When Laurel Ridge’s first president, Dr. William H. McCoy, pointed to Judy Neff Rinker and said, “That redheaded girl is going to attend Laurel Ridge Community College” during a visit to her high school in 1969, no one could imagine how intertwined the college would be with her and her family.
Rinker would be named the college’s first Outstanding Graduate in 1972, and go on to work at the college for more than 30 years. She and her family have also been deeply involved in the Fairfax Follies.
“I was a senior at Strasburg High School, and my counselor, Paul Will, had been encouraging me to consider college, but I knew that my parents couldn’t afford to send me,” reminisced Rinker, who had thought maybe she would do secretarial work after graduation. “Mr. Will had told me about the new community college and encouraged me to attend an information meeting.”
She did, and that’s when she was singled out by Dr. McCoy. Rinker filled out the application she was handed that night, but still wasn’t sold on going.
“The cost sounded reasonable, but I was focused on working right out of high school,” she said. “I received a letter congratulating me on being the first student from Shenandoah County to be accepted at Laurel Ridge. I had no idea how important that would be for my future at Laurel Ridge.”
Rinker remains grateful to high school counselor Will for his encouragement.
The first days at Laurel Ridge were a little chaotic, but already, a family atmosphere was developing.
“Because the college was so small, it was easy to get to know everyone,” Rinker said. “The building wasn’t finished when we started classes in the fall of 1970. We walked across boards to get to the front door. There were no sidewalks or paved parking. The student lounge area didn’t have windows yet – just big sheets of plastic hanging down.”
Students sat at old desks in unfinished classrooms.
“But, all of the employees were friendly and helpful and excited to have students there,” Rinker said. “Their offices weren’t finished. Dr. McCoy always emphasized that classes and students came first. He didn’t move into the president’s office until months later.”
A work-study student, Rinker filled in for various secretaries in 1971, and after graduating, was asked to be the college’s first personnel office clerk.
“I felt such a part of Laurel Ridge and I knew that I didn’t want to leave,” Rinker said.
She stayed in that position for three years, before taking jobs in Middleburg for a time. Rinker returned to the college in 1980, and stayed until 2010. She worked as a secretary in various offices of the college before becoming executive assistant to the president in 1991. Her final role was as administrative coordinator of planning and compliance.
While working for Laurel Ridge, Rinker received various awards, including the Support Staff Showcase Award from the Virginia Community College Association, the Beyond the Call of Duty Award and the Distinguished Staff of the Year Award.
“I cannot imagine who I would be if I had not started attending Laurel Ridge in the fall of 1970,” Rinker said. “My life, my family, my career, my friends and my interests have all centered around the college in so many ways.”
A mother of two and grandmother of eight, Rinker isn’t the only one in her family with an Laurel Ridge story. When she married her husband Rick in 1974, he promised to continue his education. While working as a state trooper, Rick Rinker enrolled part time in Laurel Ridge, earning an associate degree in police science in 1980.
Rick Rinker was an adjunct instructor of administration of justice at the college from 1992-2005, and the couple’s children, Russell and Kelly took dual-enrollment classes while in high school. Russell transferred his credits to the College of William and Mary, while his sister transferred hers to Virginia Tech.
“All of us were very involved in Laurel Ridge activities and fundraisers,” said Rinker. “We started participating in Fairfax Follies when Russell was 4 and Kelly was 2. We have continued every year since to be in the Follies, and Russell is now the director.”
Russell has gone on to have a successful stage career. He has been in the Broadway National Tour of “Amazing Grace,” and was a long-time member of Blue Man Group.
Rinker took a moment to reflect on how Laurel Ridge has evolved over the decades.
“Fifty years is a long time and everything at Laurel Ridge has changed,” she said. “But, what has not changed are the goals to offer quality education and training opportunities to the citizens in the surrounding communities. It took a while for people to believe that community colleges could offer classes that would successfully transfer to four-year universities. Now, no one questions that.”