Without the generosity and continued support of Bob Sowder, who knows where the Fauquier Campus of Laurel Ridge would be, or if there would even be one?
The first day of classes in what would become the Fauquier Campus was Sept. 7, 1988. Sowder, a successful real-estate developer living in nearby Catlett, provided rent-free use of The Barn on his Corral Farm. Additionally, he donated $90,000 to renovate the barn into space the college could use for classrooms, offices and even a small library.A couple of months later, Sowder donated The Barn and about 2.5 acres of his farm for the college. The property was appraised at $437,000 – at the time it was the largest donation the college’s educational foundation had ever received. The Fauquier Campus would become solely a Laurel Ridge campus in 1992; prior to that it was a joint venture between Laurel Ridge and Germanna community colleges. Sowder, who died on Oct. 14, 2023, granted an interview at his home in August 2023. He recalled buying the Corral Farm at auction at the Fauquier County Courthouse. Being able to later donate part of it to the college meant a lot to him. “I just think there’s nothing like the opportunity to offer someone an education,” said Sowder, who was touched that the campus library was named for him. Furthering his own education came later in life for Sowder, who grew up on a farm near Beckley in southern West Virginia. “I’m one of 11 children, all born at home, and I went to a one-room school – me and my dog,” said Sowder, who left school before graduating, later earning his GED. As a youngster, he would find work with a plow cultivator, building his own team of equipment, using a horse and a wagon he built out of an old car frame. “I would load it up with my supplies and go out,” said Sowder. “People would want me to plow their gardens.” He left West Virginia for Connecticut to work as a riveter on helicopters for Sikorsky Aircraft. Later, while living in Manassas, Sowder began working third shift for Marriott Corp. supplying meals to Eastern Airlines at Reagan National Airport, and taking GED night classes. “I had the hunger for knowledge, and I knew that if I would ever get anywhere or amount to anything that I had to be self-motivated,” he said. Sowder met his wife, Janet, in 1960 in Arlington while she was doing secretarial work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She was wearing his favorite color, red, and he “figured she was a keeper.” The pair were married for 62 years. Sowder would later take real estate development classes at the University of Virginia at night, earn his license, and become a real-estate developer. He and several partners went into business with Sentry Realty. Sowder also owned Sowder Co. He was thrilled that the Fauquier Campus continued to grow, and continued to contribute to that growth. This included establishing an endowed scholarship and an emergency fund for Fauquier County students, as well as getting out his checkbook and writing out a $20,000 check to the Educational Foundation during a during a ribbon cutting unveiling the renovations to The Barn in 2017. Then-Laurel Ridge President Cheryl Thompson-Stacy had said the foundation still needed a final $100,000 to meet its fundraising goal for Hazel Hall construction. Sowder said at the time, “I challenge others in the community to come forward and help the project along.” He enjoyed seeing students thrive through getting an education, and was impressed with college personnel. “Community colleges, especially, seem to recruit the people that just seem to be the ones who students can move forward with,” Sowder said. He was happy that The Barn is still a well-loved part of the campus. “It has served as a real focal point,” Sowder said. “There’s a lot of people who would never be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps if it wasn’t for the local community college programs. It’s amazing what an education will do for you.” The college has recognized Sowder’s many contributions over the years, presenting him with a Medallion of Recognition in 1989, an honorary degree in 1990 and the Chancellor’s Award for Leadership in Philanthropy in 2009.
Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.