AN EARLY TASTE OF THE PRESIDENCY
UVA-Wise gave Lemons his first taste of a college presidency. In 1992, then only 32 and fresh out of a Ph.D. program at UVA, he was named interim chancellor of the school, a selective, public, liberal arts college in southwestern Virginia. Initially intended as a temporary assignment, Lemons stayed for 8½ years.
Former UVA President John Casteen, who appointed Jay to Wise, says his plan had been for Lemons to serve there temporarily while UVA conducted a national search for a chancellor.
"But soon after he arrived, the local board at the school contacted me and said they wanted him to stay, so we halted the national search and dropped the 'interim' from his title."
A longtime mentor of Lemons, Casteen remembers him as an extraordinarily talented doctoral student who had landed a highly coveted internship in UVA's president's office. Lemons was so good that after he earned his Ph.D. in higher education administration, Casteen hired him as his executive assistant before tapping him for the Wise position.
"If you looked at Jay's qualifications on paper, you would have thought John [Casteen] was being unrealistic when he appointed him to Wise," recalls Leonard Sandridge, who was serving as UVA's chief budget and planning officer when he crossed paths with Lemons in the president's office. "He was young and relatively inexperienced. But Jay went down to Wise, a dying coal town, and stayed in touch with us," Sandridge says.
"He was not afraid to reach out for help. He was a good listener, who was learning all along. And he fit in there. Staff, alumni and faculty loved him, and he could sit in a diner and talk with people."
The two things that stood out about Lemons were his intelligence and his ability to manage it, Sandridge adds.
"He was always so practical and understood and respected people. It was never about him; it was about doing the best job he could for those he was responsible to."
Michele DeMary, Susquehanna's speaker of the faculty and political science department chair, agrees. "Jay is widely respected, but isn't arrogant. He is a collaborative leader who by and large has always paid attention to all our constituencies, not privileging one over the others. He recognizes and appreciates the role everyone plays."
His 16-year tenure with the university has enhanced Lemons' ability to make significant contributions to Susquehanna, but he would be the first to admit he's not done it alone, says Board of Trustees Chair Signe Gates '71. "He has an appreciation for shared governance and understands the central role the faculty plays, as well as the administration and the board."