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50 Years: Virginia Wesleyan College

Updated: December 21, 2012 - 4:06 pm

Posted: December 21, 2012

Some of Virginia Wesleyan College's early leaders stayed around for decades.

Tenures include terms of 20, 30 and even 40 years at this half-century-old Methodist school. The college has only seen three presidents, one of whom stayed for 26 years.

"That kind of longevity... wouldn't necessarily, on every campus, be a positive thing because there are benefits to bringing in new blood and new ideas and so forth," said college archivist Stephen Mansfield.

"But for a school that was just getting started, that kind of continuity did inspire confidence."

This small liberal arts school, which sits on both Norfolk and Virginia Beach land, wrapped up its 50th anniversary celebrations earlier this year. Now officials, faculty and students are looking ahead as enrollment is on the rise, new programs are under way and new developments are on the horizon.

"It's an exciting time," said Laynee Timlin, director of strategic planning.

The college is the brainchild of Joseph Johnston, who came to Norfolk in 1959 as the Methodist district superintendent.

World War II prompted a population boom in the Hampton Roads area, Mansfield said, and Johnston tapped into the already-present interest in establishing the first private, faith-based, post-secondary institution here.

Virginia Wesleyan was chartered in 1961, the location was decided in 1962 and the school officially opened in 1966.

That gap between chartering and opening, Mansfield said, had to deal with competing fundraising initiatives locally, as well as current events nationally.

"In 1963, as they were getting ready to make a major fundraising effort in the Hampton Roads area, the Cuban missile crisis erupted," Mansfield said.

"And suddenly a lot of the military community, who might have been contributors to that fundraising, were diverted to the prospect of war."

Despite the delay, Virginia Wesleyan College eventually took flight and has remained airborne since.

The fate was different for some other colleges that opened during that era, Mansfield said.

"Among some of those colleges that were starting - one every week in the 1960s," Mansfield said, "a lot of them didn't survive."

There were 41 students in its first graduating class, and today's student enrollment surpasses 1,400.

The 2011-2012 freshman class was the largest ever, until the 2012-2013 freshmen took that title.

The school started a Center for Adult Studies 20 years ago and has recently unveiled a new curriculum model known as "inquiry-based learning."

Programs under this model include "Shark Tank Week," when business majors pitch entrepreneurial ideas to faux investors.

Another example is the student participation in the on-campus "Winter Homeless Shelter," which supplements sociology classes.

"It's not just classroom lecture," Timlin said. "It's putting what you learn into action."

The school's basketball prowess has grown, too, as the Marlins won the 2006 National Champions in Division III men's basketball and were ranked No. 1 at the time of this article.

Despite the changes over the past 50 years, Timlin and others said there are several VWC attributes that haven't changed.

"What continues to stay true here, which was probably true from the very beginning," Timlin said, "is this incredibly caring, supportive, inclusive community."nib

- Jared Council

Post-event coverage

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