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College honors pioneer leader
Overlooking the picturesque campus she helped create, Valerie Hepburn stood with friends on the rooftop plaza of the campus center at College of Coastal Georgia Wednesday.

Shaking hands and sharing hugs, the college's outgoing president was all smiles -- mixed with maybe a few tears -- during a farewell party given by the college and the community.

She will remain at the helm of the college until July 1, when Gregory Aloia, president of Concord University at Athens, W.Va., will step into the position.

"I'm feeling great, (but) unfortunately, I have two more months of work," Hepburn joked. "But really, what a sweet, wonderful turnout from faculty, friends and community. And we've still got a lot to do before it's all said and done."

Speakers at the reception couldn't say enough about what Hepburn accomplished since taking the reins of the school five years ago. Many spoke about her dedication to even the smallest of tasks, while others emphasized how she'd created a dream that spread into the community at a rapid pace.

Phil Mason, vice president of academic affairs, compared her to Jean-Luc Picard, a character in the popular TV series "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The Enterprise was Picard's ship. College of Coastal Georgia was Hepburn's, he said. "She lives by his famous line, 'Make it so,'" Mason said. "She's changed the college at warp speed and even her mind works on warp speed."

Other college staff members spoke during the reception, thanking Hepburn for the changes she'd brought to the campus.

"Not only does she know the direction in which to go, she knows each individual going along with her in that direction," said Claire Hughes, associate professor of education. "By helping the staff and faculty dream bigger, we've, in turn, been able to help our students do the same."

Since joining the fledgling, four-year baccalaureate institution, first as interim president in 2008 and as president since 2009, she's overseen the construction of new facilities, including student housing, and the renovation of existing buildings. She's also helped add numerous programs, extracurricular activities and sports.

While doing all that, Hepburn made it a goal to know everyone and encourage each person to better themselves, staff said.

Among those lauding her hard work and thanking her for her efforts was Bryan Thompson, mayor of Brunswick.

"You've changed my attitude about how I do my own job," Thompson said. "You're a person who gives hope. You've given me hope."

Some well-wishers presented her gifts during the reception, including a portrait painted by local artist Mildred Huie Wilcox to hang in the college library.

Hepburn, touched by the outpouring of thanks, hugged guests as a tribute video played.

As much as she hates to go, she says she'll be busily preparing to turn over her office to Aloia. "I think he's going to be great," she said. "He's enthusiastic. I think he'll embrace the community. He's excited about what's happening at the college, and he's bringing some new and good experiences.

"I think everyone will like him, and I don't think we're going to miss a beat."

Hepburn, who has said she never intended to be a college president, is joining the staff of the University System of Georgia.

* Reporter Sarah Lundgren writes about education and other local topics. Contact her at slundgren@thebrunswicknews.com.



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