Having just acquired his doctorate and with experience as a special assistant to the executive vice president of the University of Kentucky, Godbey was dispatched to Cumberland to be the founding president of UK's Southeast Center, which was being built on a rolling expanse of land and a stone's throw from the rushing waters of Clover Lick Creek.
Only a year earlier, the Tri-City area of Harlan County had acquired the college by winning a heated battle with the city of Harlan, and it was Godbey's job to assemble a faculty and staff and get the school operational by the fall of 1960 in order to welcome students through the doors of its only building, Newman Hall.
Godbey - tall and amiable, a Berea College alumnus from Casey County and the eighth of 11 children - worked tirelessly to get the school off on the right foot as he assembled a youthful, competent and energetic faculty, and he went about the area with the zeal of an evangelist, selling the college to the locals. At the time, the community college idea was a novel approach to higher education; only California had embraced the concept, so it was Godbey's task to sell the school and attract students.
“I can remember talking with one man who had dropped by the school,” Godbey recalled. “He wanted to know if this was going to be a ‘real' college. I laughed and slapped him on the back and said, ‘Sure it is!'”
Over four decades later, Edsel T. Godbey will return to the place where his luminous career in higher education began. He will deliver the commencement address on Friday at 6 p.m. on the Cumberland campus.
The SKCTC Class of 2006 numbers in excess of 400 students. The ceremony will be held in a tent that can comfortably accommodate 2,500 people as graduates will receive degrees, certificates and diplomas.
The school's service area today stretches over 120 miles along the craggy spine of Pine Mountain, with full-service campuses located at Whitesburg, Cumberland, Harlan, Pineville and Middlesboro. Today, 4,600 students are enrolled at Southeast, a stark contrast from the first class that was enrolled 46 years ago that numbered 200.
During his three years at Southeast, Godbey laid the groundwork for an institution that today is considered to be one of the top community colleges in Kentucky. Over the years, he has remained close to the college and has provided advice, encouragement and monetary support, ensuring that Southeast will continue to thrive and grow.
Today, the Appalachian Center, the crowning jewel of the Cumberland campus, bears his name, and a year ago, he established a scholarship for aspiring teachers in the name of his wife, Sue, who hails from Perry County.
After leaving Southeast, Godbey returned to Lexington and worked to develop other community colleges across the commonwealth. He was instrumental in establishing new institutions at Somerset and Prestonsburg. He also served as the first manager of the Lexington Technical Institute, later to become Bluegrass Community and Technical College.
Upon leaving UK, he began a 22-year association with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) where he operated an institutional development and research component, the Education Improvement Program (EIP).
After leaving the Southern Association, Godbey started a consulting firm which is primarily active in planning and management improvement for colleges and secondary school systems. Although he now operates only on a part-time basis, the firm has had involvements in several states as well as abroad.
Throughout his career in higher education, he has conducted more than 300 individual workshops, institutes and seminars in 18 states and in six foreign nations. As a consultant, he has worked with literally hundreds of institutions, among them the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education, Arizona Department of Postsecondary Education, Georgia Board of Regents, New York Department of Postsecondary Education, the Ford Foundation and Title III.
On Friday evening, Godbey will be eager to deliver his message to the newest graduates of SKCTC, the venerable institution that has blossomed into a regional and statewide leader in education.
“I am very excited about coming back,” he said. “I feel a special connection to the place and still maintain close times to the college and to several of those who worked with me in those formative years. We were a close-knit group and worked as a team to begin the college.”
As for his address on Friday, he noted with a hearty laugh that he was not going to “speechify them” but rather speak about “commencements” and about the future.
“I want to issue to each graduate a challenge to use his or her education to make their life more complete, to work to improve themselves, their community and the world,” he said.
Dr. Godbey and his wife, Sue, are the parents of Dr. Patrick Godbey (M.D.) and Lisa Godbey Wood, United States Attorney for southern Georgia.