Successfully crossing the bridge through Berea College is impossible without the support of faculty and staff. A trio of retired alumni—each with close to 40 years of service to Berea—offered a guiding hand, stern lessons and second chances to hundreds of students who crossed their paths from the late 1970s to the 2020s.
Every student who took a general studies course with Professor Andrew Baskin ’73 knows the cardinal rule: be on time or be locked out of class. Aside from all the knowledge he shared, that rule and the feelings it produced when the door closed on a late-arriving student resonate the most. He says it was a lesson about impressions.
“I tried to get my students to understand that their impressions were important,” shared Baskin, who taught at Berea for 36 years. “That’s the reason I’ve put so much emphasis on punctuality. If people see you getting somewhere on time, that helps [make a good impression]. Then, of course, you still have to do whatever you need to do after you get there. But walking in late all the time, that leaves a certain impression.”
The Alcoa, Tenn., native left quite an impression on his students. He says he also wanted to make sure his students knew they had a voice and that their voice was important. He had an open-door policy. Students were welcome to visit his office to just talk or complain. Baskin says he would allow them to cry or have a pity party, but after 10 minutes he would encourage them to act. He’d say, “Now, what are you going to do about this situation? What is your strategy? You can have all the dreams you want to, but you’ve got to initiate some steps and make those dreams a reality.”
And Baskin held them to and supported them in those dreams. Today, when a former student makes a social media post about earning an advanced degree, getting a promotion or another monumental life moment, Baskin is one of the first to comment, saying, “I knew you would do it; I’m so proud of you.”
A visit from Carl Thomas ’78 was usually the first step for students in Alabama looking to make their college dreams a reality. For nearly 40 years,
the Birmingham native split time between Berea and his hometown, building a transformative pipeline that brought more than 850 students from Alabama to Berea College. As the associate director of Admissions and
the coordinator of minority services, Thomas’ recruitment work was central to the College’s Black student enrollment increasing from 6 to 8 percent in the 1980s to its current level of 26 percent. While his wife, Deborah ’80, and their three children lived in Birmingham, he traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and made an immeasurable impact on the College and the students he recruited.
Frank Polion was one of those students.
“To me, Carl Thomas is affectionately known as ‘The Godfather,’” Polion explained. “I call him the Godfather because he made me an offer that I just could not refuse.”
The offer was to attend Berea College. A 1989 graduate, Polion worked in corporate America for years before returning to Berea in 2018 to serve in the Admissions office as the coordinator of minority recruitment. He said he takes considerable pride in serving in a role once held by Thomas, a role that provides him with a tremendous amount of satisfaction. He credits Thomas for instilling a passion for recruiting in him.
“Carl is that person who is the catalyst behind me staying passionate and staying on fire for recruiting,” Polion said. “He often gave me lots of insight coming into this role. And one of the things he shared with me was ‘try to always be early and try to be the last one out of whatever recruitment event you are participating in. It makes a difference.’”
Thomas made a difference in the lives of many of the students he recruited. Once those students arrived on campus, he checked on them periodically throughout their time at Berea. Those connections continued after graduation, with Thomas attending weddings, funerals, christenings and celebrations of academic achievements—making him a Godfather to generations of Bereans.
The Relationship Builder
Virgil Burnside ’74 certainly made a difference at Berea College. Over a 39-year career, he held eight staff positions before retiring in 2019 as vice president for Student Life. Each of those roles allowed him to make personal connections with students, faculty, staff and members of the community surrounding the College.
“I’m a personal person,” admitted Burnside, a political science major from Lincoln County, Ky., who volunteered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and served on the hospital benefit board. “And so, I always took it upon myself, personally, to engage people to help change thinking or attitudes when I could.”
On campus, his work in Student Life often required him to be a disciplinarian. His established relationships with lawyers and judges in the community were beneficial when students found themselves in difficult situations away from campus. That engaging style, interest in politics and the relationships he built in the community—as a student and through his work at the College—helped him win election to the Berea City Council. He said a sense of service and the realization that living in the community made him part of the community spurred him to want to make Berea a better community for all people. He won re-election seven times, serving a total of 16 years.
While his service to the College and the Berea community were evident, Burnside may not have been aware of the mentorship he provided to colleagues.
“Virgil has been a mentor for me since I arrived at Berea,” Thomas said. “I told him recently, ‘When I met you, there was a strength behind you, there was a lot of wisdom, and I appreciated the way that you looked out for students in trying to help us to progress and navigate through this Berea College experience.”
Though their approaches may have differed, the results were the same: they helped four decades of students bridge through Berea. They continue to nurture those relationships with former students and colleagues.