It’s a Wonderful Life at Dalton State

One of my favorite holiday traditions every year is to watch the classic Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which Jimmy Stewart’s protagonist, George Bailey, ponders what the world would be like had he never been born. It’s a fascinating question – how would the course of history be different if any of us had never been born or if we had not married the person we did or had not taken that job…?

On a recent November afternoon I found myself gazing out my office window to the construction mess in front of Westcott Hall and imagined that this must have been how things looked in the mid-60s when the campus was first being built. I wondered how Dalton, Georgia might be different today if community leaders half a century ago had never campaigned the state to place a junior college here. What if those community leaders elected instead to devote all their attention and energies to building their businesses rather than providing higher education opportunity to the region? In short, what if Dalton State College had never been born? (Cue swirly flashback music….)

The first thought that occurred to me is the economic impact that would be missed by northwest Georgia for the past 50 years. In 2017, the estimated annual economic impact of the College was more than $133 million. Dalton State employs approximately 450 employees and supports a total of more than 1,500 local jobs on campus and in the region, directly and indirectly.

This brings me to try to imagine how different this region’s workforce would be without Dalton State. Would the local schools, businesses, hospitals and doctor’s offices been as successful without all the nurses, teachers, accountants, managers, and social workers produced by Dalton State? Would Dalton have been able to import all the knowledge workers it takes to make a community run? Would people like Lamar Wright have had the impact on this community without the knowledge they gained from Dalton State? Isn’t it much better when we can create our own pipeline of local talent to meet our employment needs? Last year we conferred 810 degrees, most of them bachelor degrees, and most of those graduates will live and work in our region contributing to the local tax base and community life.

The word “Roadrunner” would mean nothing more than a quirky little bird native to the American southwest, and “beep beep” might simply describe traffic noise to local folks. And what iconic landmark would mark Dalton, Georgia for travelers on I-75 – the Walnut Avenue McDonalds? It wouldn’t be the Burran Bell Tower because Dalton State was never born.

All those who have enjoyed lectures, concerts, plays, and programs at the College would be less enlightened, and more turtles may have found their way to Asian dinner plates were it not for Dalton State’s Turtle Assurance Colony. For that matter, the Conasauga Log Perch could well be extinct, and local residents could be less healthy without a Roadrunner Trail System to hike.

Perhaps the saddest realization is all the people we might never have known were it not for the College being here. There would be no Burran Bell Tower standing as a beacon over the interstate because there would have been no Burran. Or Schwenn, Roberts, or Gignilliat. John Hutcheson would probably never have settled in Dalton. Melvyn Ottinger would likely have coached another basketball team to collegiate glory, and this community might only have ever known Tony Ingle as a high school player for North Whitfield High School.

I don’t like to dwell on these thoughts for long because I see a bleak picture for this region without Dalton State. I prefer to try to think of the Dalton State students I know today and imagine which one of them might soon become a local mayor or county commissioner or school board member. Which of them will become highly successful entrepreneurs and attract more business and employees to this area? Which ones will be the compassionate nurses who care for us and our families when we are ill, who will be the teachers who unlock the mysteries of the universe for future generations of local residents, and which ones will become philanthropists maybe even endowing scholarships and constructing buildings on the campus of their alma mater?

I’m so glad I don’t have to imagine a northwest Georgia without Dalton State College because our happy ending is that in fact Dalton State does exist and has thrived in our community for 51 years. It’s a wonderful life at Dalton State, and I wish each of you a happy, healthy holiday season. Merry Christmas and beep beep!