departure after so many years working together for ICC.
“Some people never accomplish their plans,” Davis said, “but David had a plan and he got others to help him accomplish it.”
Billy Joe South, who opened his Amoco service station in 1965 across the street from ICC, gets emotional at the thought of Cole’s departure.
“I never heard of anybody who didn’t like him,” said South, who teared up a little as he talked at home where he battles cancer.
Cole often sought a little brain-clearing time with South on a bench outside the station, overlooking the changes Cole’s leadership brought to the college and the Itawamba County seat.
“He could talk about anything,” South recalled sentimentally. “I feel like I’m losing a good friend.”
Dr. David C. Cole came to ICC in January 1993 as its fourth president after nearly two decades as superintendent of South Panola School District in his Batesville home town.
He’d been an assistant superintendent, federal projects director, journalism and history teacher, and even one year as a reporter for the Clarksdale Press Register and the Daily Journal.
He met his wife, the former Betty Darby, while the two were South Panola teachers.
They say they will return to Batesville in retirement and enjoy time with their four children and nine grandchildren.
Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, a longtime Cole friend and political ally, said the retirement decision is simple: “The man has a God-given instinct about life, and it was just time.”
When Cole arrived, the ICC campus was a sparse place with outdated facilities in dire need of being replaced. His first task: to build a modern science building.
That’s where the tremendous multi-campus growth plan began.
The previous leaders were good enough to a point, Davis said. But Cole was different.
First, he set out to know the people and became part of the community. Many a Saturday, he’d don a sports shirt and shake hands with customers in Davis’ dealership.
“He wanted people to know he respected and appreciated them,” Davis noted.
Under Cole’s leadership, ICC grew from a relatively unremarkable presence in Fulton to sprawling campuses in Tupelo and Belden, and enrollment of more than 14,000 students with workforce training opportunities for more than 50,000 adults annually.
Today, ICC’s enrollment is 50 percent higher than when Cole came to town.
All its campuses are modern and boast new facilities for a wide range of disciplines, including the showplace Davis Event Center and a $15.8 million Health Science Education Center under construction in Tupelo.
It also boasts the largest distance learning program in the state.
Cole is all about building coalitions – he looked for key people in the community to help him further ICC.
He also broadened the college’s staff with new people and their new experiences.
“He saw people’s talents and let them do their jobs,” Davis added.
Ripley banker Bobby Martin knows Davis’ words to be true.
“He’s a manipulator, but in a good way,” Martin observed about Cole. “He’s got his fingers on whoever can make it happen.”
Martin also laughed when he talked about Cole’s gumption on behalf of ICC.
“He’s so brazen, he’ll ask for anything and gets it,” Martin said.
Cole is well-known for his ability to cajole legislators into financial support for community colleges statewide.
Another example, Davis noted, is when Cole asked him to organize a concert series to bring the public to ICC.
“He came to me and said, ‘They tell me you can help me get it done,’” Davis recalled.
Since then, ICC’s concert series has raised thousands of dollars to directly support Regional Rehabilitation in Tupelo, which provides treatment and counseling free to the region’s residents.
Cole asked Davis to develop the concert series and then show ICC how to run it.
“I told him I didn’t come up here for a job,” Davis said, “but he told me, ‘You take it for three years and teach us how to do it.’”
That was 17 years ago and Davis is still at it.
Cole is lesser known publicly for establishing the Mississippi Corridor Consortium, a partnership of ICC and three other north Mississippi community colleges to bring together resources in the region’s 16 counties.
The Consortium uses limited financial resources to leverage larger sums to expand education and workforce training programs.
Notably, the Consortium acquired a $1.2 million grant to establish the Advanced Manufacturing Center to upgrade the regional workforce’s automotive manufacturing skills, which became a key deal-maker in Toyota’s decision to build its new plant in Northeast Mississippi.
Dr. Clyde Muse, 35 years and counting as president of Hinds Community College in central Mississippi, knows a thing or two about Cole.
They began their friendship when each was a K-12 superintendent – Cole at South Panola and Muse in Meridian.
“He has one of the sharpest minds when it comes to issues affecting people and politics,” Muse said last week.
One of Cole’s greatest accomplishments, Muse said, is the establishment of adult education programs throughout his community college district – Itawamba, Monroe, Lee, Pontotoc and Chickasaw counties.
“This is unique,” Muse observed, “especially over such a wide area. I’ve often said it’s the best adult GED program in the state.”
The Hinds CC chief also said Cole deserves credit for developing an easily understood concept to fund community college salaries at “mid-point” between K-12 and senior colleges, as well as per-student support at “mid-level.”
Universally accepted by the Legislature, the goals have yet to be fully funded.
Cole may be an empire builder, but his friends insist it is an empire for others: He’s a people builder.
Martin and CREATE Foundation’s Juanita Floyd praise Cole’s scholarship program, which has helped nearly 200 students since it was established in 2004.
Floyd said the fund has raised nearly $200,000 for young and old, whom Cole felt needed financial help to get a better education.
“He’s making a big difference,” Martin said.
While some of Cole’s impact on Fulton and ICC is obvious, it’s the smaller, more personal ways he’s made a difference, they say.
After 2011’s devastating tornadoes, Cole personally delivered a generator to help victims. He sent ICC staff to assist with Gulf Coast recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
“I heard about one student who didn’t have any money to go to the dentist,” Martin recalled. “Here’s Dr. Cole, who comes to the rescue and finds the money to help that young man get his teeth fixed.
“That’s what he does, quietly.”
Martin also termed Cole a “great 10-for-1 man.”
“If you ever ask him for one favor, he’ll ask you for 10,” the Ripley banker said with humor and respect. “I’d like to see his file for the people he calls when he wants something.”
Martin said that’s how his relationship began with Cole, as they traded favors across the years for the region’s economic and educational improvement.
He and others praise Cole for expanding ICC’s influence into Tupelo and then to Belden, bringing thousands more people into a relationship with the community college.
Campus buildings total 74 compared with 58 in 2003 and their value grew from $57 million to $163 million.
Last October, Cole’s national colleagues through the Association of Community College Trustees recognized him with the Southern Region’s Chief Executive Officer Award.
In 2012, ICC was selected one of the nation’s top 120 community colleges.
David Cole does not have a perfect record for making good decisions, despite all the praise for his careful planning and execution.
His extensive resume never mentions that after the statewide election of 1999, he agreed to become chief of staff for Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, also a Batesville native and longtime friend.
“I tried to talk him out of it,” Davis said. “I said it will be the worst decision you ever made.”
Five weeks later, Davis said he talked with Cole’s wife, whom he said admitted his dire prediction was true.
People close to the state Capitol story say the two men found themselves at odds almost immediately, chiefly because of Musgrove’s controlling, highly political style of decision-making.
Cole fulfilled his promise to work two legislative sessions for Musgrove, then came back to his ICC post the college’s board had held open for him.
Musgrove reportedly was out of the country last week and wasn’t able to respond to a Daily Journal request to talk about Cole.
Davis said Cole’s Governor’s Office experience – so different from his community college efforts through the years – had a profound physical and emotional impact on his friend.
“It took him about six months to get over it,” Davis said.
But eventually, Cole bounced back surrounded by family, colleagues and the students he so cherishes.
Now, Davis and others wonder how a 24/6 man – that’s giving up one day for church – can just stop complete devotion to a cause for retirement.
They speculate he’s got a plan for that, too, and it’s only partially devoted to spending more time with his family.
“He’s going to be a greeter at Walmart during the day and at night at Holland Funeral Directors,” joked Rep. Steve Holland, the latter’s owner.
The colorfully talking legislator said of Cole, “probably more than any other human being I’ve met – and I’ve met a lot of them – he attacks every day with the gusto of a hound dog.”
Hinds’ CC’s Muse said news of Cole’s retirement plan came to him completely out of the blue.
“I don’t know what he plans to do,” Muse noted. “But it’s not his forte to sit around and read a book all day.
“He’s still got too much to offer – he’ll keep serving the people.”
Muse has it right, sort of.
Frankly, Cole says his idea of retirement includes service to others but he admits his wife and family have spent much too much time without him through the years.
“I don’t have any other educational employment I want to go into,” he said late last week as he drove home from legislative lobbying in Jackson.
His voice sounded like he’s looking forward to leaving the changed political scene of Jackson and focusing on something with a more immediate impact.
“First off,” he admitted, “I plan to spend quality time with the next generation of my family.
“I want to instill in them the best of David Cole and try to hide the worst side, those warts and all.”
He said he believes, as the author Robert Greenleaf wrote, that a person’s most productive years are after retirement when he or she can work on their avocation – for servant leadership and good works.
Cole reflected on the strong will and character of his mother, who reared seven children on their South Panola County farm.
He said he was “less fortunate” than his siblings because he was the youngest.
“My mother was going to mold me into the image she wanted me to be, and she is what instilled in me any of the virtues I might have,” he said.
Logistically, sharing himself with the next generations may be more challenging than first thought, with grandchildren from Fulton to Nashville.
“I think I see some kind of RV in my future,” he laughed.