An atmosphere of academic accomplishments and new beginnings was in the air at Western Carolina University’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center on Saturday, May 8 as the university held a pair of commencement ceremonies to honor nearly 1,600 current and former undergraduate students.
WCU’s spring class includes about 1,000 undergraduates who recently have been completing academic requirements to receive their degrees, and those students were joined in donning caps and gowns by approximately 570 WCU alumni who completed their undergraduate degree requirements in August or December of 2009, and who already have been conferred degrees. Those graduates were scheduled to participate in WCU’s regular fall commencement last December, but that ceremony was canceled due to a snowstorm that struck the region.
Commencement exercises for the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Allied Professions, and Fine and Performing Arts were held at 10 a.m., and that event was followed by a ceremony for the College of Business, College of Health and Human Sciences, and Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology at 3:30 p.m.
The morning ceremony included an address by WCU graduate student Jordan Parsons and the awarding of honorary doctorate degrees to WCU alumnus and banjo master Marc Pruett and to Doug Reed, a key figure in WCU’s development who directed the university’s public information office from 1966 to 1996.
Parsons received undergraduate degrees in Spanish and communication at WCU in December and is now enrolled in the master of arts in teaching program, with a concentration in teaching English as a second language.
Parsons, who was raised in Sylva and graduated as valedictorian at Smoky Mountain High School, recalled her experience at WCU’s freshman move-in day. “I was excited to learn and grow in my purpose, but I also was afraid of all the new challenges—new classes, campus life, unfamiliar teachers,” she said. “Four years later, I am saying goodbye to dear friends, professors and campus activities. Yet, I am taking with me as much as I leave behind.
“Through my involvement in different campus activities, I found people who were passionate about helping me and pointing me in the right direction,” Parsons said. “Many of you found mentors here at Western, as well. These people have poured their wisdom into our lives as we have sought our dreams. We are indebted to our mentors because they have invested in us, helping us determine who we are and what we want to be.
“Graduates, look around you,” Parsons said. “This room is full of people who have taken the time to invest in you because they believe in you. Now it is your turn—your moment to invest in others. Live purposefully every day, remembering that people are more important than things. The things that you accumulate will pass away, but the investments that you make in the people in your life will be your eternal legacy.
A Haywood County native, Pruett has earned wide acclaim as one of bluegrass music’s great banjo players during a stage and recording career that has spanned more than four decades. A winner of a Grammy Award for his work with Ricky Skaggs, Pruett now performs with the group Balsam Range, which includes two other WCU alumni.
Reading from the citation for Pruett’s honorary doctor of arts degree, WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo noted Pruett’s long association with Mountain Heritage Day, the university’s annual festival of Appalachian culture, and his continuing quest “to advance bluegrass music by reaching new fans here at home and all over the world.
“Your musical accomplishments alone are exemplary and worthy of great acclaim, but let it be noted that during your musical career you truly have been an ambassador with a banjo as you have traveled the world, representing your university, your mountains and your people with outstanding humor, warmth and personality,” Bardo read. “You have carved your own niche as one of Western North Carolina’s great culture icons and as a beloved son of the mountains.”
In accepting the honorary doctorate, Pruett recalled for the Ramsey Center audience a life-changing event that occurred when he was a small boy riding in the car with his father and listening to the radio.
“A song came on by the late Lonnie Irving—one he had written and recorded that was saturated with the emotions of a troubled life,” Pruett said. “The significance of that moment for me lives in the comment my Dad made when he saw I was moved by the message in that song. He asked me if I liked what I heard.
“Too overcome to speak, I simply nodded my head affirmatively,” Pruett said. “Then he said, ‘Son, that’s country music.’ He made that statement with a pride that told me, ‘We are country people, and it’s OK to feel those emotions.’ Our lives are sprinkled with a few defining moments, and I felt at that moment that whatever country music was would be part of my life.
“Thirty-six years ago, I stood excitedly at WCU as a graduating senior,” Pruett said. “Within me were dreams that I hoped to use in cultivating a life filled with purpose, a life meeting challenges and a life rising to the highest positive potential I could envision for myself. The preparation I received here at Western was invaluable toward shaping me as a person, in guiding me through my life’s work, and in helping me find many of those goals I envisioned in my youth.
“In parting, let me offer you my photograph,” he said. “Remember me through this: Pray that you are given enough passion to mold your aptitudes into what some call talent. Pray that you grow your talents sufficiently to share to the level the world deems as compassion. In this way, the fullest expression of passion is compassion.”
Reed was an adviser for six WCU presidents and chancellors during a period of three decades that saw the university become a member of the University of North Carolina system and its enrollment more than double. He came to WCU after a 17-year career in newspapers, including time as a reporter and editor for the Asheville Citizen-Times and Shelby Daily Star.
Reading from the citation from Reed’s honorary doctor of letters degree, Bardo noted that Reed “helped shape the university with wisdom and loyalty, becoming what can only be described as ‘the Sage of WCU.'”
“For those working in the media, you were the trusted and eloquent face of Western Carolina, and as a tenured associate professor, you developed the curriculum for WCU’s first journalism concentration and taught every journalism course for several years while working full time in your position as director of public information,” Bardo read. “Also, with your great knowledge of the people and resources of this region, and your rare judgment of human nature and political currents, you often were called upon to serve civic and service organizations throughout the region. Through it all, you fulfilled your duties with a sense of humor that made even the most difficult tasks and times both bearable and enjoyable.”
After being presented with his honorary doctorate, Reed recalled a time when he was considering taking a job at WCU and a friend advised him to accept the position, predicting that WCU was on the verge of growth and change. “He said, ‘Doug, you will be going in on the ground floor of a lot of change.’ He did not add that I would, indeed, be going in, literally, on the ground floor in an eight-by-10 cubicle with an old manual typewriter and one desk and two chairs and no help!” Reed said.
Reed noted some of the major changes that have occurred at WCU over the years, including WCU’s move from being a teacher’s college to regional university, and then the emergence of a “wider statewide concept of its place in North Carolina” and the diversification of academic programs.
“This institution has a great and good history,” he said. “We can be grateful that the trustees, presidents, chancellors, faculty, students, staff and alumni who made it so have been persons with vision and aspirations – persons committed to change.
“We are living in such a time, when Western is being led by John Bardo through a virtual metamorphosis, emerging once more in a different and better place – a 21st-century university that by embracing change surely has become an agent for change – change for the better,” Reed said.
“Western Carolina University has been generously good to me,” he said. “I thank you from a full heart.
Clarice Cato Goodyear, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, attended the afternoon ceremony to present the UNC system’s highest teaching honor, the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, to Gibbs Knotts, WCU associate professor of political science and public affairs. One award is given annually to a faculty member on each UNC campus to recognize superior teaching. Knotts was the featured speaker at WCU’s May 7 Graduate School commencement.
The undergraduate students who have been completing their degrees this spring semester are part of the largest graduating class in WCU’s history. With a spring Graduate School class of about 270 students, the total spring class is expected to number around 1,270.