|Richard J. Ernst [NVCC]|
Richard J. Ernst, who was president of Northern Virginia Community College for 30 years and built the school into the state’s largest institution of higher education, died Aug. 15 at a retirement facility in Springfield.
Ernst was 86 and died of an acute coronary syndrome, said a daughter, Maribeth Ernst Luftglass.
Ernst joined the college, known as NOVA, in 1968, four years after it was founded. The school had just opened the doors of its first campus, in Annandale, after being housed in an old warehouse at Bailey’s Crossroads. About 4,000 students were enrolled.
By the time Ernst retired in 1998, NOVA had expanded to five campuses, with a sixth in the planning stages. It was the second largest community college in the nation, with 65,000 students enrolled in classes for academic credit. The college celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017.
Ernst was particularly concerned with the need to advance women in higher education and authored “Upward Mobility of Women in Higher Education Administration – It Doesn’t Happen by Accident.” He also initiated an administrative leadership program specifically for women and minorities.
Ernst was proudest of having opened the doors of educational opportunity to all who were seeking it, regardless of their ability to pay.
Mel Schiavelli, NOVA’s current, interim president said: “Dr. Ernst’s legacy is the fundamental framework of this college, our focus on the quality of our faculty, and NOVA’s ongoing commitment to being an educational and workforce necessity for the entire region.”
Ernst was born in 1933 in Niagara, Wis. His father worked at a paper mill, and his mother was a homemaker. When he was 16, the family moved to Largo, Fla. He earned a master’s degree in education in 1959 from the University of Florida and served in the Army from 1956 to 1958.
He began his education career as a high school mathematics teacher and later served as an instructor, administrator, and dean of academic affairs at St. Petersburg Junior College in Florida. He received a doctorate in education from Florida State University in 1965.
After becoming NOVA’s president, Ernst lived near the college’s Annandale campus for many years.
In retirement, Ernst was active in the Senior Olympics, winning many regional and national medals in track-and-field and basketball. As president of NOVA, Ernst often took part in campus pickup games because, he said, “students love to play against the president.”
His wife of 52 years, the former Elizabeth “Betty” McGeachy, died in 2012. Survivors include three children, Maribeth Ernst Luftglass, assistant superintendent of information technology for Fairfax County Public Schools; Terrie McClure of Manassas; and Richard James Ernst Jr. of Fredericksburg; and eight grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held on Aug. 31, at 11 a.m., at Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax. Interment will be held at a later date at the Montreat Memorial Garden in Montreat, N.C.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that people consider a donation to the Richard J. Ernst Scholarship Fund, Northern Virginia Community College, 4001 Wakefield Chapel Road, Annandale, VA 22003.