When Laurel Ridge first opened its doors in September 1970, the Laurel Ridge 2020 Distinguished Alumni recipient was among the young people walking in.
Garland Gochenour was in the first cohort of students to enroll in Laurel Ridge in1970, and in the first graduating class – the Class of 1972.
He had graduated from Luray High School five years prior and gone into the U.S. Army.
“I had never considered pursuing higher education until I got out of the military,” said Gochenour, who added the military hastened his maturation.
“Being out of school for five years meant I had a lot of apprehension about returning to the classroom,” he said. “I didn’t know how to study.”
Gochenour admits he lacked interest in school when he was in high school – something which was frustrating to his mother, who was in the National Beta Club as a youth. In 1956 she would be left widowed with five children ages 3-10.
“Back then, we didn’t have the government we have today,” Gochenour said. “We pretty much relied upon family and friends and church.”
Gochenour described his two years at Laurel Ridge as both enjoyable and rewarding.
He originally enrolled thinking he would study business and use that knowledge to run his own business. Gochenour recalls carpooling to Middletown with seven or eight friends from high school.
Several teachers left lasting impressions, including Pat Duffy, Gary Tusing and Arthur Fierro.
“Mr. Fierro just reached out to students,” Gochenour said. “He reached out to me especially, and helped me. All of them did, really.”
After graduation, Gochenour was working summers in the maintenance division at Shenandoah National Park. The district ranger asked him if he’d like to become a park ranger, and the National Park Service became his career.
As part of his park ranger training, Gochenour spent eight weeks receiving FBI Academy training in Georgia and earned his federal law enforcement certification.
He spent eight years as a ranger before moving to the maintenance division. The park service position came with good benefits, and Gochenour has now been retired for 21 years.
“I often tell folks I would probably still be working if I owned my own business,” he said.
For nearly 50 years, Gochenour has volunteered for Luray Fire Department, and has been able to devote more time to volunteerism in his retirement. He has served as a chaplain for 20 years, a role he finds very gratifying.
“It’s sort of become a way of life for me, and I hope it never changes,” Gochenour said. “I’ve taken part in about 65 funerals.”
Receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award has left him at “almost a loss for words.”
The award is given to alumni who have distinguished themselves in their career, provided outstanding service to their community and are positive role models for Lord Fairfax, demonstrating the college’s ideals of learning, integrity and positive spirit.
“I want to express my genuine thanks for the honor,” Gochenour said. “I will cherish the recognition forever and be grateful to Laurel Ridge for the experience. It’s just been a real special blessing.”
He plans to display the award in his home so he can share with family and friends what a great place Lord Fairfax is.
“It provides a quality education at a reasonable price,” Gochenour said. “I’m so proud of the Luray Campus (Luray-Page County Center) being built right now.”
Those wishing to support the new Luray-Page County Center or to support students through scholarships are encouraged to make a gift to the Laurel Ridge Educational Foundation at laurelridge.edu/donate.
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.