Back to the hill

His name might not ring a bell.

And few Rattlers know the scope of his impact on campus.

For more than 30 years, Roland Gaines has been instrumental in increasing enrollment numbers and recruiting National Achievement Scholars to Florida A&M University.

After a brief hiatus at North Carolina Central University with President James Ammons from 2001 until 2007, he has come back home.

Rattler ‘Til I Die

His two young grandchildren excitedly rush to envelop Gaines in a bear hug as his son Craig looks on. One might think this scene takes place in Gaines’ home-and in a way-his office on the third floor of Foote-Hilyer is home.

“There is a lot of history at FAMU in our family,” Craig said.

Craig was even born in Foote-Hilyer in 1967 back when the administration building was a hospital.

In 1965-before moving up the administration chain to become vice president of student affairs-Gaines was just a regular student on campus.

“Because he was a student at FAMU he has a feel for the campus life, and he can relate that to the students he recruits,” said his sister, Kay Gaines. “He’s lived in Tallahassee all of his life.”

And when he was considering where to go for college, Kay said: “Nowhere but FAMU. There was no other school for him.”

Gaines, who is 18 months older than his baby sister, was already busy as a sophomore sociology student whenKay enrolled at FAMU in the mid ’60s.

The two rarely got the chance to hang out on campus. This is partly because he was pledging Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

“There was a big brother dating a girl across town, so each Thursday night when I was supposed to be in a history session, he would make me take him to visit her,” he said. “I would have to sit in the car until he came out.”

But then the girl began to flirt with Gaines. “I wouldn’t say anything to her; I wouldn’t even look at her,” he said. “And of course, (my big brother) got jealous. So each Thursday night when I got back on campus I got the ‘wood.’ And each Thursday night I had to take him back over there.”

During this time, he was also married to his college sweetheart Johnnie. They lived in Polkinghorne Village. Life was hectic for the young couple, but Gaines said his parents helped out a lot.

They had Craig in 1967, but divorced in 1972. “We were married too young,” he said. “We just went our separate ways.”

Papa Gaines

During those college years Gaines managed to balance a family, his studies, fraternity life, the ROTC and his job in the registrar’s office.

“I don’t know how he balanced it, but he did,” Kay said.

He also managed to take the role of his sister’s father figure.

“He was always overprotective of me-even when I dated,” she said. “Oh, we fussed. If I came home late, he was the one who wanted to discipline me instead of my daddy.”

Once when she went out on a date during college, she came home to find her brother waiting up for her.

“I just asked my daddy if it was OK, and he said, ‘Well, you’re grown, you know how to take care of yourself.’ And I looked at Roland and said, ‘So now what?’ “

She said he always had that father figure trait in him.

When he was about eight years old his father got sick and could no longer work. So the family depended on his mother, who was a cook, and the money his dad received from Social Security.

“She spoiled me…” Gaines reminisced about his mother. “And my dad spoiled my sister. She was his baby and could do anything she wanted to do, so I stepped in to stop that from happening.”

“The two of us are only 18 months apart,” she said. “So we played together and we fought together. (And now) he’ll confide in me, and I’ll confide in him.”

Gaines assumed the father figure role early on, and even in childhood he was the one the family always depended on.

Moving Forward

Even in high school, Gaines always had a leadership role. He was section leader of the French horn section in the marching band, and eventually became president of the entire band.

Everything was going fine for Gaines, who was then a sophomore at Lincoln High School, an all black school in Tallahassee during the time of segregation.

But then a group of Florida State University students completing their doctorates came to campus and counseled members of his class for a couple of months.

“I told them I wanted to go to college,” he said. “From their observation and testing, they told me that not only would I not go to college, but they doubted if I would even graduate from high school.”

“I was shocked and in disbelief because I prided myself on getting my work done

and competing with my classmates,” he said. He never shared that story with his friends or his family because he was ashamed.

Looking back, he believes racism played a part in the FSU student’s prediction, but he used that moment to better himself.

“It became an inspiration for me that I would graduate from high school and do pretty well,” he said. “Everything from then on became a competition. I wanted to be as smart as or smarter than the students in my class.”

After high school he went on to graduate from FAMU in two and a half years, and he went directly into a masters program in education at the university. FAMU had a trimester system during this time, which allowed him to take more credits throughout the year.

“I really strive on solving problems-even to this day I love challenges,” Gaines said. “I think it goes back to that Ph.D. student from Florida State. I really have had to prove throughout my life that I’m somebody and I can do things.”

His career at FAMU started after he graduated.

“I started working in the registrar’s office right out of high school that summer-even before I started going to school,” Gaines said.

He continued to work there while he was a student, and after graduating, got a full-time position in the office. He worked there until 1997. This is when he became associate vice president of student affairs, and worked closely with Ammons, who was the university’s provost, and then-President Fred Humphries. This association led Ammons to take Gaines with him to NCCU in 2001 when Ammons became chancellor.

What FAMU lost from 2001 to 2007 was NCCU’s gain.

Ammons and Gaines helped increase enrollment from 5,753 in fall 2001 to 8,675 in fall 2006. The university also recruited more National Achievement Scholars, recruiting three in 2005 and six in 2006. It was No. 3 in the statewide university system and No. 3 among historically black universities nationwide in the recruitment rankings.

Gaines said the current state of FAMU seems like déjà vu. NCCU had some of the same problems when he and Ammons went in 2001.

“They hadn’t had a clean audit in over 20 years, enrollment was declining and the economy was bad. They had to turn money back to the state because of declining enrollment,” Gaines said.

“It was pretty rough there for two years, but we made a decision that we were going to put things in place to grow enrollment. People would realize this was a little school, but it was on the move.”

As vice chancellor for student affairs, Gaines also put an effort into interacting with the students.

One of Us

During his stay at NCCU, some students even called him “Papa” Gaines.

“That was one of the phrases used for him,” said Mukhtar Raqib, NCCU’s 2006-2007 student body president.

“He allows you to get that close to him, and he made it easy to go him about issues. He was always part of the student body.”

He got to know the students by just being there. He went to games, out-of-town trips, and even ate in the Café.

On a crowded bus full of noisy college students, Gaines was part of the mix.

Raqib said Gaines was easy to get along with.

“He’s always cracking jokes. I liked that about him,” Raqib reminisced. “He really does think he’s funny. I didn’t always think so, but sometimes I would laugh.”

And he was always straightforward-sometimes too much, Raqib said.

“He would get on your nerves from time to time. But who doesn’t? Just by telling you what you don’t want to hear when you need to hear it.”

He had a lot invested in the university. “A lot of his accomplishments, people weren’t ever aware he was doing those-like recruiting scholars, giving money to the band or giving SGA more funding,” Raqib said.

Coming Home

Now that he’s back at FAMU, Gaines doesn’t have a lot of free time. The time he does have is spent with his family or at New Zion Primitive Baptist Church, where he is a deacon. He has been married to his current wife, Irene, since 1982, and has three grown sons and seven grandchildren.

“Ammons took me away from retirement twice,” he said. Gaines, 59, tried to retire from FAMU in 2001 and again in 2006 from NCCU.

“I want to retire!” he said with a chuckle. “That’s what I want to accomplish-I want to see what that’s about.”

But not before he helps fix his alma mater.

“A number of people have asked me will I stay at FAMU until everything is straightened out, and I told them, I really would like to stay longer than that. I want it restored to its former glory and then moved beyond that.”