One thing you notice right away when chatting with Dr. Stuart Van Horn and Dr. Frank Gornick are the sports terms.
They fly fast and loose through any conversation they have with each other. “Scrum”, “playing on the same team,” “wearing the same jersey.” Their language is dripping in athleticism, the patois of those familiar with the exhilaration of stretching your body to the limit, of competition and winning and losing. Athletics are a central focal point for both of them, even in the way they communicate with one another.
Van Horn, a very tall man whose frame testifies to his history as a basketball player, and Gornick, who is still in older age not far off from looking like the football player he once was, both credit sports for building them into the men they are. A popular pastime for both is golf, especially for Van Horn
“He’s a better golfer than me, but he should be since he’s been playing longer,” says Gornick of Van Horn. In fact, sports even played a big role in them meeting in the first place.
When we sat down to chat about their professional and personal relationship—on Van Horn’s 61st birthday no less—they estimated that they met sometime around 1994, when both were involved with the Community College League of California’s Commission on Athletics.
Van Horn at the time was the Associate Commissioner of the Community College League of California’s Commission on Athletics, a role he held for nine years. In that time, Gornick said, he noticed the potential in Van Horn. Gornick was chair of the policy board for the organization.
“That’s when I noticed his talents and his skills in terms of being able to organize and promote,” Gornick said. “He could really get results when it came to fostering relationships and getting people and groups to sponsor things.”
Van Horn reminisced on the fact that he used to write Gornick’s scripts for COA events and how Gornick would often try to ad lib and go off script, a source of friendly consternation.
“We always had fun with it,” Van Horn said. “That was one thing that Frank and I shared was that we weren’t going to get outworked, but we also never took things too seriously.”
As members of COA, the two tackled issues ranging from contiguous districts to conference placement, gender equity and more. However, Gornick remembers Van Horn as never losing his cool.
“From my perspective of Stu, in that kind of environment I saw him as a peer,” Gornick said. “He handled those conflicts and personalities. No one ever got mad at him. That was a good training ground for him.”
Van Horn, conversely, appreciated how good of a leadership model Gornick provided him.
“It was easy for Frank and I because we were very passionate about the value of intercollegiate athletics,” Van Horn said. “We both took our own circuitous paths, not unlike a lot of the students in our colleges. That resulted in us crossing paths often and seeing a commonality in our approach to leadership. Frank always had this urge for progress. Even during our time here at West Hills, we had a reporting relationship but we also had a great personal relationship. We wore the same jerseys. Whatever it may be, we were proud of this region and we were going to fight for it.”
When a new position opened up at West Hills Community College District for a Vice Chancellor of Educational Services, Gornick thought of Van Horn and was happy to see he applied. Van Horn got the job and, as they say, the rest was history.
“Stu described working for West Hills as an on ramp,” said Gornick. “Most people from a traditional background would see us as an off ramp in terms of priority, a place to retire, be complacent, but not Stu. Working here is an on ramp. We’re a drive to, not a drive by destination.”
Another trait that both admire in each other is a willingness to innovate and do things a different way. Both have decades long careers in community colleges and both have seen their fair share of lethargic districts, inner college squabbling and stagnation. To them, West Hills is different. Here, you can get things done.
“During my time as Vice Chancellor, a lot of our relationship was grounded in a firm belief in each other,” Van Horn said. “We never had issues with the supervisor/employee relationship. I grew and was mentored by Frank in a lot of ways. I was never unable to share what I was really feeling and something really was honed in me, the idea that you should stay true to your instincts and intuition.”
He and Gornick worked in tandem, according to Van Horn, until Gornick’s retirement as Chancellor in 2017. However, the relationship didn't end there and wasn't confined to just working together in a professional setting: it's a lifelong one. That's what true friendships are about.
Gornick is now Chancellor Emeritus and it’s more than an honorary title. Gornick helps fundraise for the district, foster relationships and is intent on helping with long term projects like the WHCCD broadband initiative.
“What we’re doing right now is capitalizing on the regional equity Frank brings to the table,” Van Horn said. “It’s right up Frank’s alley. Cultivating relationships he’s had so long and being able to focus on that.”
What’s the impact been on their relationship now that Gornick’s retired and Van Horn’s in charge?
“He’s my boss,” said Gornick.
“He’s my friend,” replied Van Horn.
Before the end of my interview with both, they shared one final sports story: the tale of how they single handedly may have broken the Curse of the Billy Goat, the legendary curse that kept the Chicago Cubs from winning the World Series for 108 years. The curse outlasted the Ottoman Empire.
In 2016, during a lull at a conference in Chicago, the two visited Wrigley Field on opening day and even took a tour. Gornick, a Chicago native, feels this was significant. Van Horn, a diehard Los Angeles Dodgers fan, is dubious.
But at the end of the day, sports continue to provide a valuable framework for both and perhaps even a Dodgers fan can take a lesson from the Cubs.
“We’ve lost at things before,” Van Horn said. “You’re going to lose sometimes, but you’ve got to learn from it. I might get my butt kicked Monday but I’m back Tuesday at 100%. Recover quickly and focus on what’s next and what you’ve learned. Improve yourself.”