Tony Zeiss, who transformed the face and expanded the mission of Central Piedmont Community College, announced Thursday that he’ll retire in July after nearly a quarter-century as its president.
Since taking over in 1992, the Indiana native led the college through a period of unprecedented growth.
To keep step with an expanding economy, it grew from one campus to six and became a national leader in workforce development that now serves 70,000 students, about double from when he started.
Zeiss, 70, said he’d originally planned on leaving a few years ago. “But gosh,” he said, “there were just so many things going on.”
“I have mixed emotions,” he said. “But to all things there is a season.”
Over the past decade, CPCC has undergone a face-lift. It shed drab stucco facades for red brick. New, classically designed buildings rose on its main campus on Elizabeth Avenue.
Class offerings expanded, with new programs in everything from computer-integrated machining to cardiovascular technology.
“Tony has been remarkably true to the core mission of the community college,” said Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber. “That is, to … listen to what the needs of employers are for today and for tomorrow, and then prepare the educational programs that enable individuals to go and claim those jobs.”
Zeiss also has left his mark on Charlotte.
A history buff who sometimes dresses in period costumes, he was an early booster of the Trail of History that lines Little Sugar Creek Greenway, not far from the college. He’s helped oversee the erection of several bronze statues of historical figures, with more on the way.
That followed a request from former Judge Chase Saunders to help secure funding for a statue of Captain James Jack, who carried the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence to Philadelphia in 1775.
“Tony said, ‘If I help you get that statue, you need to help me get 21 statues along this Trail of History,’ ” Saunders recalled. “If he took a good idea to heart, he would act on it and deliver.”
Zeiss is a born networker. Active in groups such as Charlotte Rotary, he practices what he’s called the Law of Communication, the second law from his book “Nine Essential Laws for Becoming Influential.”
It’s one of 20 books he’s written on education, self-help and history. One, “Build Your Own Ladder: Four Secrets to Making Your Career Dream Come True,” explains what he calls “Power of Vision.”
“We set a vision and strategic plan in 1993, to become the nation’s leader in workforce development,” he said. “We achieved that years ago.”
CPCC has earned national recognition for its efforts. Even President Barack Obama took note in his 2012 State of the Union address. Jackie Bray, a laid-off mechanic who was getting retrained at CPCC, watched the speech from the balcony with first lady Michelle Obama.
“I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity that Jackie did,” Obama said.
Gov. Pat McCrory offered his own tribute to Zeiss, who made $342,000 last year.
“Under his leadership … CPCC has grown to be one of North Carolina’s largest community colleges and a leading educational institution that has provided opportunities for hundreds of thousands of students,” he said. “I have enjoyed working with him as mayor and as governor.”
Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said she’s grateful for his service.
“His passion and single-minded dedication to improving education has opened opportunities for students throughout our city and has been critical to creating one of the best community colleges in the country,” she said.
When he came to Charlotte from Colorado, where he headed a college in Pueblo, Zeiss expected to stay at CPCC four or five years. In 2012, he told a Charlotte Magazine reporter why he stayed.
“It’s all about finding your purpose,” he told her. “Mine is to make a difference.”