Former state representative Russell George stood beside a podium in a dark suit Thursday and reflected on the early days of his relationship with Northwest Colorado.
“The first few times I came up to Moffat County as a new candidate, I felt that this was a tough crowd,” George said to laughter from the audience. “But, I remember it didn’t take very long until you opened your arms and welcomed me, my wife and the boys in.”
“It really feels right to be back here today.”
In a sense, George was reintroducing himself to Craig and Moffat County.
Since leaving the Colorado House of Representatives in 2000, George has served in leadership roles at the Division of Wildlife, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation — positions that kept him away from the constituents he once represented.
On Thursday, George was in Moffat County stumping for a new leadership role. He is a finalist to become the new president of Colorado Northwestern Community College, after the recent departure of president John Boyd.
Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System that oversees CNCC, kick-started George’s reintroduction Thursday by presenting him to a gathering of more than 20 Moffat County community leaders and residents at the Hampton Inn and Suites conference room in Craig.
The Community College System is seeking community feedback about the top choice for president before a final decision on the position is made.
McCallin said a decision could come as early as next week.
“John Boyd called me in late November to tell me he’d accepted a presidency at a college in North Carolina,” McCallin said. “I was very worried about who we would get to replace John up here.
“And the first person who came to my mind was Russell George.”
After McCallin’s opening words, George walked to the head of the room and spoke of his interest in higher education in general and CNCC in particular.
There are two reasons, he said.
The first is his humble beginnings.
George said he was born into a working ranch in Rifle. His family had been there for four generations and he was the first in his family to pursue higher education.
“My folks really encouraged education,” he said. “I hated milking cows, so it didn’t really take too much encouragement. As it turns out, I was able to be a pretty fair student.”
George attended Colorado State University and later Harvard.
“Education is the great equalizer, as we know,” he said. “It worked for me.”
Later, as a state representative, George came to know CNCC personally. He sponsored legislation to bring CNCC into the Community College System, thus saving the local institution from financial hardship.
That legislative process, however, came with a fight, he said.
“That was a difficult conversation … because there’s always a worry in rural, and particularly Western Colorado, that too much gets driven by the Front Range,” he said. “We have this tendency to take care of ourselves and we’re a little reluctant — even a little suspicious — about the rest of them.”
For those reasons, George said he jumped at the opportunity to vie for the CNCC presidency.
“Naturally, as the opportunity presented itself, I thought, ‘This is a gift for me,’” George said. “And so, I’m offering myself to you here. And, I’m wanting you to say yes.”
Community approval, however, wasn’t entirely forthcoming. Instead, the community questioned George’s thoughts and positions on a number of topics during an open forum.
Craig Rotary Club member Neil Folks was one of the first to pose a question.
“Aside from all your impressive titles, who are you personally? And what can you bring to our communities?” Folks asked.
“I suppose I am more than the work I do,” George responded. “But, I’m not so sure because all I’ve ever done is work.”
George then cited his family.
“Who I am as a person is a product of the family that I came from … and the family that (wife) Neal and I have created together and the four boys who are all grown now,” George said. “And every (son) is a healthy, happy, smart, honest and caring young man.
“I hope that’s a reflection of who I am. It’s the most important part of who I want to be.”
Darcy Trask, director of the Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership, said CNCC had been a strong partner in economic development under Boyd.
“I’d like to know your thoughts on how you will either continue or expand or perhaps retract your efforts in terms of a partnership with economic development,” Trask said.
“There will be no retraction,” George said. “That’s an easy one.”
As far as growth, George said he needs to study the area.
“What you have in motion I will learn and embrace,” he said. “And, together we’ll plan the next stages.”
Kate Nowak, executive director of Yampa Valley Partners, spoke next.
“I was curious to know what your thought process is in community involvement,” she said. “In some areas, the presidents of local colleges are very involved in the community and other places they’re not at all — they just focus on their education world and that’s it.”
George said he would first need time to get on his feet, but afterward he would indeed be an active member in the community.
“I am absolutely a believer in community involvement,” he said. “I don’t intend to sit at a desk somewhere.
“All you have to do is call and let me know that there’s something coming up and I’ll be there if I can make it. I promise that.”
Craig City Council member Ray Beck asked George what his priorities would be as president.
George said he wasn’t sure.
“I don’t have any grand scheme in mind,” he said. “That would be presumptuous of me. I won’t come into this community and tell you, ‘I haven’t been here in a while, but I know better than you do.’”
George said he will hold himself to high expectations, as he has in previous projects and positions. He said he’s also confident he would generate new ideas in short order.
“In about six months, let’s have this conversation again,” George said.
“We will,” Beck responded.
Sasha Nelson, northwest organizer for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, asked if George’s political qualifications could support the needs of academia.
George said he had some teaching experience as an adjunct professor at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle, but would ask teachers to help him learn more about the culture of academic life.
After the meeting, George said the questions generated at the forum came as no surprise, considering they were posed by a Moffat County audience.
“They have expectations, which is good,” George said of the crowd. “They hold all of us to the same high standards they hold themselves.
“I’ve grown to expect that.”
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