CHAMPAIGN – Gordon G. Burns Jr. learned the value of work from a hammer, nails and his dad.
Born into a family with five kids and somewhat less than modest means, Burns started helping his father in his carpentry business at age 12, and hasn't stopped working since.
"I didn't know at the time that would set my career," he said of his early job.
Now Burns, the president of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C., since 1996, wants to bring that if-you-build-it attitude to Parkland College.
He is one of five candidates to replace Zelema Harris as president of the community college. Monday afternoon, Burns spoke enthusiastically about his background to several dozen Parkland faculty, staff and students.
As a youth, Burns said, he was a good student and avid baseball player. In college, though, Burns gave up baseball to devote his time to finishing early – in 3 years instead of the traditional four.
"I became the first-generation college student in the family," he said. "I knew I had to race through ... which saved the family money and gave me a head start."
A few years after completing a degree in industrial education, Burns was working on a doctorate at the University of Missouri in Columbia and developing and directing an area vocational technical school.
There, he got to interact with young people and adults, an experience he said he appreciated so much it made him want to work with nontraditional students for a career. He looked to community colleges for that experience and said, after decades in the field, "I couldn't have made a better choice."
Burns pointed to those decades of experience as a "solid foundation" for his potential Parkland presidency.
Burns has also served as executive vice president of Lenoir Community College in Kinston, N.C., and vice president of Wilson County Technical Community College in Wilson, N.C.
As Parkland president, Burns said he would "have a physical presence in these communities (served by Parkland)" and at the college, adding he doesn't take breaks at work but instead "walks around," observing and talking to people.
Burns said he'd work closely with area high schools to make sure their students know education is accessible and that they "are ready for college-level work when they get here."
"My role," he said at the meeting, "is to build on those excellent beginnings (at Parkland), ... find new and better ways of doing it."
Of his accomplishments, Burns said he was most proud of developing successful ways to raise money for Wilkes, building additions to the campus like the student union, and upgrading the school's technology, allowing technology programs to prosper.
Burns said after the meeting that, if given the job, he "would not come with an agenda," but would instead "learn and experience the college ... to work with all involved in partnership.
He described his style as "participatory – everything is open," he said. "I want for everyone's ideas to be heard."
Parkland student Brad Hardcastle has been to three candidate talks and said the openness of the presidential hiring process has impressed him.
But even with all the input, he's still not sure whom he'd pick. "I really liked (Burns), his past experience is good. He could bring a lot to Parkland." However, Hardcastle said. "I haven't met one I didn't like."
The final candidate for president speaks today at 2 p.m. Comments on any and all candidates can be sent to Nancy Willamon, assistant to the board of trustees, at nwillamon[AT]parkland.edu by 5 p.m. today.
Willamon said all comments will be read and considered.
Parkland board Chairman Linden Warfel said the board will meet Wednesday to discuss the candidates and could make a decision as early as March 22, unless it decides to interview the top two candidates a second time.