Mashantucket - Grace Jones, the 62nd annual recipient of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut's Citizen of the Year Award, was lauded Friday for her handling of the consolidation of two campuses into Three Rivers Community College a decade ago, during a time of deep divisions.
Three Rivers was formed from the merger of Mohegan Community College and Thames Valley State Technical College. After a time of operating out of two distinct campuses, Three Rivers eventually settled into its current site on Mahan Drive.
"We all remember the rough-and-tumble debate that went on for years over where to locate the new, merged community-technical college," said William Stanley, a vice president at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital who spoke at the event, in the Celebrity Ballroom at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resort Casino.
"It was easily one of the fiercest, lengthiest, most divisive debates our region has experienced," he said. "Grace stayed above the fray and ... kept her head when all others around her had lost theirs."
Selectmen in Preston pressed for the consolidated Three Rivers campus at the former Norwich State Hospital property, while some Norwich politicians preferred a downtown site and the Norwich City Council endorsed plans to expand the college's presence on Norwich-New London Turnpike.
Jones, who previously headed up the College of Eastern Utah, succeeded Booker T. DeVaughn as president of Three Rivers in August 2001, just as the controversy exploded.
"She pulled the various factions together to get them to agree on one site and one school," remembered Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive of the Chamber, in an interview before the Foxwoods event that attracted more than 400 people.
Sheridan said Jones used her strong and determined but quiet way to build consensus for the current Three Rivers site. And in the intervening years, he added, she has continued to build support and programs that benefit the college, students and community.
The college that served 3,500 students when Jones first took the reins now boasts about 5,000. And the average age of students has dropped from 30 to 26.
"Three Rivers is probably the finest community college in the state of Connecticut, if not New England," Sheridan said. "That legacy will be with us for many years to come."
Jones, who acknowledged being reluctant to accept the Citizen of the Year honor because she prefers deflecting attention from herself, said she agreed to receive the award once she realized "it's all about the college." To that end, she recognized several people in the audience who had become outstanding citizens after attaining an education at Three Rivers.
"What I love most is to see the number of students who come here and become part of a community - the learning community," Jones said in an interview before the event. "I do what I do because I love it."