More than 350 people turned out Sunday night to honor Robert I. Bickford, the outgoing president of Prince George's Community College who presided over the school's growth in numbers and influence over 27 years.
The affair, held at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt, was filled with tributes to the longest-serving president in the school's 40-year history.
On his watch, enrollment more than tripled, from 10,000 to 35,000, and six new buildings were constructed, most recently the school's new $13.5 million science center, Chesapeake Hall. The annual budget rose from $7.7 million to $50 million. The number of employees more than doubled, from 700 to 1,800.
During his presidency, the program for senior citizens grew to encompass 6,000 students, making it the largest of its kind in the state, and the African American enrollment increased from 15 percent to 70 percent of the student body.
"He has been such a part of the institution that it is really hard to imagine it without him," said college board Chairman Anthony McCarthy.
Attending Sunday's event were several sitting or former presidents of community colleges in Maryland and present or former board members of the school, whose main campus is in Largo.
"He has really led the growth of the college," said Beverly Anderson, a college board member since 1993. "We value what he has done."
Bickford, 70, a 1945 graduate of Bladensburg High School and a Bowie resident, began his teaching career as a gym teacher at what was then Maryland Park High School in Prince George's.
He taught physical education for 13 years at Suitland High, where he also coached basketball, baseball, lacrosse, football and golf. Among those he coached were Orioles manager Ray Miller, U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and retired Air Force Gen. Thomas Moorman, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He was hired as a part-time physical education instructor at the community college in 1962, when it was just four years old. Two years later, he became director of student activities and athletics. In 1967, when the school moved to its campus in Largo, he was made dean of the evening division, community instruction and summer session. He was appointed president on Nov. 22, 1972.
"Community college gives everybody a chance," Bickford said. "I've touched so many lives. Just seeing friends and having them pay tribute and say thank you makes you feel pretty darn good."
Of his retirement, Bickford said, "I'm a little bit ambivalent." He said he plans to work in his garden, travel some, spend time with his five children and 12 grandchildren and, after 27 years of "calling the shots," be taking orders from his wife.
Said McCarthy: "He has had a genius, largely for letting people have their own way and encouraging the growth of the individual, and by same token the growth of the community college. I'm glad we were able to find a successor worthy of him."
Bickford's successor is Ronald A. Williams, 48, who was most recently acting president of Philadelphia Community College.
CAPTION: Top, Robert I. Bickford dances with his wife, June, at a tribute to his time with the county community college. Above, Bickford laughs as friends share memories of him.