From musician to MCC president, a look at Dr. Dale Nesbary’s remarkable career

For Dr. Dale Nesbary, 10th president of Muskegon Community College (MCC), the idea of becoming a college president did not come into play until about nine years before he was appointed to the role that he began in June 2009.

As a matter of fact, Nesbary, who grew up in the small town of Twin Lake, was a trombonist landing paid gigs as a student of Reeths Puffer High School. He would go on to major in music at Michigan State University, eventually switching to political science and anthropology.

Already playing with big-name acts such as Nancy Wilson, The Temptations, George Benson, and Chuck Mangione, Nesbary felt that, since he was already earning a living as a musician, he would take a different route in his education. Majoring in a more stable field of study such as political science, he developed a more intellectual perspective, which helped him as he stepped into several professional roles.

Looking back over his career, Nesbary has worked with elected officials, in finance and budgeting, and served as a research director with the Boston Police Department. He excelled in academic affairs at the university level, taught as a tenured associate professor, and led administration at the community college level.

Approaching retirement

As he approaches retirement in June — exactly 13 years after beginning his leadership journey with MCC — Nesbary is ready to take a break from overseeing people and budgets after 36 years of success in these areas.

“In terms of leadership, I have managed a budget and led people every year since 1986,” Nesbary explains, pointing out that he worked his way up the chain to get to where he is, although this was not always his dream. 

Dr. Nesbary with the West Michigan Concert Winds trombone section during a 2016 performance at Carnegie Hall.

His family moved to Muskegon county in 1951, four years before he was born. At that time, his African American family could not buy a house in Muskegon due to redlining, which is how he ended up in Twin Lake, where the Nesbarys purchased 56 acres of property.

Nesbary has followed in his father’s footsteps in accomplishing what some may look at as the impossible. His “impossible” feat was becoming the first African American president of MCC. 

“Every day, there is a first,” he says of this accomplishment. “I personally wanted to be defined as the person who put a hard stop to people who look like me being treated poorly because of what someone thinks.”

Changing perceptions

Witnessing the defeatists’ attitudes and negativity about the college as he was taking on the president role, Nesbary had two main goals: Changing the perception that MCC wasn’t a good college and ensuring MCC was not overlooked for grant opportunities and funding to expand and grow. 

Nesbary points out that in an effort to make MCC stand on its own, two things were imperative: refusing to copy what other institutions were doing and implementing student engagement initiatives. Also, with advice and support from some impactful relationships that developed as he began his journey with MCC, Nesbary was able to advocate and gain access to grants (more than $21 million) to improve infrastructure and make long-overdue updates to equipment at the college.

Once these improvements and changes began to take place and be noticed, the naysayers, the ones who were previously doubtful about the future of MCC, were ready to become friends and supporters of the college. Also at that time, outside states and studies started ranking MCC as the best school in the state of Michigan.

In retirement, besides “sitting on the back porch watching the sunset,” Nesbary, who is married with two adult children, is looking forward to not running any offices or taking on any leadership roles. Instead, taking on a consultant role to work with others is a strong possibility for him as he leaves his MCC post.

Nesbary says he has always tried to surround or associate himself with like-minded people who have the same positive attitude and believe in their abilities to accomplish their goals, and he feels that this community, overall, has been supportive in displaying that positivity. As he moves forward in this next chapter of his life, Nesbary will continue to be an example to those who need to witness success.

Read more articles by Shanika P. Carter.