Not far from Dean Gordon’s office in the Center for Public Safety of Surry Community College is a classroom recently dedicated in memory of Sgt. Greg Martin, a policeman killed during a traffic stop.
From now on, a sign outside that classroom bearing Martin’s name will be a constant reminder of the need for safety in the sometimes-dangerous law enforcement world. And that has been a goal throughout the career of Dean Gordon, a man ultimately responsible for ensuring officer trainees go into the field properly prepared.
Although Gordon, who will retire on June 30, has spent the past two decades in an educational capacity, including his present post as SCC director of public safety training, he knows the risks firsthand.
“I’ve been cut, I’ve been shot at, been in fights — a little bit of everything else that officers do,” the former member of several area law enforcement agencies said during an interview last week at the Center for Public Safety.
It’s a modern training facility that opened on Jan. 7 in the sprawling Surry County Human Services Center on State Street in Mount Airy, where emergency medical and fire instruction is conducted along with Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET).
“Over 750 (students) have been through since I’ve been here,” Gordon said of those completing the BLET program. He’s also administered in-service training for many more officers already on the job in Surry, Stokes and Yadkin counties, including with the N.C. Highway Patrol.
But the mission is the same with all the training. That is making sure dedicated men and women will be ready for whatever they might face on the job and won’t become one of the statistics, which show an average of 154 officers dying in the line of duty each year over the past decade.
Greg Martin, a member of the Jonesville Police Department and earlier the Mount Airy Police Department, was gunned down on the side of Interstate 77 in October 1996, and is the last area officer killed in action. He had completed local BLET training in the early 1990s and to date is the only program graduate to die in the line of duty.
Gordon has worked hard to keep others from suffering the same fate, through SCC’s extensive training program that requires a total of 668 hours of instruction (44 more than the state requires) in areas including vehicle stops, firearms and others.
“That’s why we harp so much on safety,” he said of the potential dangers.
Training wasn’t exactly a priority when Gordon broke into law enforcement in the early 1980s. In fact, working officers had to use vacation time when taking classes to brush up on their skills. This lack of emphasis on training could be related to the fact that between 1963 and 1971, five officers in Surry died in shootings — including three in Pilot Mountain alone.
Gordon, 60, who was born in April 1953 and grew up about halfway between Pilot Mountain and Pinnacle, traces his interest in a public service career to his first job, as a seasonal employee of Pilot Mountain State Park at age 15.
His grandfather, Bert Coleman, had been a caretaker on the mountain in the days before the state park was established, and the youth often stayed on the mountain with him.
Although Gordon was exposed to family members and acquaintances who had served in law enforcement, volunteer fire department and rescue squad positions, the seed didn’t sprout inside him at first.
A graduate of South Stokes High School, Gordon found himself driving an oil truck in Pilot Mountain for a business he later bought.
Then in 1982, then-Pilot Mountain Police Chief Dorman Caudle asked Gordon if he would consider working part-time for him, after a couple of officers had quit.
“I wound up working for the police department and running the oil business,” Gordon recalled.
He then became drawn to law enforcement as a career. “Like most people (who enter that field), no day’s ever the same,” Gordon explained. Many who do become officers say they want to help people, but soon realize that this involves more than a cliché.
“You really have to,” Gordon said of possessing a genuine desire to aid others.
His interest in police work would require Gordon’s own foray into Basic Law Enforcement Training, which led to enrolling in the program in Wilkes County since it had a more flexible schedule than the one then offered in Surry. Gordon rode to Wilkes along with others including Jeff Hall, Dennis Wilson and Kelly Hiatt, a present member of the Mount Airy Police Department.
The classes were held from 6 to 10 p.m. each Monday through Thursday and some Saturdays, a routine that would last about six months. Gordon made the trek while working full-time during the day to support his family, including wife Rebecca, to whom he has been married 37 years, and their daughter and son, both now in their 30s.
“I sympathize with these students,” Gordon said of those he now encounters with similar demands, “’cause I’ve been there, done that.”
After completing the BLET program, Gordon became a full-time police officer in 1984 and still ran his oil business for about three years afterward.
He held multiple jobs in law enforcement while advancing up the ladder. This included working a couple of years for the Walnut Cove Police Department, as a detective with the Stokes County Sheriff’s Office and for the King Police Department as a first sergeant.
Gordon’s dual interest as an educator also emerged around that time, including teaching probation and parole classes for the state correctional department.
Realizing the need to expand his credentials in that field, Gordon earned associate degrees in criminal justice and correctional technology over the years, along with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Gardner-Webb University, a master’s degree in educational administration from Appalachian State University and an Ed.S. degree from Appalachian in the education/criminal justice field, which he received around 2006.
Gordon’s studies at ASU required another long commute, up and down the mountain to its campus in Boone while he also worked.
During his academic pursuits, Gordon was always motivated by a quote from Marvin Hall, a SCC professor who he had for a psychology class: “The only limitation to success is the mindset to succeed.”
Gordon has repeated this to his own BLET students over the years. “I’ve told every class that — I tell everybody I can, ‘cause it’s true,” he said. “Make up your mind to do something, and do it.”
In addition to support from his wife and other family members, Gordon credits several veteran local educators for aiding his success, including Dr. Jim Reeves, Carlos Surratt and longtime English teacher Margaret Shepherd.
His work at Surry Community College began in 1992 as an adjunct criminal justice professor.
Around 2000, Gordon was named director of the BLET program, having vowed to take advantage of any opportunity to ensure officers got the proper training.
“Dean has built that BLET program into one of, if not the best, in the state community college system,” said Dr. George Sappenfield, vice president of corporate and continuing education at SCC.
“In his time here he has raised the bar many, many levels to the extent that we have a number of groups that want to come here to get their training as opposed to doing it somewhere else,” Sappenfield added.
“And Dean has done this with a great deal of enthusiasm,” he said of Gordon’s work at the college.
About seven years ago, Gordon became director of public safety for SCC, overseeing all programs in that area including Basic Law Enforcement Training. This reflected a need to have someone oversee the growing public safety component at the school.
The local BLET grads include a good portion of the Mount Airy Police Department and Surry Sheriff’s Office patrol divisions.
Over the years, Gordon has been gratified by the increased emphasis on training and a shift in how law enforcement work is viewed — as more than just grabbing a gun and badge and hitting the street.
“It’s a profession,” he said.
A Lasting Legacy
Gordon said the most rewarding aspect of his SCC career is “to go down the street and see one of your past students in a uniform doing their job.” Another is reading in the newspaper where one of them has made a difference.
“There’s many, many who have been successful,” he said, mentioning Angie Key, now an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, and Janet Pearson, superintendent at Stone Mountain State Park.
Gordon says he will be leaving his job at SCC with some degree of reluctance, but believes it’s the thing to do at this point in his life.
“I turned 60 in April and I’ve got my 30 years in and it’s time to move on,” he said. Gordon mentioned that his father Glenn, who is still alive, worked into his 70s in management positions for various car dealerships.
“I’m not really sure what I plan to do” Gordon added of his post-retirement activities. Carpentry work, hiking and watching baseball and football games are among his interests. “The main thing is taking some time off for myself, with family.”
No plans have been announced concerning replacing Gordon, to maintain the quality operation now in place. “I feel this will continue after I leave,” he said modestly. He credits Ronald Hill, a former Mount Airy police chief who serves as law enforcement training coordinator at Center for Public Safety, and Administrative Assistant Sandy Wall for helping make it a success.
While the future might be unclear as far as his replacement and retirement plans, one thing is for sure: Dean Gordon will leave a huge void come June 30.
“And he will be sorely missed — but he leaves the tremendous legacy of an outstanding program,” Dr. Sappenfield said.
“We’re sorry to see him go,” the college official added.
“We’re also grateful for the job he did here with the program.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.