‘Every day has been special’

Dr. Jerry McGee set to retire as Wingate University’s top official
Former student honors “coolest president on earth”

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

* Photo gallery – more than 400 snapshots
* Inman: There’s no place like Roberdel

MONROE — The twinkle in his eye never left. Not even for a moment.

As the line of individuals vying for just a moment of Dr. Jerry McGee‘s time thinned, McGee didn’t look towards the end of the line; he never looked past the first person in front of him. He had, after all, all night.

It was quite unlikely, in fact, that anyone would turnout the lights until McGee was ready to leave the Rolling Hills Country Club on Thursday night in Monroe. The resort is only a few miles west of Wingate University, from which McGee is scheduled to retire on May 16 at the school’s 119th commencement ceremony. That event will cap a 23-year job he never saw himself accepting in the first place.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Dr. Jerry McGee, left, warmly greets Raiford and Margene Troutman, of Concord, as part of the receiving line on Thursday at Rolling Hills Country Club in Monroe.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Dr. Jerry McGee, left, warmly greets Raiford and Margene Troutman, of Concord, as part of the receiving line on Thursday at Rolling Hills Country Club in Monroe.

Though decades in the making, McGee, a Roberdel native in rural Richmond County, spoke for only a few minutes when it was his turn at the podium. Suddenly speechless, McGee’s first recollection was a saying his mother used to share with him: When you don’t know what to say, “you say thank you.”

So he did. And he was quick to point at that all of the successes at Wingate University in the past 23 years would not have been possible without the help and support of quality people in key positions along the way.

“I was just driving the train,” said McGee, the longest serving college or university president in North Carolina, to some 200 friends, colleagues and supporters of a man who made a career in education.

McGee said he was especially impressed with how dedicated to the mission of protecting students’ best interests was so encompassing among the campus community. It was one of the reasons why he took the job, even though he didn’t ever plan to do so.

“I had no intention of coming to work at Wingate,” McGee said. “It was hard to leave.”

He was completely satisfied in his role as vice president for development at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., a position he held form 1987 to 1992. The change, though, was for the best.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Patrick Bartlett, Class of 2000, presents the retiring Dr. Jerry McGee with a gift.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Patrick Bartlett, Class of 2000, presents the retiring Dr. Jerry McGee with a gift.

“Every day has been special, McGee said. “Not every day has been a happy day” but even in difficult times, members of the campus community banded together to protect the primary goal of teaching students what they needed to know.

Sure, McGee said, there were detractors. But a mentor once told him, “Jerry, if you stop to quiet every barking dog, you’ll never get to the end of the street.”

McGee thanked a supportive board of trustees, members of which “led us ream big dreams.”

“In my 23 years here, I’ve become a better person,” he said.

And Wingate University, formerly Wingate College, has become a better place. Under his leadership, Wingate achieved university status, student enrollment nearly tripled, and academic programs were added in pharmacy, nursing, physician assistant studies and physical therapy. The university began offering three doctoral-level degrees in pharmacy, physical therapy and education.

The campus added more than $75 million in new facilities on its main campus and expanded its academic reach by opening campuses in Charlotte and Hendersonville.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Steve Poston, Wingate University vice president and director of athletics, called Dr. Jerry McGee "my one and only favorite one."

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Steve Poston, Wingate University vice president and director of athletics, called Dr. Jerry McGee “my one and only favorite one.”

Other highlights including the 2011 opening of the Levine College of Health Sciences building, which houses the School of Pharmacy and Department of Physician Assistants Studies, and the 1999 opening of the 44,000-square foot George A. Batte Jr. Fine Arts Center, which provides two venues for cultural arts performances and other presentations on campus. Irwin Belk Stadium, completed in fall 1998, and Irwin Belk Track, dedicated in 2013, provide an enhanced experience for student-athletes and fans of Bulldogs athletics.

An accomplished fundraiser, McGee established the Office of Planned Giving and has helped lead the university’s $100 million capital campaign.

Though quick to shy away from personal recognition, McGee was awarded in 2006 the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s most prestigious award presented to individuals who have rendered exemplary service to the citizens of North Carolina. He also is a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

It’s that last part that caught the attention of Patrick Bartlett, a member of the Class of 2000. On Tursday, Bartlett represented the student body of past and present by thanking him for his leadership.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Bartlett said he was reluctant to move from home some six hours away to the little city of Wingate, but was soon after glad he did. Bartlett acknowledged, however, no small amount of anxiety when the university president chose to sit at his lunch table every now and then.

McGee, Bartlett said, would always ask the students what they had planned for the weekend. Studying, Bartlett said. Bartlett said students then turned the table: What are you up to, Dr. McGee?

“Officiating the Rose Bowl,” was the answer. Or the Sugar Bowl. It was, Bartlett said, not quite on par with preparing for an exam.

“So we stopped telling him about our weekends,” recalled Bartlett, conceding defeat to the “coolest president on earth.”

McGee officiated at 404 college games over 36 years, including 20 bowl games. His officiating career came to an end at the 2009 BCS national title game. He is a member of the Wingate University Athletic Hall of Game, the South Atlantic Conference Athletic Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

 Steve Poston, Wingate University vice president and director of athletics, has worked for McGee since his arrival in Union County. The career academic introduced McGee to the audience on Thursday — not that anyone didn’t already know who he was — with his best Ed McMahon impression.
“Heeeeeeeere’s Jerry!”
 “That is the first time that I have ever referred to him by his first name,” Poston said. “There have been times I’ve referred to him by other names.”
Turning serious — at least for a moment — Poston called McGee a “visionary leader” and credited McGee with spearheading the effort to get Wingate University’s student enrollment to nearly 3,500. He recalled a meeting some years ago during which McGee said that was a goal; at the time, Poston said, the school boasted barely 1,500 students.
“We quit long ago saying Jerry McGee can’t do something,” Poston said of a man who “is my one and only favorite one.”

McGee earned a master of arts degree from Appalachian State University in 1974 and an Ed.D. in 1979 from Nova Southeastern University. His undergraduate degree is from East Carolina University.

He entered the field of higher education in 1975 as executive assistant to the president at Gardner-Webb University. He was vice president of institutional advancement at Meredith College from 1980-87 and vice president for development at Furman University from 1987-92 before being named president of Wingate.

McGee is the author of two books, “The Sitting and Talking Place,” which tells of his special relationship with his maternal grandfather, and “Roberdell – A Village of Grace” which describes life in the small textile community where he grew up.

Filed in: Education, Featured News, Latest Headlines, News, Rockingham

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