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Top 50 Hokie Spotlight: Jerry Gaines

By Taylor Caskey | August 02

Top 50 Hokie Spotlight: Jerry Gaines

A top 50 Hokie could be a star athlete, war veteran, teacher, or a coach; but what about someone who is every one of these things? Jerry Gaines is that man. Amidst all of these incredible accomplishments, Gaines is also the first African-American at Virginia Tech to earn a full athletic scholarship. His athletic achievements speak for themselves, but what is truly remarkable is his ability to connect with people. Gaines is described by those who know him as someone who “started to fill my tank and give me some hope” and someone who created a classroom that was “the safest place [I have] ever been in my life.” Gaines’ welcoming and can-do attitude has helped him garner success in many different situations throughout his life.

The story of Jerry Gaines begins in Virginia Beach, Virginia where he began competing for his high school track team in the early 1960s. While segregation in schools was technically abolished in 1954, some schools were still segregated in the 1960s; one of these schools being Gaines’ high school, Crestwood High. African-Americans were continuing to lose out on opportunities and Gaines becoming aware of the issue was forced to make a difficult choice. With a heavy heart, he made the decision to leave his friends behind and move to a primarily white school to fully pursue his passion for track.

Upon arriving at Churchland High in Portsmouth, Va., Gaines was met with plenty of success but battled with the notion that he was no more athletically-superior than his friends at Crestwood; he had just escaped the situation. In their honor, Gaines pushed himself every day to perfect his craft so that he could secure his future. After a few years at Churchland High, Gaines earned a full scholarship to run track at Virginia Tech and arrived on campus in the fall of 1967.

While paving the way for future black athletes, Gaines was able to set multiple records at Tech; some of which he still holds today. He is currently tied for first in men’s all-time outdoor performer in 120 yard high hurdles. He is third in outdoor long jump and fifth in the indoor long jump. If that wasn’t enough, Gaines took his extra year of eligibility to play football as a defensive end and punt returner for the Hokies after finishing his track career.

Although Gaines earned a degree in Spanish, he put his passion for teaching on hold and enlisted in the Army where he was the second lieutenant. Following his stint in the military, Gaines returned to Chesapeake, Virginia where he became a Spanish teacher and was able to coach football, track, and cross-country at Western Branch High. He was able to lead his teams to multiple district and regional titles over the years. During this time, he was also named High School Coach of the Year in 1987 and Teacher of the Year in 1990. One of his students described him as having “an incredible gift of encouraging high school students,” while another female student has a cherished memory of Gaines being the first person to speak at her son’s memorial. The overwhelming consensus seems to be that Gaines was more of a companion than a teacher.

Gaines has been embodying the meaning of Ut Prosim his whole life whether on the track, in the army, or in the classroom. He has used his experiences to serve those around him and is continuing to change people’s lives to this day. What may be the most impressive aspect of Gaines’ story to note is that although he set multiple records as an athlete and was the first African-American athlete on a full scholarship at VT, he has played a significant role as a mentor in peoples’ lives and doesn’t seem to have any plans of stopping any time soon. Gaines is nothing short of a remarkable human and valuable Virginia Tech alumnus who will make anyone proud to be a Hokie.