40 years successfully teaching teachers

by Carlton Fletcher in Albany, GA – USA

Wilburn Campbell’s seen it all, the then and the now at Albany State University.

He remembers when Peace Hall was a condemned building … when a city street ran through the middle of campus … when “shotgun houses” were located at the southern end of the current campus … when Caroline Hall was more than a symbolic chimney … when the campus was inundated with the flood waters of the adjacent Flint River …

A lot of stuff happens in 40 years.

Campbell, dean of ASU’s College of Education, celebrated his 40th anniversary at the institution recently, a career that spans the historically black university’s emergence from a niche college for a few hundred to a respected university of higher learning for 4,000 a semester.

“Watching this campus change over the last 40 years has been like it is with a person losing weight,” Campbell said during a conversation in his memorabilia-stuffed office. “When you’re with that person every day, it’s hard to see the changes. But when the person’s been away for a while and comes back, there’s a Wow factor.

“I’ve seen the changes at the university, but I’ve been here the whole while, close to what was going on. When I most realize things have changed is reflected in the reaction of some of our alumni who return after being away for a while. Then you get the Wow.”

Campbell’s seen plenty of WOW since he signed on as a physical education instructor in 1968 and slowly, gradually, worked his way up to dean. In between he coached the institution’s Aqua Rams to back-to-back national Black Collegiate Swimming and Diving championships. He’s seen his Education program rank 14th in the nation among all U.S. colleges and universities in producing teachers of color.

And one memorable year he wore the hats of interim dean of the College of Education, chair of the university’s Health, Physical Education & Recreation program, athletic director and director of the summer National Youth Sports Program … all while teaching a full load of classes.

“That was a challenge, to say the least,” Campbell laughs. “But I’ve always tried to do what I could to make Albany State the best it can be. This place has been good to me; it’s a very special place.

“Every college and university has its diamonds, some more than others. Albany State is a place where coal is turned into diamonds.”

ASU President Everette J. Freeman marked Campbell’s recent milestone anniversary by calling his dean’s work “inspiring.”

“Wil Campbell represents the best of the best in the area of preparing our students to become public school teachers,” Freeman said. “He has produced so many ASU education majors who now work in so many public schools in Georgia that his impact is simply breathtaking.

“Dr. Campbell is determined to leave a legacy at ASU that will inspire and demand a level of commitment and dedication to public school education that is absolutely inspiring. Forty years is a benchmark few others will be able to match.”

Campbell came to Albany State in 1968 as a PE instructor, swim coach and assistant track coach. He taught for four years before taking a leave of absence to complete doctoral studies at Springfield (Mass.) College.

“I trained with one of the top swim programs in the nation at Springfield,” Campbell said. “But even while I was away, I remained a part of the Albany State family.”

Campbell came back to ASC in 1974 as an assistant professor and became the college’s athletic director in 1975. Over the next 20 years Campbell taught physical education, was promoted to chair of the HPER department and served as AD. He twice was named interim dean of the College of Education before taking that position permanently in 2005.

One of Campbell’s sweetest memories surrounds his swim team’s national black college championships in 1979 and 1980. (The team won a third title in 1981.)

“The man who taught me to swim, Bobby Lee, was in charge of the swim team before I got here,” Campbell said. “Building a program at a historically black college was a challenge because of the lack of swimming opportunities blacks had at that time. But I knew the problem was a socio-economic one, not a physical one. It was the old ‘country club vs. cow pasture sports’ argument.

“After I was able to establish a program, I started to recruit from all over the country. That’s what made the difference.”

Campbell points out a photo of four of his swimmers surrounding him in a pool after ASU claimed its first national crown.

“That guy on the left is from St. Louis, the next is from Philadelphia, then Los Angeles then another from St. Louis,” he says. “The fact of the matter was, I had what it took to recruit the top swimmers and to train them. These guys were top notch swimmers; they could swim for anybody.”

Campbell notes that one of his greatest memories about that swim team is its members’ accomplishments afterward.

“That guy on the left there, Phelan Thomas from St. Louis, is the only black certified cosmetic dentist in the United States,” he says proudly.

An offshoot of the swim program at the university that also is a source of pride for Campbell is the summer program he developed to teach youngsters to swim. From 1968 to 2006, he taught thousands of youngsters from ages 2-up.

“It was imperative for kids to have the opportunity to swim,” he said. “We taught anyone who came and signed up. When we stopped the program, I was teaching a third generation of swimmers in some families.”

One of those swimmers reminded Campbell recently of just how long he’d been at ASU.

“A couple of years ago one of my summer swimmers came up and asked me if my father taught swimming,” Campbell said. “I told her he didn’t and asked why she wanted to know. She said, ‘My mother took swimming here and she said a Dr. Campbell taught her. I know that guy’s got to be dead now’.”

Another student swimmer gave Campbell a similarly funny story to tell.

“Back in the mid-80s when there was still some uneasiness about people of different races being together, I was at a chamber function when a young white lady walked up to me,” Campbell says, laughing at the memory. “I didn’t recognize her, but she came up to me while I was in the presence of several white men and said ‘Dr. Campbell, is that you? I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.'”

As much as his swim team’s accomplishments have meant to Campbell, the current success of Albany State’s Education program certainly rivals its measure of pride. In the three years since he became dean of the program, the number of teachers enrolled has mushroomed from around 180 to more than 400.

“Our vision statement is to be the premier teacher education, school leadership and counseling unit in Southwest Georgia and to be nationally ranked among the top 20 colleges and universities for producing educators of color,” Campbell said. “And while we are proud of all of our students — black, white or Hispanic — there is a conspicuous absence of black teachers and especially black male teachers in our country.

“We have brought on board or are working on a number of programs designed to deal with this growing problem.”

Campbell cites such initiatives as the Center for the African American Male, the Clemson University-developed “Call Me Mister” program and collaboratives with the Thurgood Marshall Foundation and the National Black Alliance of Teachers among those the university is utilizing to address black teacher shortages.

He also mentions an early childhood program launched jointly with Bainbridge College as one of ASU’s successes.

“That’s a great story, one of the university’s best,” Campbell said. “We have 70 students enrolled in that program; but to illustrate the point I just made, of those 70 students, only three are white males and none are African-American males.”

Now into his fifth decade of teaching at ASU, Campbell says he’s put Freeman on notice that he plans to stay put for two more years. After that … well his dream plans are pretty simple.

“What I’d like to do is come back and just lecture,” Campbell said. “No administrative duties, just teaching. That would bring me around full-circle.

“Albany State is a special place, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. What I’d like to see when I leave here is kind of like in that movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ I’d like a little piece of wood carved with the words ‘Wil Campbell passed through here’.”