Richard Ernst may be one of the great underrated giants of Northern Virginia. During his 30 years as president of Northern Virginia Community College, the school expanded from a single warehouse in Baileys Crossroads to a flourishing six-campus college with 75,000 students. In the 2010-11 academic year, it awarded nearly 4,700 associate degrees, by far the most of any two-year institution in America.
Ernst retired in 1998, after 30 years at the helm of NoVaCoCo, and immediately dove back into his first love: sports. He played basketball in the 1999 National Senior Games, and when his jump shot deserted him as he climbed into his mid-70s, he turned to track and field, which he ran in high school in Florida after recovering from polio (!!).
And at 79, he’s still got wheels. The esteemed educator won the gold medal in the 50 meter dash and the long jump and took the bronze in the 100 meter dash at the recent Virginia Senior Games. As a rising senior Olympian, he now moves on to the National Senior Games, which will be held in the London of the Midwest, Cleveland, Ohio.
Ernst said he contracted polio when he was 10, and it took a year for him to learn to walk again. But eventually, at Largo High School in Florida, he was captain of the varsity basketball team, was a halfback and punt returner in football, and ran the 440 in track.
He attended the University of Florida, where five-foot-eight inch male athletes aren’t in great demand, and launched his career in education thereafter. But in his years at NoVa, he played plenty of basketball at the college, where “students love to play against the president,” Ernst said.
He moved to Springfield, and the Greenspring retirement community, in 2006, and trains there for an hour a day. In addition to the wellness center, “I do a good bit of running. I’m pretty much known as the guy who’s going to run down the halls. People know to get out of the way.”
Though he was on five state senior championship teams in basketball, he switched to track and field in 2010. In 2011, at the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics, he won the gold in the 60-meter run, and silver medals in the standing broad jump and the long jump.
That set the stage for his performance at the Virginia State Games in Mechanicsville in May, where he pulled off the Carl Lewis-esque double of winning the 50-meters (in a brisk 8.32 seconds) and the long jump.
This sets the stage for his rise to the national level, but the games won’t be held until next year. By then, he’ll be 80, and in a new age category, 80-84. “I’ll be the young guy,” he said, “that’ll be good. I think I’m going to try the discus.”
I suggested he should not practice that in the halls of Greenspring, and he agreed.
“I’ve always enjoyed athletics,” Ernst said. “It can help extend your life.”