to reach out as pastor
at Pilgrim Baptist Church
For Warner, 45 years of putting students first
to reach out as pastor
at Pilgrim Baptist Church
BY GLORIA STRAVELLI
It was the first morning of the first day of Dr. Donald Warner’s tenure as principal of Willingboro High School, and Warner had a visitor.
"Mrs. Becker came to my office at 8:30 a.m. She said, ‘I represent a group in the community. We do not want a black principal in Willingboro,’ " recounted Warner, the first African-American to hold the position of principal (and later, district superintendent) in Willingboro.
Warner measured his words before responding.
"I stuck my hands in my pockets and I said, ‘Are you finished now? You may leave.’ That was our total conversation," he said.
"What was astonishing about that was that I had job offers in other districts but I chose Willingboro because I would have the opportunity to work with curriculum. I didn’t think about being the first black," said Warner, who later became the first African-American superintendent of the Red Bank Regional High School District.
Recently retired as chairman of the board of trustees of Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, Warner was honored for his 18 years of service on the board with the dedication this week of the new $15 million Donald D. Warner Student Life Center.
"Naming the Student Life Center in his honor is a fitting and enduring tribute to his years of service and dedication to education," said Brookdale president Dr. Peter Burnham.
Warner said he felt the time was right to step down from the board.
"One of the reasons I felt I could leave now," said Warner, who joined the board in 1984, "is because Brookdale is at the apex, the height of growth, of success.
"We have Dr. Burnham, and he is a visionary who can make things happen," he explained. "I’ve been there for at least five presidents, and Dr. Burnham is one of the best."
Warner also credited the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders for its support of Brookdale.
"The real phenomenon that keeps Brookdale moving forward is the support of the Freeholders," he said. "The Freeholders have helped us to keep tuition down and we have a system where every other year we’re able not to raise tuition."
He also had high praise for fellow trustees.
"We have a diverse board, there are trustees who are architects, builders, lawyers — there’s so much talent. I could always depend on their expertise. We all brought a broad range of experience to this community college. I was appreciative of that. It’s one of the best boards I’ve been involved with."
According to Warner, Brookdale’s Communiversity program, an alliance of eight colleges and universities offering degree programs, represents a high mark in his tenure as trustee.
The Communiversity program is one of the highlights of my time on the board," he said. "My hope is that we will become a bachelor’s degree-issuing college.
"Brookdale’s mission is different in terms of providing open access, but it can do both," he observed. "There’s no reason you can’t have a two-year program, move into the Communiversity and offer your own degree. That’s the vision for the future and hopefully that will occur."
Warner joined the board in 1984 and has served on the Educational Services, Buildings and Grounds and Human Resources committees at Brookdale. He was elected chairman of the board in 1993.
A native of Crestmont, Pa., Warner served as a U.S. Marine during the Korean Conflict, and tapped into the G.I. Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, beginning his teaching career in an urban school in north Philadelphia in 1958.
He later earned master’s and doctoral degrees at Pennsylvania State University, where he participated in a special program geared to prepare minority educators for upper level posts in secondary school systems.
"At the high school level at the time, there were very few minorities in administration," he explained.
In 1970, Warner became principal at Willingboro, later advancing to superintendent of the high school district.
He came to Monmouth County to assume the post of superintendent of Red Bank Regional High School in Little Silver in 1975 and held that post until his retirement in 1997.
"I found the same patterns that had been with me all my life," said Warner.
"At Red Bank Regional, students were coming to the school from the borough along with youngsters from Little Silver and Shrewsbury," he commented. "These are the dynamics that have stayed with me and have continued to crop up.
"The big challenge was making it all mesh and work. … Students were meeting people who were racially different from them for the first time. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is given our housing patterns.
"I think we developed one of the best school systems in the county," said Warner, whose accomplishments as superintendent included establishing a performing arts program at the high school.
Warner’s contributions on the Brookdale board include overseeing the $110 million capital construction at the Lincroft campus as well as the establishment of satellites in Western Monmouth and Wall Township, but he saw his primary role as advocating for students.
"The number one thing is that I’ve been a student advocate," he said. "We spent a great deal of time approving building programs and in fact we have to have buildings. But at the same time, I tried to keep the board focused on the students and how doing what we were doing would benefit them."
To this end, Warner advocated for on-line registration to enhance student access to the college and supported certification programs as a way to open the door to college studies to more students.
"Anything we can do to enhance the position of the student and the ease at which they can achieve excellence in learning is where my head is all the time," he said.
During his tenure, the student population has become much more diverse, he noted.
"I feel excited about the fact that given the excellence in staffing, the curriculum in place, the buildings that have mushroomed and the community centers in Long Branch and Freehold we are poised to meet this challenge," he said.
Technology and online studies will continue to mushroom but, Warner said, the role of the educator and the importance of a one-on-one relationship with students will continue.
"The role of today’s educator is not necessarily different because educators have always had to take a holistic approach to education," he explained. "What has happened is that now we have more external things impacting on learning and children are learning from a multiplicity of media. There’s the face-to-face relationship and we also have this relationship with a machine where there is limited interaction.
"Yet, learning takes place in both ways. It’s more of a delicate balancing act but the holistic approach stays the same."
Warner’s contributions to the community have been numerous and he currently serves as an advisory board member of 180, Turning Lives Around (formerly the Women’s Center), vice president of the Red Bank Educational Initiative and director of the Parker Family Health Center, Red Bank.
Following his retirement from the Red Bank High School District, he earned a degree in Theology and Christian Education at Princeton Theological Seminary and he currently serves as associate pastor at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Red Bank.
For Warner, the transition represents a continuum.
"Actually, as I perceive myself, I have really been ministering all my life in terms of giving of myself and trying to help as many people as I can," said Warner. "I love it; it makes me feel stupidly good when I am able to help someone else. My mother taught us if you have something, it’s really no good unless you give it away."