More than one-hundred Woodlawn Middle School eighth graders got a chance to hear living history last week. 

On Friday, Feb. 8, Harrisonburg, Virginia Police Chief Eric English visited as a guest speaker for Black History Month.

English, a native of Efland and the City of Harrisonburg’s first African-American Chief, shared his life story and some words of advice with students.

English started off by explaining his background, growing up in Efland and becoming a basketball standout at Orange High.

“Basketball was going to be my thing,” English said. “My parents always instilled that you have to stay focused on school and focused on your grades too. Competition, for me, growing up, competition was good – and I say that not only in sports. I was competitive in school. I know some of you might think this is corny, but even in high school, I had two female friends of mine, good friends to this day… we used to always have classes together and we would always have competition on who was going to get the best score on the test.”

Those competitive grades and basketball skills led English to a full ride scholarship to the University of Richmond. However, college did not begin how he expected.

“I was going to see how far this game could take me, but the first couple of years I struggled,” he said. “I called mom and dad and said, ‘hey I’m ready to leave.’ I was ready to leave, not stop playing basketball, but I was ready to go to school where I could play more. You know what they told me? ‘You committed to that school, you’re going to stay.’ I was like, ‘wow.’ I’m looking for some support… nope. They said, ‘you’re committed. You’re going to stay.’”

That commitment led to success on the court, but left English still wondering what he wanted to do.

“I get to my senior year and the last game I played I’m still saying, ‘what am I going to do when I leave this school? I still don’t know.’ I majored in criminal justice, sociology double major. I still had no clue what I wanted to do,” he said. “If somebody had told me I’d be standing here in a police uniform back when I was in the eighth grade I’d say, ‘you’re crazy. That is not what I’m going to do. I’m not going to be a police officer.’ But things change.”

After a conversation with an FBI agent peaked his interest, English decided to join the Richmond Police Department.

“This job for me was a job where I said, ‘I’m going to try it. See how I like it and if I like it, I’ll stay in it,’” English said. “Six months out of college, I joined the police department in Richmond, Virginia. Six months into the job, I knew I was not going anywhere. I just loved it. It was something that I loved to do. It’s something that I felt like I was made to do.”

English decided to make law enforcement his career and began setting goals for himself within the department. After seven years, he was promoted to Sergeant. Several years later after obtaining a Master’s degree, English was again promoted to Lieutenant, then Captain, then Major, and later reached Deputy Chief by 2011.

“In my 25th year, I made up my mind, it’s time to pursue my dream of being a Chief of Police somewhere,” English said. “Harrisonburg, Virginia was my seventh opportunity to be a Chief somewhere. Seventh opportunity. I went through six other processes before I got the job in Harrisonburg. I’m not talking about just applying. I’m talking about getting down to one of the final finalists in six different processes and I was never able to get over the hump. Was I disappointed that I didn’t those jobs? Yes, I was. Always disappointed. But I never said, ‘man, if I could ever be a Chief.’ I never said that. You know what my process was? I said, ‘when I get to be Chief.’ I never said ‘if,’ I said ‘when.’”

English gave students some personal words of advice to help them reach their goals.

“A couple things I would advise you all as young people… that path to get there is not always a straight line,” he said. “It may not be a straight line in your job to get to that pinnacle. There may be some bumps in the road. As I’ve mentioned to you all, there were a couple bumps in my road.”

English also advised students to pick jobs that they love, build relationships with those around them, and to ‘keep their noses clean.’

“Does everybody know what I mean by that? ‘Keep your nose clean’ means stay out of trouble,” he said. “I didn’t say kids are not going to make mistakes. I didn’t say that because we’ve all made mistakes… But the best way to excel and reach your goals is to stay out of trouble. And some people get in trouble just from the people they hang around, just from the people that hang with. It’s ok to be different.”

He continued, “You never know where life is going to lead you, but when you find your niche, when you find something that you love to do, don’t let anybody stop you from getting there. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it. Set your goals, find your path, do something you love, stick with it and you’ll have success.”

After speaking with the students, English said he was happy to return home and share some words of wisdom. 

“I think one of the things I wanted them to take away was you’re always going to hit bumps in the road. I don’t want people to give up on themselves. That’s something I never did, something that never even cross my mind. So hopefully kids, when they hit a wall, they’ll understand ‘alright, I need to take a different direction. I’m still going to get there, it just might not be the path that I was going to take.’ That’s what I’m hoping kids will grasp from this,” he said. “For myself, I never looked at my job in Harrisonburg as being the first African-American Chief there, but that’s what it is. So, what’s great for me is showing kids that you may go into something you may not think can be accomplished because you may have not seen anybody there that looks like you. But there’s opportunities out there for you.”

Woodlawn Middle School Resource Officer Deputy Jeremy Paul has coordinated multiple guest speakers for students in recent years. Next up, Alamance County District Court Judge Larry Brown Jr. will be stopping by for Black History Month.