CULLOWHEE – Commencement ceremonies held for a record-breaking spring graduating class at Western Carolina University included recognition for undergraduate students recording perfect 4.0 GPAs, the awarding of an honorary doctorate to a Flat Rock resident and an address by one of the University of North Carolina system’s premier teachers.
Nearly 1,300 students who are part of WCU’s biggest spring class ever, which is expected to number almost 1,400 graduates, participated in ceremonies held Friday and Saturday (May 9-10) at the Ramsey Regional Activity Center.
The exact size of WCU’s spring class won’t be known until all academic records are finalized, but it is expected to outnumber last year’s then-record spring class by about 50 students. The university’s graduating classes have been boosted by surging enrollments in recent years, and the size of the spring class has doubled in the last 11 years. Last fall, WCU passed the 10,000-student enrollment mark for the first time.
Commencement for graduate students was held Friday night. Saturday included a morning ceremony for undergraduate students from the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Allied Professions, and Fine and Performing Arts, and an afternoon commencement for undergraduates from the College of Business, College of Health and Human Sciences, and Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology. WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher presided over all three events.
Four University Scholars – students who completed all their undergraduate studies at WCU with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages – were honored Saturday during ceremonies for their respective colleges. They are Morgan Elizabeth Boles, an elementary education major from Lexington; Erin Tyler Keenan, a communication sciences and disorders major from Cary; Emily Shayne Melrose, a double-major in business administration and Spanish from Waynesville; and Anja B. Nothdurft, a double-major in environmental science and natural resource conservation and management from Greenville.
The Saturday afternoon commencement included the awarding of an honorary doctor of business degree to David A. Woodcock Jr., a resident of Flat Rock who has built an illustrious career as an entrepreneur over the last six decades. A native of Philadelphia, Woodcock served in the U.S. Air Force in Alaska during the Korean War and played minor league baseball before beginning his career as an executive recruiter in New York City in the late 1950s. One of his first associations was with National Football League Commissioner Pete Roselle, and Woodcock served as an adviser to Roselle during development of the licensing enterprise now known as NFL Properties.
Later in his career, Woodcock partnered with fellow entrepreneur Wilson Harrell and television personality Art Linkletter in creating the firm Harrell, Woodcock and Linkletter, which purchased Formula 409, the world’s first household spray cleaner, and marketed it nationally. The partners later sold Formula 409 to Clorox and used the proceeds to grow the company Harrell International into the largest seller of processed food in the world. Woodcock led the firm to sales of more than $500 million annually as chief executive officer.
Reading from the honorary doctorate citation, Belcher noted that Woodcock has excelled at “developing companies, motivating investors, creating jobs and adding value to national, state and regional economies as an entrepreneur extraordinaire.”
Woodcock became a part-time resident of Western North Carolina in 1999, and then began his relationship with WCU when he moved to the area full time in 2005. Belcher said Woodcock, who traveled to the old Soviet Union in 1989 to teach the concepts of entrepreneurship to young Russian citizens, still had a strong desire to help young people learn about entrepreneurship when he began working with WCU students.
“Over the years, you provided valuable counsel for our students and gave many presentations for classes,” said Belcher, reading from the citation. “From 2007 until 2013, you served on both the College of Business Advisory Board and the college’s Board of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Your service also extended across the mountain region, as you have been instrumental in helping many business start-ups and assisting in their funding.”
After the reading of the citation, Woodcock received a long ovation from the Ramsey Center audience from his arena seat and his daughter, Susan Guinan, accepted the honorary doctorate on his behalf.
“My dad and our family and I would like to thank Chancellor Belcher and the Western Carolina University Board of Trustees for this incredible honor,” she said. “Being an active part of the university has been a high point in my father’s life. He is grateful for the many friends he has made and the good times you have all shared and enjoyed.
“Dad loves the students here at WCU,” Guinan said. “You have been an inspiration to him. He is so proud of your efforts and is excited for all your futures.”
The primary address during the Friday night Graduate School commencement was delivered by Annette Debo. The WCU English professor recently was named a recipient of the UNC system’s highest teaching honor, the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Debo began her comments to the graduate students by saying she “never meant to teach.” She earned an undergraduate degree in accounting in college and worked in that field for a time, but she eventually mailed in her application to enroll in graduate school. “That is where our stories converge – yours and mine – because graduate school opened new worlds for me, just as I’m sure it has done for you,” she said.
“As you cross this stage today and your graduate degree is confirmed, this present and all of your past unite to create the person you are becoming,” Debo said. “Today, you join an elite group. Less than 8 percent of Americans have earned a graduate degree. Graduate degrees provide increased employment opportunities and advancement, higher earnings over the life of your career, greater credibility in your field, and a deep sense of accomplishment and personal growth.
“To quote Mark Twain on this happy occasion, ‘Plan for the future because that’s where you are going to spend the rest of your life.’ And I believe that today you are proving that you have done just that.”
One Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching is given annually to a faculty member on each UNC campus to recognize superior teaching. Debo was presented her award during the Saturday morning undergraduate commencement by Board of Governors member Phillip D. Walker of Hickory, a WCU alumnus and former chair of the university’s Board of Trustees.
Walker also delivered greetings and congratulations to the graduating students at the two Saturday ceremonies on behalf of the Board of Governors and the UNC Office of the President. Handling that duty for the Friday night Graduate School commencement was Board of Governors member Joan G. MacNeill of Asheville, also a former chair of the WCU Board of Trustees.
Among the students wearing caps and gowns at the Friday night ceremony were the first 29 students to earn doctoral degrees in physical therapy at WCU. The students began the 33-month program in the fall semester of 2011 after the UNC Board of Governors gave its permission for WCU to expand its existing master’s degree program in physical therapy to a doctoral-level program.
All three ceremonies included special recognition of members of the graduating class who are active duty members of the military, veterans, or members of the National Guard and Reserves. Those students were distinguished by red, white and blue honor cords they wore with their caps and gowns.
During the Saturday morning commencement, a bachelor’s degree was awarded posthumously to Reagan Lee Hartley, an elementary education major from Willow Spring who died from injuries suffered in an automobile collision in Greensboro on April 3. Members of Hartley’s family were on hand to accept her degree.
Belcher delivered the chancellor’s charge at all three ceremonies. During the Saturday morning undergraduate commencement, he told the graduating students that regardless of whether they have their futures mapped out, or they are uncertain what is coming next, they have the minds and skills to chart their own courses in life.
“As you look toward your future, I charge you to hold tight to your grounding at Western Carolina University and the values for which this institution stands, to remain firm in your commitment to excellence and high standards, and to continue learning, whether in formal settings or on your own,” Belcher said. “As you pursue your careers and making money – as you do well – remember to do good,” he said.
“You are a part of Western Carolina University, and Western Carolina University is a part of you. Remember your grounding here in this remarkable slice of heaven known as Cullowhee.”
A complete list of the new WCU graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.