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Cullen, Silvestre and Wilkes inducted into CCRI Hall of Fame
April 24, 2012
Three new members were inducted into the Community College of Rhode Island Hall of Fame on April 22, each of them colleagues and pioneers from the college’s early days.
Vincent A. Cullen was the school’s first athletic director and went on to compile a 711-270 record as CCRI’s first basketball coach; Charles “Charlie” Wilkes spent 30 years as an assistant basketball coach and helped pioneer the Student-Athlete Academic Support Program as well as the Student Success Center;and Dr. Robert Silvestre was one of the college’s original faculty members who went on to be vice president for Academic Affairs and a driving force behind the creation of the CCRI Center for Workforce and Community Education, and degree programs such as Dental Hygiene, Radiology and Nursing.
Nearly 300 people attended the event at Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln, R.I., making it the most well-attended Hall of Fame induction in CCRI history. The Hall of Fame was established by the CCRI Foundation and held its first biennial induction ceremony in 1994. Congressman David Cicilline and Michael Tikoian, vice chair of the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, were in attendance.
CCRI President Ray Di Pasquale said that the college has gone from its humble beginnings with about 350 students to a regional institution with 18,000 students “ … and it’s wonderful to be able to celebrate with some of those who made it what it is. These are three original Rhode Islanders who have done so much for so many through the community college.”
Silvestre, Wilkes, and Cullen were colleagues in the 1960s when CCRI was still known as Rhode Island Junior College. Originally hired as a mathematics professor, Cullen was asked to serve as the men’s basketball coach when a group of students petitioned to form a team. Cullen was chosen because he had played for Rhode Island College and served as assistant basketball coach for Central High School.
Cullen said he did not think he was the right man for the job at the time, as coaching at the high school and college levels is very different, but he did his best and asked other coaches for advice.
“I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know,” he said.
Cullen proved to be an excellent choice, leading the Knights to 10 regional championships, a No. 1 ranking and a national runner-up finish in 1991.
One of Cullen’s biggest early challenges was finding a place for the students to play, as the old RIJC facility on Promenade Street in Providence, now the site of The Foundry, did not have a gymnasium.
For seven years, Cullen organized rides for his student-athletes to athletic facilities at Rhode Island College before a field house was finally constructed at the CCRI Knight Campus in Warwick.
“When we moved into that field house we were transformed from an athletic department to a family,” Cullen said.
He cited the recent achievements of CCRI’s athletes and teams, such as the second place finish of CCRI men’s basketball in the NJCAA Division II Championship, runner Bobby Allen’s NJCAA National Championship wins this year in cross country and track, and the induction of CCRI graduate Rheal Cormier ’88 into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, as evidence that the CCRI Athletics program has made great progress over the years.
“It’s hard to believe that this is an outgrowth of that first group on Promenade Street,” he said.
Cullen was able to share the stage with his close friend Charles Wilkes, who applied to work at CCRI because of Cullen’s urging, was hired as a mathematics professor, and served as an assistant coach under Cullen for 30 years.
Wilkes’ colleagues said he was known at the college for an ability to get faculty and staff to work together, often proving instrumental in union negotiations.
In addition, he worked tirelessly for his students, recognizing that problems in the classroom could often be because of problems outside of it. His one-on-one work with struggling students resulted in the creation of the college’s Student-Athlete Academic Support Program, which was copied at many other schools.
“What he did in the athletic department went far beyond that,” Cullen said about Wilkes, “it affected the whole college.”
Wilkes said it was an honor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame with Cullen and Silvestre. “I think it’s just great going in with you guys,” he said. “You guys were mentors to me.”
Kirkbrae Country club was the site of Wilkes’ wedding reception in 1967, which he said made the awards ceremony particularly special for him.
“So many individuals have assisted me,” he said. “CCRI was truly my second home.”
Silvestre also has ties to the CCRI Athletic Department, having been RIJC’s first soccer coach, but like his fellow inductees, his legacy at CCRI goes far beyond the field house.
Silvestre was one of RIJC’s 13 original faulty members and he intended to stay only until he earned his Ph.D. and then move to a four-year school. Instead, he remained for 38 years, inspired by the mission of the college to educate those who were in danger of being denied a higher education.
“I was part of a great movement,” he said, “and it was wholly American. It was the community college movement.”
In his career as a professor of biology and pre-technical education, then chair of the Biology Department, then dean of Arts and Sciences and dean of Instruction and ultimately vice president for academic affairs, he touched the lives of thousands of students.
Silvestre represented American community colleges during a 2002 conference at Oxford University and has left a lasting architectural legacy at CCRI by designing the biology and chemistry labs on the Warwick, Lincoln and Providence campuses.
He thanked his fellow faculty members and administrators, his staff and his family for their support over the years.
“When you get an honor like this it doesn’t come to you because you did all of these things by yourself,” he said.
To read about past inductees, go to www.ccri.edu/hof.