The Piano Man: Meet Chancellor David Belcher

The son of a Baptist minister and an elementary school teacher, Chancellor David O. Belcher grew up in the small town of Barnwell, S.C., a place where “everybody knew everybody,” according to Belcher.

“My father led the largest church in the town, which had a population of just under 1,000 people, so I had a very extended family,” said Belcher, who describes Barnwell as a very nurturing environment to grow up in.

As a child, Belcher would pick out tunes on his mother’s piano, exhibiting signs of a future pianist and compelling his parents to provide him with a piano instructor.

“I was always musically inclined on the piano, but my passion for it didn’t begin until I was in high school, where I found a great mentor for my skills,” said Belcher.

After graduating from high school, Belcher enrolled at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Belcher was the next torchbearer in his family, as his parents and siblings attended school there, and his grandfather was a trustee in the 1940s.

Studying piano performance, Belcher recalls that Furman was the perfect fit for him at the time, as he came from a small town to a small university.

“Furman is a great music school, and I had wonderful friends there. By the time of graduation, there were around eleven of us, mostly music majors, that were inseparable,” said Belcher.

Furman left a lasting mark on Belcher and visa-versa, as six of his friends and three of his professors from Furman attended his installation at Western Carolina University earlier this year.

Following graduation from Furman, Belcher attended graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“Early on, even in high school, I knew that I wanted to study piano, but knew that I needed to do something more with that. So I decided on attending grad school and teaching piano,” said Belcher.

The move from a small town school like Furman to a large school like Michigan was an adventure for Belcher.

“Michigan is one of the greatest music schools anywhere, and I had a fabulous learning experience while I was there. They had a remarkable performing arts series that gave me the opportunity to see some of the great musicians from around the world,” said Belcher.

Like at Furman, Belcher was aided by the support of great teachers and mentors who helped him thrive during a time of intense study.

After his time at Michigan, Belcher taught at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., aided by his teaching assistantship at Michigan and giving him some time to prepare before he began studying for his doctorate.

During that time, Belcher took his first extended stay overseas in Vienna, Austria, on a Rotary Foundation Graduate Fellowship. There he witnessed the greatest musicians in the world play in the city at the top of the classical music scene.

“Like other times in my life, I had the best teacher for me at that point in my development and I learned so much from her,” said Belcher.

“I learned a lot about myself and grew up a lot being in a culture other than my own,” said Belcher. “One of the great things about studying abroad is that you are challenged. Sometimes it reaffirms your assumptions but at least forces you to assess them.”

Vienna is not only a different country, but also the capital of Austria and one of four UN Headquarters in the world. Along with Austrians, the various embassies located there made for a heavily foreign experience for Belcher, but one that was both professionally and personally rewarding.

Belcher earned his doctorate at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, where he taught as well, giving him good preparation and making him competitive in the job market once he began searching for a position after graduation.

It did not take long for Belcher to find one, either, taking a position at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. Belcher worked at Missouri State for nearly fifteen years, nine and a half of them spent in administration as dean of the College of Arts and Letters.

“Ever since two of my piano teachers had told me that I would make a good administrator, that thought was stuck in the back of my head,” said Belcher. “Nine months into my time at Missouri State, two pianists left the faculty, so I became coordinator of keyboard studies. Then I rose to become assistant dean and then a year later, I was made dean on six days notice.

“I loved the faculty, staff, and students at Missouri State,” continued Belcher. “We had superb academic performance and generally a lot to celebrate and to do. We did good things at that time.”

In 2003, Belcher left Missouri State to join the University of Arkansas at Little Rock as provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs.

“I was interviewed by the chancellor of Little Rock for my position and told him that I was interested in being the head guy like him. He became an incredible mentor for me and gave him opportunities as a provost to learn about areas that are important to a chancellor and that, normally, deans don’t do,” said Belcher.

The recertification process for UALR athletics came up in 2009, and the chancellor assigned Belcher the job of leading that recertification. In doing so, Belcher learned a ton about the rules and regulations behind athletics, which was a great setup for eventually becoming a chancellor somewhere and an experience that would set him apart from other candidates.

In the summer of 2010, Belcher and his wife, Susan, a former assistant to David Copperfield and ultra-distance runner, visited family for a week in S.C. and then stayed in the Asheville area for another. Belcher had relayed to his wife that he always thought Asheville would be a great place to eventually retire. Belcher and his wife loved the area, and six months later he was contacted by WCU, who was searching for its next chancellor.

Belcher was selected as the next chancellor for WCU, installed in 2012 and has since become an icon on campus, from running up and down sidelines cheering on the Catamounts to interacting with students around campus during his day-to-day activities.

“We love the people and the environment. I don’t think we have even scratched the surface of what Western can become. It is on the cusp of taking off and I am excited about it,” said Belcher.

As a final statement, he hopes that Freshens will continue to sell his favorite Burple Purple ice cream this year.