As Missouri’s recently-appointed Commissioner of Higher Education and a decorated military veteran, Dr. David Russell, B.A. ’69, has faced and overcome many challenges. Although varied experiences have led him to this point in his life, David points to his time at Henderson as a period of personal discovery and growth that helped shape his path.
His first exposure to the university was on a campus tour with some friends. “[Henderson] offered me a debate scholarship, and that was all I needed to convince me,” says the Pine Bluff native. “I liked the campus and the size of it, and it was only 70 or so miles away from home, and that was very appealing.” He chose an education major based on his interest in history and political science, thinking he might someday teach. “I hadn’t really thought much about what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “But I thought if I could get a good liberal arts education, that would help expose me to a number of options.”
During his freshman year, David enrolled in Honors English with Professor Nannie May Rooney. “She was a very exacting professor; one of the toughest I have ever had, even tougher than the professors in my doctoral studies,” he says. Under her tutelage, David says he learned first-rate communication skills, but also humility, critical thinking and attention to detail. “She imparted her own passion for learning; she gave me an appreciation for good authors and good writing and challenged us to be excellent in everything we did. It was like freshman boot camp.” Those traits, and those he learned from other Henderson professor-mentors, would follow him throughout his years on campus and beyond.
In addition to taking classes, David was editor of the Oracle for a year, was involved in Circle K men’s service organization and started the university’s chapter of Young Democrats, which he says sparked his interest in politics and public service. The Vietnam War was under way, and David was intent on bringing political candidates to campus to interact with students. Through Young Democrats, he met Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Bill Clinton. He also met David Pryor who gave him an invitation to go to Washington, D.C., as his congressional intern, an opportunity that “opened new vistas” for him.
David also was class president during his sophomore and junior years and student body president during his senior year. “That’s where I learned about policy and planning and polling to get student opinions to help guide us as we did our work,” he says. “We wanted to make student government more visible because I was concerned that we weren’t as socially conscious as we needed to be.” He held student government meetings in public on the campus to draw other students in.
During his last two years on campus, David was offered an ROTC scholarship. Although military science classes were required for every male student in that day, David decided to make the commitment to join the military and take the scholarship. He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and left for boot camp five days after Henderson graduation.
Little did he know that what started as a four-year commitment would turn into a 22-year distinguished career in the military. His decorations include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal with “Valor” Device, Combat Infantryman Badge and Department of the Army General Staff Badge. He held various media relations positions in the military including media relations desk officer in the Office of the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.
When he retired in 1991 as a lieutenant colonel, David returned to education, a field he enjoyed studying at Henderson. David points to a specific Henderson experience when explaining his career shift. “My predecessor as student body president was William Echols [B.A.’65, Political Science] who was a terrific campus leader and campaigner,” he says. “He graduated and then came back and worked in student affairs. As I watched him, I thought that coming back to a college campus as an administrator to enjoy that atmosphere again would be a wonderful thing.” David accepted a position as a director of media relations for several University of Missouri campuses. He eventually became the Senior Associate Vice President and Chief of Staff of the University of Missouri System. Along the way he earned a masters degree in communication: journalism and public affairs from The American University in Washington, D.C., and a doctoral degree in educational leadership and policy analysis from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
As a man who has taken advantage of every opportunity, David has valuable advice for today’s university students. “The name of the game is to be flexible and adaptable,” he says. To that end, he recommends that students be involved in a variety of extracurricular activities and look for chances to do research under the guidance of professors. He also emphasizes the importance of public service. “So many people don’t pay attention to what is happening in our communities, our state and in our country. But it is to their ultimate benefit to do so,” he says. Ultimately, David says that success lies in becoming an expert and an advocate in whatever they are engaged in. “Lots of people go to work just to have a job,” he says, “but they need to learn everything they can about whatever they are a part of…and the opportunities will come to them.”