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A shooting star

The Collins dictionary defines a shooting star as, “a piece of rock or metal that burns very brightly when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere from space, and is seen from earth as a bright star traveling very fast across the sky.” Anyone fortunate enough to have seen one will tell you that, as brightly as one shines, they also come and go far too quickly.

Dan Lufkin’s time in our community could easily be described in the same way.

I first met Dan five years ago while he was making the rounds as the new president of Camp Community College. It’s common practice for people new to a leadership role in the community to go on somewhat of a goodwill tour, and the publisher of The Tidewater News often made their lists. Such visits usually led to cordial working relationships, but when he first visited my office at the newspaper, I knew I had just made a new friend.

Dan arrived on campus when the college’s student enrollment and staff morale were at historic lows, both victims of poor decisions and past abhorrent leadership. I was convinced that both his passion for the role and vision for the college were just what would be needed to turn Paul D. around. Time and again he proved me right.

During our initial meeting we discussed topics such as workforce development and the need to develop stronger relationships between the college and local businesses. But it was when he casually mentioned the goal of starting a new athletics program at Camp that he had my complete and undivided attention. While I was excited by the mere prospect of having a local college team to root for, Dan knew that a successful athletics program would have a profound impact on student enrollment and the local economy. For the next year or so I relentlessly pestered him about starting the program, and he somehow managed to tolerate, outwardly at least, my unbridled enthusiasm. In part to keep me both quiet and busy, he finally accepted my repeated offer to help in any way we could. He allowed our newspaper to partner with the college in coming up with the new team name and, after the community voted, gave our graphic designers the opportunity to create the Hurricanes’ team logos. 

Due to the nature of our friendship, we both enjoyed a good joke at the others’ expense, especially in front of others. For years I have enjoyed telling people in Dan’s presence that, for an academic, he was one of the smartest businessmen I knew. Yet while that subtle jab brought me endless enjoyment, backhanded or not the compliment rings true and his leadership in developing the Regional Warehouse and Distribution Training Facility in Franklin bore me out. About the time we idled the press at The Tidewater News, Dan was in search of affordable warehouse space in Western Tidewater to house a new logistics training program. Because we no longer printed our own newspaper, the warehouse in our building was underutilized. We quickly came to terms on a lease agreement, and Dan and his workforce development team immediately went to work developing plans for the program. He quickly secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and pro-bono construction labor from organizations including the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, Birdsong Peanuts, Target, the Port of Virginia and local foundations. In no time, what we initially envisioned merely as a space suitable for students to learn how to drive a forklift became a fully renovated facility with state of the art training equipment, high-tech classrooms and forklift simulators. It was not just his bold vision, but his ability to develop relationships and build strong coalitions that made the training facility a reality. 

After I left this newspaper in January of 2020, he asked me to come to the college for a few months to temporarily fill a vacant position. Over the course of my ten-month stay, I witnessed many more examples that I could share about his leadership abilities and business acumen. However, the lack of space here, and the mutual understanding that one of us praising the other in public defies the nature of our relationship, precludes me from doing so.

As you have likely read on today’s front page and to absolutely no one’s surprise, Dan has accepted the presidency at a larger college in Texas. That decision allows him and his family to return to a part of the country they love, have missed, and had hoped to one day return to. It will also provide a new school and community to benefit from his leadership and experience. They will quickly learn how lucky they are to have him.

Dan Lufkin, like a shooting star, shone brightly while among us but came and went too quickly. Nonetheless, ours is a better place because of the indelible mark he has left on the college and this community, and I am better being able to call him friend.

Tony Clark is the former publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at tonyclark20252@gmail.com.