Virgil Burnside ’74 marched for graduation twice. Once, with his cohorts in December 1973 and again with his wife, Jackie, in May 1974. Virgil is now Berea College’s vice president for Student Life, and Jackie is a professor of sociology and academic chair of Division III. This is a love story times two: the love they share for each other multiplied by the love they share for Berea.
In 1971, Jackie arrived in Berea from Limestone County, Ala. Her father’s promise to buy an automatic dishwasher if she stayed home did not sway her. Jackie’s mind was set on going to college. She was already enamored with Berea’s culture and its mission. When she arrived as a first-year-student, Jackie did not know how Berea would be the beginning both of her stellar academic career and of an unconventional life filled with service and joy.
“We got married when I was a rising senior,” Virgil said.
“I asked him, and he said yes,” added Jackie, her eyes twinkling at the notion she had ignored convention and forged her own romantic path.
“Berea was really liberating coming from Athens, Ala.,” she said. The people on campus were friendly and open.” Berea demonstrated a different way of how Blacks and Whites could live and build a community together.
“My former labor supervisor symbolized the opposite of southern segregation. She hosted us in her home for meals. A very vast contrast from race relations in Alabama at the time.”
While Jackie came to Berea following an older brother, Virgil was the first in his family to attend college.
“Berea was a godsend for me,” he reminisced.
Coming from Lincoln County, Ky., Berea College opened up a whole new world of opportunities for Virgil.
“I didn’t quite know it when I was younger. I just knew (at Berea) I had a bed to myself. My folks had very little education. I was just blessed to get here.”
Soon after graduation, Jackie signed up with the Women’s Army Corps during a time when the U.S. Army was providing more opportunities for women to serve. Ultimately, she trained in microwave communications with the Army’s Signal Corps in Panama. Following Jackie to Panama, Virgil worked a variety of jobs as a civilian. During her three-year tour, Virgil taught kindergartners, and also soldiers who were studying for their G.E.D. He even gave tennis lessons to community members. In 1980, the couple moved back to Kentucky, where Virgil landed a job in Berea College’s Office of Admissions.
“I thought I’d stay three to five years, but I never could find the interstate again,” Virgil joked.
Thirty-eight years later, Berea has become the Burnside family’s permanent home. Jackie completed her doctoral degree in sociology from Yale University and later joined the Berea College faculty. Virgil earned his master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kentucky. He has worked in numerous capacities on campus throughout the years. Both he and Jackie still hold true to Berea College’s commitment to service.
Virgil has served 17 years on Berea’s City Council and has been instrumental in helping the city progress. Jackie, going into her 18th year on the Berea Independent School Board, continues to support education throughout the school district. Both Jackie and Virgil give to the College, along with several other nonprofits.
“I try to think biblically,” Virgil said. “Those who have much should share.”
Jackie and Virgil continue to strive to help Berea achieve its Great Commitments. From its very inception, Berea has supported a culture of inclusion and equality. Jackie notes another example of John G. Fee’s progressive values. She recounts the time when John G. Fee wrote to the American Missionary Association, who, in the early days funded Berea College, to request equal pay for Elizabeth Rogers during a time when that was never even a thought. Fee’s progressive thinking applied to issues surrounding race as well.
“One of the genius aspects of Fee and the founders is they realized both black and white people would need to relearn ways of relating to each other and communicating with each other as equals,” Jackie said. “Both needed to make some changes. They were ahead of their time realizing that.”
“Berea’s a very special place,” echoed Virgil. “We have our Great Commitments, which I have always seen as ideals we work toward achieving. We all have a role to play in achieving them. Under President (Lyle) Roelofs’ administration, there’s a lot more diversity in places that it’s never been. The [Administrative Committee] is diverse. It’s really exciting to see more women in leadership positions. If you look at the student body—it’s majority women. It’s good to see role models for them.”