Very few items remained on her desk, and except for a few photographs of her family on the wall, Sherry Black was ready to say goodbye to Western Nevada College after a distinguished career. A fixture on the Fallon campus since 1987, Black worked her way up from an office assistant, counselor, professor and eventually director until her recent retirement.
Black, who received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, in finance, witnessed both the good and bad times for WNC, yet she remains optimistic the local campus will continue to make its comeback after struggling during the Great Recession. During that time, the campus saw a major reduction of classes and instructors as WNC centralized many services in Carson City. Enrollment plummeted to between 300 to 400 students, she said.
Coming to Fallon was an “out-of-the-blue” event. She met her future husband, Lowell Black, on a blind date after he had accepted an accountant’s position with a Fallon firm. A 1980 graduate of Reno High School, she was born in Elko where her father, John Legarza, was a teacher and high-school basketball coach. The family moved to Reno in 1966 when her father accepted a similar coaching job at Wooster High School. He eventually became an assistant basketball coach and Nevada’s first men’s golf coach. Black said she is proud of her father, who has a spot in the Wolf Pack Athletics Hall of Fame.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
Bus Scharmann, WNC’s assistant dean in the late 1980s, said Black came to Fallon during the college’s golden years.
“The campus enrollment was growing so well, and the rural centers were also growing,” Scharmann recalled.
Both Scharmann and Dean Michelle Dondero recognized Black’s potential and encouraged her to obtain a master’s degree in counseling. Scharmann said the college had a need for an additional counselor because of the booming enrollment. Black never regretted her decision to seek the advanced degree, and consequently, became the college’s second counselor in the early 1990s.
“Fallon had about 1,400 students,” Black said, reflecting on how she and fellow counselor Paul Nelson worked well together. “He was a mentor to me.”
“It was really great to have two counselors,” he said. “It was really great to have that team approach. Paul really helped her a lot.”
During her time as a counselor, Black served the campus adviser to the Associated Students of Western Nevada when the Nevada System of Higher Education recognized her as adviser of the year. She oversaw scholarships and the GED (General Equivalency Diploma) exams. Black also became a tenured professor and at one time, taught education courses and human development in the psychology classes. Within a 12-year span, WNC she named her Professor of the Year three times.
Black championed the need for teachers, and, as a result, WNC partnered with two colleges to help students earn an education degree and receive their state licenses.
“The first two years were with us and then the other two with Nevada State College, or if they already had a bachelor’s degree, they could go to Sierra Nevada College for one year,” she pointed out. “We had 57 students become full-time teachers, and that was huge.”
The last six years have been a whirlwind for Black as she was director of the Career and Technology Education program for three years; and the past three years as director of the Fallon campus. During her time with CTE, the program increased its enrollment. As director, she brought back respectability to the Fallon campus.
“I left, and they didn’t replace me until 2015,” said Scharmann, who retired in 2011. “We had no local dean for four years. ROCCC (Restore Our College Campus Committee) was really pushing to have that local point person again.”
Scharmann said Black’s experience was crucial when former WNC President Chet Burton appointed her.
“As director, she was energetic, positive and found answers for problems,” he said. “She made some great progress in the noncredit class areas, the Specialty Crop Institute and job training. She has done an incredible job.”
Burton also saw the need of having a local director.
“There was no single go-to person in Fallon,” Burton said. “We took that very seriously, and I knew the importance of this. She was a natural for the position.”
Scharmann advocated Black’s appointment as director, and she was the right person at the right time.
“Sherry brought that physical presence,” Scharmann said. “We had a leader who could work internally with Carson City and be a voice of the Fallon campus.”
After her appointment in December 2014, Black showed resolve to bring the college back to the community and the community back into the college. Black, who said Burton brought a strong finance background to the president’s position, was a strong supporter as were the people in Churchill County.
“The community has been great,” Black said, reflecting on the response to make the college relevant once again in Fallon.
She said the support to WNC from the Churchill County commissioners and Banner Churchill Community Hospital, which was pivotal in helping return the nursing program to the local campus. During the recession, the WNC administration in Carson City yanked the program from Fallon to the main campus, a move that was not received well, with the local assisted living facilities and Banner Churchill.
“The second-year nursing students will graduate in May, and we’ll have 16 nursing students,” she said “We were able to bring back the (certified nursing assistant) program, and we have now offered it for five consecutive semesters.”
Scharmann said it’s important for Fallon to have a nursing program, and credits Banner’s support for its return.
“It (nursing) provides great employment and really builds on the academic program at the Fallon campus,” he added.
During the same time, WNC Fallon received a grant to strengthen its accelerated welding program, expanded auto mechanics and added agricultural courses in communications, business and horsemanship. Black said community education and workforce development programs increased by 97 percent in three years.
“We brought back the ag classes which is a good fit for Fallon,” Burton added.
Burton, who retired from the U.S. Navy after his final tour at Naval Air Station Fallon and is now Nevada System of Higher Education’s chief finance officer, said the Fallon campus is once again becoming an integral part of the community.
“I’m grateful to this community because it’s been so supportive,” Black said, adding the campus has joined forces with employment agencies, Churchill County Social Services and the Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation’s Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation. “The employability skill training has helped community members get jobs.”
During Black’s tenure, WNC also launched a program that provided high-school junior and seniors an opportunity to earn college credit and an associate degree. Scharmann, who served as interim superintendent of the Churchill County School District during the 2012-13 academic year, said the community has one of the best Jump Start programs in the state with Churchill County High School and Oasis Academy.
Black presented an “Inspiring Women” luncheon in 2015 that featured successful women from the military and business who spoke of their experiences, and WNC sponsored an employability fair for high-school seniors. WNC and the Churchill Community Coalition worked together to make Fallon a smoke-free campus. Black’s work, however, didn’t go unnoticed by the community. In 2016, the Fallon Chamber of Commerce named her Person of the Year.
Michelle Dondero, who was the Fallon dean when she hired Black, said the retired director provided badly needed leadership when she was appointed three years ago. She also said Black showed her dedication and effectiveness as both a counselor and professor.
As Black begins the newest chapter in her life, she wants to see her daughters more. Callie Black, who played Division I volleyball at Holy Cross, now lives in South Carolina, and Molly, who graduated from Gonzaga University last year, works for a technology stat-up company in Seattle. Black is also weighing her options for the future, but she knows her heart will be rooting for WNC Fallon’s continued success.
Connie Capurro, who retired in 2013 as WNC’s vice president of Academic and Student Affairs, isn’t surprised by Black’s success, first as a counselor and teacher and later as director.
“She always cared about the needs of students and families in Fallon and rural Nevada,” said Capurro, who met Black in 1989. “She practices the concept of ‘students-first.’ Many of our public-school teachers, paraprofessionals and career professionals were influenced by Sherry’s advice, knowledge and counsel. The number of times that Sherry advised a student by sharing ‘you can do this’ would be too difficult to count. Truth is, she was right.”