The men and women of the United States Armed Forces deserve a salute — especially the military chaplains who provide them and their families with spiritual support. One such chaplain is the new president of Charleston Southern University; he is none other than Major General Dondi Costin, who retired as the Air Force chief of chaplains after 32 years of service.
Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, into a deeply committed Christian home, Dondi Costin was destined to succeed. In 1976, his parents helped start a church in their living room, aptly named Freedom Baptist Church, in honor of the national bicentennial. That church is still going strong now more than 40 years after its launch. His father owned a floor covering business which he used as a vehicle to spread the glory of God, while his mother helped with the business and was the “world’s greatest Sunday School teacher.” The Costins had two children: Dondi and a younger daughter, Alexa, who is now a schoolteacher.
Dondi attended E. A. Laney High School, whose main claim to fame is Michael Jordan, widely considered the best basketball player of all time. Dondi was another outstanding student who excelled in athletics, played trumpet for the All-state Band and was valedictorian of his class. In his free time, Dondi was deeply involved in church activities.
He was appointed to the United States Air Force Academy by Senator Jesse Helms and began his plebe year in 1982. Before he matriculated, his mother had prayed daily that the Academy would have a Baptist pastor while Dondi was there. In God’s Providence, that was the same year a 1969 Academy graduate named Charlie Baldwin returned to the Academy — this time as a chaplain. Thus started a relationship that blessed Dondi’s years at the Academy, persisted throughout his career and continues as a friendship to this day.
After graduation in 1986, Dondi spent three years at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, as an industrial engineer conducting operational tests/evaluations of air-to-ground precision guided munitions; this technology later proved highly effective in the First Gulf War. While at Elgin, Dondi met Vickey Northey at church and they were married before he was transferred to Langley Air Force Base in 1989.
Three years later found the Costins in Ft. Worth at Texas Christian University, where Dondi was an assistant professor of aerospace studies and taught courses in leadership, management, political science and military history. He also supervised cadets in the Air Force ROTC leadership development program, something so successful that it resulted in a 50 percent increase in student enrollment. In the evenings he was able to finish the curriculum for his master of divinity degree at Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, which was only ten minutes from work. He accomplished this prodigious feat through hard work and Vickey’s continued support.
The divinity degree gave Dondi the credentials to become a military chaplain who could support airmen and their families as they “did the hard work of national defense.” In this capacity he spent the next 22 years in an impressive array of positions. His most rewarding job was witnessing the transformation of young Americans from civilians into military professionals during their basic training in Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
In 2011 his assignment was senior chaplain in Qatar, where he was an advisor to the three-star commander of 28,000 multinational troops and responsible for the support of numerous contingency and humanitarian relief operations across the globe. He felt that ministering to airmen on the front line in an area covering the Middle East and Central Asia was the honor of a lifetime. His next duty was senior chaplain in the Pacific during the period when both North Korea and China were causing globally-important problems.
While on active duty, Dondi also managed to earn five masters degrees and two doctorates. His military decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star Medal.
Ultimately, his outstanding academic, management and leadership skills caused him to be chosen Air Force chief of chaplains in 2015, following in the footsteps of his pastoral mentor and friend of decades, Charlie Baldwin. As such, he reported to the Air Force chief of staff, was responsible for more than 664,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian forces serving in the U.S. and overseas, and led 2,000 chaplains and Religious Affairs Airmen from the Air Force Chaplain Corps. His key focus was developing spiritually fit airmen to “fly, fight and win.”
Dondi took terminal leave from the Air Force in June of this year and started as president of CSU July 1. The story of how he was hired is almost miraculous. With eyes to the future as early as 2005, Dondi and Vickey began to wonder what they would do after the Air Force. To prepare for that eventuality, Dondi decided that yet another advanced degree might open doors beyond the military. With that goal in mind, he attended The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in leadership. Armed with that diploma, last October Dondi Googled “college president vacancies” to see what was out there, but CSU was not “on the radar.”
In January of this year, a friend mentioned that CSU was looking for a president, but the search committee’s deadline was THAT DAY. Dondi rushed home and worked so feverishly that his application was in CarterBaldwin Executive Search’s box before the beginning of the next business day.
The committee unanimously selected him from more than 60 qualified candidates because of his passion for leading the university to integrate faith in learning, leading and serving. CSU’s retired president Jairy Hunter and his staff have laid the foundation for making this happen. Dr. Costin will be inaugurated on October 29 and will build upon that solid foundation.
He launched a strategic planning effort a few weeks ago to chart a course for the next three to five years. A future article in the Carolina Compass will detail those plans. In Dr. Costin’s words regarding the future life and impact of this university, “With God’s help, the best is yet to come.”
My appreciation to MG Charlie Baldwin, USAF, retired, for suggesting that the Charleston Mercury profile Dondi Costin; Gen. Baldwin is also a regular correspondent for the Carolina Compass.