Written by: Rachel Byrd, Copy Desk Lead and News Desk Lead
After the passing of Lester Burks this February, founding members of the college remember the character of Lone Star College-Kingwood’s founding president, as well as discuss what legacy he left behind on the campus.
Burks served as president of the Kingwood campus beginning in 1984. Prior to this, Burks was the Dean of Vocational-Technical Education at Lone Star College-North Harris, which at the time was called North Harris County College.
Joan Samuelson, an English professor and one of the college’s founding members, believed that Burks was selected to be president of LSC-Kingwood for a reason.
“The people who built this college… they knew what were doing when they sent him [Burks] over here,” says Samuelson. “He was going to be the person who gently brought this college into life.”
Stephen Davis, a history professor at LSC-Kingwood and another founding member, voiced a similar opinion, drawing an analogy between Burks and George Washington.
“When George Washington is the first president of the United States, this is the first presidency under the Constitution, and it can’t be just anybody. If it’s somebody who’s just subpar in any way, there’s a potential for utter disaster,” says Davis. “It has to be someone who is capable and someone who has good character, and George Washington was that way and Lester Burks was too.”
Davis further added that Burks was a true leader due to how he respected the people he led, which led faculty and staff to strive to do their best work during the early years of LSC-Kingwood.
“He wasn’t somebody you were afraid was going to yell at you or anything,” he says, “He was somebody that you didn’t want to disappoint.”
Katherine Persson, the current president of LSC-Kingwood, described the infancy of the Kingwood campus as “…fun, exhilarating and frantic all at once.”
This description was echoed by other founding faculty members, including Dr. Joan Samuelson.
“None of us had ever done this before,” she says. “Lester had… but none of the faculty had.”
Even while recalling the fear that came from inexperience, however, Samuelson also recalled the college’s early days fondly.
“We all knew each other,” says Samuelson, “We ate lunch together. Staff and faculty were very close.” She added, “We were so close that often we went to movies together.”
The importance of the work that the founding faculty went through was not lost on them during those first few years either.
“It was exhausting and it was a lot of fun because there was the consciousness of being part of something new,” says Stephen Davis.
While a strong leader, Lester Burks relied on Nellie Thorogood, the Dean of Instruction, during the early years of the college.
“They worked very well together,” says Katherine Persson. “She was much more flamboyant. He was the quiet one behind the scenes.”
Aside from being a teacher, dean, and college president, Burks was also a veteran of World War II, a fact which surprised some of the faculty who knew him, including Stephen Davis.
“I never knew that Mr. Burks had fought in World War II post-D-Day invasion until I read his obit,” says Davis. “As an historian, he would have known that I would’ve been interested in that, but he never talked about stuff like that, because wasn’t like that to brag about what he had done, or his credentials, or what have you.”
Another element of Lester Burks’ character was his bravery.
During Joan Samuelson’s second year working at LSC-Kingwood, a student filed a complaint against her due to an issue regarding a paper the student wrote.
The situation was such that it led Samuelson to fear she would lose her job. At the same time, according to Samuelson, the student felt that she had failed the course. Samuelson described how Burks managed to diffuse the situation, salvaging the relationship to the point that the student would later advise her daughter to take one of Samuelson’s classes.
“That was Lester who talked with this woman, helped her understand her teacher’s decision…” says Samuelson.
“He saved the student, he saved the reputation of this college and his faculty member, but more important than any of that, that relationship between student, the student’s family, and the college was preserved, and that’s what Lester Burks did,” continues Samuelson. “That’s what he was good at.”
Katherine Persson stated that Burks’ character helped create a healthy environment for both students and employees.
“He really set the tone and the culture for the campus, and I think that is one of togetherness, respectfulness, professionalism, and civility,” says Dr. Persson.
It is this mentality, argues Joan Samuelson, makes Lone Star College-Kingwood unique as a campus.
“This place really does have a beating heart,” says Samuelson. “It’s not a typical institution.”