Voinovich School’s Robert Gordon retires, leaving behind a legacy of regional impact

Daniel Kington
January 17, 2018

GordonAfter an extensive career impacting the lives of individuals in the region, state and nation, Robert Gordon has retired from the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

During his 13 years at the School, Gordon provided technical and operational assistance to various public and nonprofit projects through the effective use of data, research and facilitation skills. Gordon worked to help communities throughout the region become more competitive by supporting economic development projects and local leadership. However, Gordon’s work with the School was just one aspect of a much longer career of service.

Gordon received a bachelor of science in communications from the University of Rio Grande in 1986. The same year, he began a position with Woodland Centers, Inc., where he worked with adolescents who suffered from behavioral and mental health issues.

“Working with adolescents was an opportunity to impact the lives of people who felt they had no opportunity to obtain a vibrant future,” Gordon said. “Many of the adolescents I worked with came out of very depressed homes and situations, and I felt privileged to work with those individuals and to have a small impact on their lives and futures.”

Gordon worked his way up through Woodland Centers, serving as a public relations specialist, a clinical associate and eventually as a program manager. Gordon left the center in 1995, after state funding that financed his position expired. He continued to work in the mental health field, however, as the executive director of Gallia-Jackson-Meigs Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime, which serves both adults and adolescents.

In 2002, Gordon was appointed city manager of the City of Gallipolis, where he was able to make an even larger impact.

“When you have the responsibility for everything from the water that comes into each home and business, to the police department, the fire department and various other services throughout the city, it is both a challenge and an exhilarating opportunity to make a difference in the community – and it was my home community,” Gordon said. “I also had the privilege of being the first and only African American to be appointed to that position, so to be able to have a seat at the table and represent my community was a special honor for that reason too.”

After two years as city manager, Gordon began his work with the Voinovich School as a project consultant; he was later promoted to project manager and research associate.

“My work with the Voinovich School has allowed me to contribute on a larger scale, beyond one community – throughout the region and also statewide,” Gordon said. “In addition to scale, the School also helped me to contribute more deeply. I’ve always had a knack for engaging people and community groups, but my work at the Voinovich School has helped me enhance those skills, and I have gained new ways of assisting communities to grow stronger and flourish.”

During his time at the Voinovich School, Gordon worked most closely with two projects: the Economic Development Administration University Center and the Mayors’ Partnership for Progress. The EDA University Center is a partnership of the federal government and the Voinovich School that makes the resources of Ohio University available to the economic development community in order to advance regional development. The MPP brings mayors and city managers together from more than 60 communities in 15 counties, providing a platform to share information and resources and better address shared problems.

“Both the EDA University Center and the MPP help communities become more competitive and learn about themselves in order to promote growth and development,” Gordon said.

Gordon’s work with the MPP has been especially meaningful to him.

“It really feels good at the end of the day to know that, one, the Voinovich School had the confidence in me to give me such a project, and two, that the project has been successful,” Gordon said. “It is extremely rewarding to see this group of mayors with whom I’ve been working for years continually expand with the assistance of the Voinovich School, and now do things like write a letter to the governor about local government funds.”

Although Gordon has been able to accomplish a great deal through his work with the School and in his career more broadly, his devotion to serving the region and improving lives has never been limited to the hours of 9 to 5 on Monday through Friday. As both a musician and an advocate for racial justice, Gordon’s personal interests have also made an impact.

“I was exposed to music on my mother’s knee in the choir stand of our local church, and I fell in love with it,” Gordon said. “Music has always been something I could offer to the community, both in my church experiences and in my public experiences, singing the national anthem for public events.”

Gordon has pursued both vocal and instrumental music, as well as writing. Gordon’s personal commitment to the arts bled into his professional life, as he was able to bring his talents to his position with Woodland Centers, where he helped adolescents hone their artistic abilities as a therapeutic practice.

“Art gets to the root of human expression, both during the good times and the bad,” Gordon said. “The adolescents with whom I worked often felt like they didn’t have a voice, because of abusive or oppressive situations that they’d been in, and art was a form they felt they could utilize freely without repercussion.”

In addition to art, Gordon has devoted himself to racial justice. Gordon has served as president of Gallia County’s Emancipation Day Celebration, co-founded a scholarship fund to enhance educational attainment for African American youth and has frequently contributed to Gallia County’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day program, sponsored by the southeast Ohio branch of the NAACP.

Gordon is also an avid collector of African American memorabilia from the region, including artifacts, educational materials and documents related to his family’s genealogy and regional history. Through this process, Gordon has learned a great deal about his family history; for instance, Gordon learned that his great-grandfather twice escaped slavery by crossing the Ohio River from Mason to Gallia County, and that his great uncle was selected by George Washington Carver to travel to the Soviet Union and share agricultural techniques. Gordon’s collection, which he regularly displays, has also provided the community with a treasure trove from which community members are able to learn and begin a dialogue.

“Being visually identified as an African American and being raised in an African American community, I know the impact of stereotypes and the lack of inclusion,” Gordon said. “Learning these stories from the past, I know it’s true that if we don’t learn from our history and the progress that we’ve made, we will slip, and we will not be as conscious as we should be about issues of inclusion currently.”

Reflecting on his career and his personal projects, Gordon is proud of the impact that he has made.

“One of my fondest experiences happened this summer, when I was invited to a church to hear one of the adolescents with whom I worked at Woodland Centers speak as a youth pastor,” Gordon said. “This person also does work in the corrections field, working as a juvenile probations officer. Seeing him speak, I was very proud. It was such a proud moment for me, to see that I, along with the rest of the staff, may have influenced this person somewhat to become who he is today.”

Gordon’s work at the Voinovich School has also left him with a legacy he can reflect upon with pride.

“I’m very grateful for the time that I’ve had here at the Voinovich School and with Ohio University,” Gordon said. “I’ve had diverse opportunities throughout the region, doing projects with communities that I can today look back upon and from which I can see positive results. I think that’s what we all want out of our careers, to look back and see positive results. To me that is the mark of success.”