The Mississippi cotton fields of his youth instilled his indomitable work ethic.
By Bob Yearick
Picking cotton by hand may be one of the hardest jobs ever invented by man. Just ask Dr. Vernon Ross, Jr.
Ross, who received his Ed.D. from Wilmington University in 2005, was one of four brothers and three sisters who grew up on their parents’ 30-acre farm in Utica, Miss. He spent many months of his youth bent over cotton plants, usually from sunup to sundown.
“My father insisted that we be on the back of the truck while the dew was still on the grass,” Ross says. “His motto was ‘the early bird gets the worm.’ And on many occasions, they had to weigh our sacks of cotton by flashlight.”
Side by side with two of his sisters and a brother, he also picked tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, beans, cabbage and peas — all under their father’s watchful eye.
“We would stop to rest and stand up and if my father saw that, he would say, ‘let’s keep moving.’ Our breaks were to get water, go to the woods as our restroom, and many times our lunch was brought to the fields so we wouldn’t lose time going home and coming back.”
But, he says, it wasn’t all drudgery. “As soon as my father would go off and do something else, we took our breaks and laughed about it. And we would sing gospel hymns and songs to pass the time.”
Those days laboring under the broiling southern sun imbued in Ross a rock-solid work ethic leavened with a sense of humor. Both stood him in good stead as he negotiated the gauntlet of challenges he would face as a black man in both the South and the North of the 1970s and ’80s.
Born in 1960, Ross attended Utica Consolidated High School, which, he says, was “integrated very late.” He did well in school, in no small part due to his days in the fields — and his father’s demanding presence.
“We worked so hard on the farm, I didn’t see school work as hard at all, but a relief,” says Ross. Both his parents valued education. “There was no non-standard English spoken in our house,” he says, “and my father made us read an encyclopedia if we didn’t have anything else to do. Some of my siblings hated it but I loved it because I was always interested in learning new things.”
Religion was another family pillar. “Every week — church and Sunday school,” says Ross. “It wasn’t an option in our house.”
Just as he did with school, young Vernon embraced the church. In fact, when he was 11, he began preaching at his home church, Little Mount Christian Methodist Episcopal. Then his aunt, seeing that he had a gift, began driving him to other area churches, and he continued to bear witness each Sunday morning until he graduated from high school. “I would give the morning message and sometimes I would sing,” Ross says.
At the time, he didn’t suspect that he would someday become a minister and found a church. “It wasn’t until later that I began to realize that God had a special calling on my life,” Ross says.
In 1978, he graduated from high school and became the first and only member of his family to attend college, enrolling at Mississippi State University on a full academic scholarship to study engineering and math.
But in the late ’70s, the shadow of Jim Crow still hung over the Starkville, Miss., campus. Ross does not sugarcoat the experience: “It wasn’t good for an African-American to be at Mississippi State in 1978.”
He soon dropped out and enrolled at Jackson State, a historically black university in Jackson, Mississippi’s capital, where he majored in computer science and math. Now without a scholarship, he needed a job to pay his way, so, after a part-time stint at McDonald’s, he was hired by the Jackson Metal Co., a metal recycling plant, to work the 3-11 shift five nights a week as a computer operator.
He also somehow found time to be president of both the Computer Science Club and the Association for Computer Machinery, and he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Of course, every Sunday morning he was in church, even after fraternity parties and Saturday football games.
As graduation approached, Ross’s nighttime labors at Jackson Metal proved to be his ticket to the working world. The computers he operated were manufactured by Burroughs Corp., a leader in the computer industry at that time, and word of his proficiency with the machines apparently reached company headquarters.
“A couple of months before I graduated in 1982,” Ross says, “Burroughs called my parents and said they would like me to come work for them in Downingtown, up in Pennsylvania.”
Accepting the offer presented two immediate challenges: finances and transportation. He had little money and he didn’t own a car. Vernon, Sr. solved the first problem by borrowing $175 from a great-uncle to cover expenses until his son’s first paycheck arrived. Ross solved the second by persuading a friend to drive him the 1,140 miles from Utica to Downingtown.
Not surprisingly, the life-long southerner experienced some culture shock in his new home. As winter approached, he realized he didn’t have cold weather clothes. He couldn’t afford a heavy coat, but he did go to Woolworth’s and buy thermal underwear.
“Later on, a co-worker, Al Dunn, bought me a topcoat,” Ross says. “He and I are still friends to this day.”
Al Dunn aside, he found northerners “standoffish, not friendly.”
“I didn’t like that,” Ross says. “Down south, we speak to everyone, black or white.”
But he adjusted, to both the climate and the inhabitants of his new home. And today, the 56-year-old Ross can look back on a life in which he has achieved professional success and recognition in a range of jobs while feeding his hunger for learning and answering his spiritual calling.
In 1985 he left Burroughs to join GE Aerospace as an associate programmer, eventually becoming manager of the engineering leadership development program. GE Aerospace became Lockheed Martin in 1993, and Ross spent nearly 25 years with the company.
Meanwhile, he pursued his education, enrolling in the master’s program in computer education at Philadelphia University in 1989. Four months after he started graduate school, Vernon, Sr. died suddenly.
His father’s death had Ross thinking about dropping out to spend more time with his mother. “But a friend reminded me that my father had always wanted me to get my master’s,” Ross says. So he continued his studies, but frequently made the 20-hour drive back to Utica.
Then, in 1994, he answered the “special calling” that had started as a whisper when he was preaching in those tiny Mississippi churches of his youth: He enrolled at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. It took six years of part-time study, but in 2000, he received his master’s of divinity degree. He has been a pastor ever since.
Barely pausing to take a breath, he next enrolled in Wilmington University to pursue a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation. Getting a doctorate was a goal he had set for himself many years before.
“I really value education and teaching others, especially the young,” Ross says. “And I wanted to combine theology and education.”
He found that WilmU fit his almost impossibly hectic schedule. “It provided the flexibility to go at night — on the same night every week,” he says.
The 45-minute Wednesday night jaunt from his home near Valley Forge to New Castle was a breeze for this veteran of marathon drives to and from the Deep South — and the short drive was well worth it.
“Wilmington gave me the foundation and the diverse education to progress at Lockheed Martin,” Ross says. “When I started on my doctorate, I was a senior manager of learning and development. By the time I graduated, I was a director.”
Today, true to his upbringing, Ross keeps busy virtually every waking moment. After serving as minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pottstown, Pa., for 15 years, he and a portion of the congregation last year formed the non-denominational Bethel Community Church of Pottstown. As the leader of the 225-member congregation, now housed in a former synagogue that Bethel purchased this spring, Ross preaches most Saturday and Sunday mornings and two nights a week. He gets a break once a month when his assistant pastor takes over the pulpit.
In his professional life, Ross has transitioned from engineering to human resources, a field that seems more attuned to his expansive nature. Naturally, he returned to academia for credentials in his new field. In August of 2005 — seven months after getting his Ed.D. — he received a professional certification in human resource management from Villanova University.
In January, he left Lockheed Martin and joined SAIC (Science Application International Company) as director of diversity and inclusion. He works from home two days a week and spends three days at company headquarters in McLean, Va.
Ross has received numerous professional accolades during his career, including a Black Engineer of the Year Special Recognition Award in 2011. He has served on the adjunct faculties of the Penn State University Graduate Engineering Department Malvern campus and the Montgomery County Community College Computer Science Department and he is on the Advisory Board of the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology at Jackson State. He’s also active in Jackson State alumni activities and in the local chapter of the NAACP.
For this proud son of the South, his northern odyssey, though some-times challenging, has been marked by singular achievements in his profession, his church, and his community. And there is no doubt that more achievements lie ahead, because Vernon Ross, Jr. is still working from sunup to sundown. WU