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Norwich - When Grace Sawyer Jones moved from Utah to Connecticut, she took up the effort to merge two community college programs on one campus. Some community leaders say that Jones, Three Rivers Community College's outgoing president, is the only person who could have done it.
"We were really concerned about getting that college built and we had been put off for 12 years, and Grace's predecessor was very strong at getting it moving and really set the course, and Grace took it up. She didn't necessarily follow it, but she created another avenue and it worked," said the Rev. David Cannon of Preston said Thursday. He was a member of the search committee that hired Jones. "She is a very special person that came along at exactly the right time. I don't know where we would have been if she hadn't."
Jones emerged from among nearly 60 candidates and was named president of Three Rivers in August 2001, when the decision had yet to be made about where to locate the new college that would be the result of melding Mohegan Community College and Thames Valley State Technical College.
She said that within her first six months, the decision was made and changed and made and changed again.
"It was part of the nature of the beast," Jones, 75, said. "We moved into this building in 2009 and we started this in 2001. That was a long walk, but I knew it would be right because of the progress we went through to get here."
In the end, the new college would reside in a building reminiscent of an old New England mill, the work of two architectural firms that answered to a committee that answered, in turn, to the community.
Preliminary drawings of the college had shown a curved glass front. Jones said she knew in her heart that wasn't the right fit.
"I got in my car and drove around and started looking at all of the older mills and thought, 'This is what I want.' I took pictures to New York and said, 'This is what it should look like,'" she said. "We got what we wanted and needed and it works, and that's the part that excites me."
Life after retirement
During construction, Jones said, she could hardly keep herself away. She still has her hard hat and steel-toed shoes - which she'd occasionally don to grab sneak peeks of the work being done.
"She's done a splendid job walking in and delivering Three Rivers at a new campus," said Lottie Scott, longtime Norwich resident and advocate of education and the arts. "It certainly takes skill, knowledge and such an amazing personality and persuasion power to do this when something was not there."
The college now has more than 5,000 students.
"I listen and see the relationships she has with the faculty members, students, and I've just been privileged to view all of this and be a witness to see how (she) gracefully glides from one setting to another, from one group of people to another, but has everyone in the little palm of her hand," Scott said.
Jones will speak at this year's commencement, June 1, the last time she'll address the college's students and families. Her last day is June 30, but because she refuses to leave the college in the lurch, she has informed the Board of Regents of Higher Education that she is willing to fill in on a transitional basis until her successor is named.
Before Three Rivers, Jones had served as president of the College of Eastern Utah since 1996.
In 1990, she was named vice president for multicultural affairs at the State University of New York Oneonta, where she also was a tenured professor. She earned her doctorate in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, her master's degree in community recreation with group work method from George Williams College, and her bachelor's degree in physical education from Washburn University.
In the six months following her retirement, Jones anticipates visits with her grandchildren in Chicago and trips to Cape Cod.
"I'll contemplate what I'm going to do to keep myself busy, then I'll make a decision," she said.
The one commitment Jones, a Norwich resident, has made is to the Norwich Board of Public Utilities Commissioners/Sewer Authority. She said she wants to repay the generosity of the board in its outpouring of assistance when the college was under construction.
Jones said she doesn't expect to be a frequent visitor at the college in the year after the new president is named.
"I'm Episcopalian, and in our faith the priest leaves the parish and doesn't return for a year," she said. "I feel that way about the college. ... My intention is to not be in and out of the college, because we tend to take such ownership of what's happening here."
'Creating an educated workforce'
Jones hopes the construction of a 300-seat, $10 million auditorium will begin in 2014. Her administration is currently in the project design phase. Funds have been bonded but not yet allocated.
There's another program she earnestly hopes will expand. Last August, the college added the new Three Rivers Middle College High School, a regional magnet school for students studying engineering, science and technology.
"I have this wonderful dream, vision and reality, of a middle college here that I've wanted for a very long time," Jones said. "The middle college is what I believe will help the region all the way through building and creating an educated workforce."
The middle college program's first graduating class' 12 seniors will graduate June 19. The program began in September with 33 juniors and seniors and its own faculty.
Students come from towns across New London County and are interested in pursuing engineering, technology, business, finance and hospitality management at a four-year college, Jones said. They held their first prom on May 3.
"The auditorium and the middle college are the two pieces I'm leaving here, and I know they're in good hands," Jones said. "The new leader of the college will have to do some planning."
Second-year hospitality major Asya Staples, 20, said her brother is in ninth grade at Norwich Free Academy and hopes to attend the middle college when he reaches his junior year.
"It's a great program. I hope it's something that is continued after she (Jones) leaves. He'd like to come here for that because he wants to go to a four-year college and he knows that he needs to do something important to get there," Staples said.
Cannon, of the original search committee, called Jones a master of logistics. Her dedication and determination are phenomenal, he said.
"I count her as not only one of our very best presidents, but a Norwich area leader and not just the city of Norwich, but a southeastern Connecticut leader," Cannon said. "She's influenced a lot of progress in a short period of time. In some ways, I hate to see her retire, but she deserves to."