A Tribute to Dr. Charles Candler McConnell, Jr., a true neighbor

[Editor’s Note: This is an editorial piece written by a staff writer who knew Dr. Charles McConnell, Jr.]

Are there ever enough of the right words to describe the lives of those who have touched so many? At the end of January, Jackson County lost one who cared deeply and fully for its citizens, Dr. Charles Candler McConnell, Jr.

McConnell was a member of the Jackson County Athletic Hall of Fame, a Rotarian, a teacher, a coach, an administrator, a past Superintendent of Jackson and Haywood Counties, respectively, and the chief fundraiser for Jackson Neighbors in Need. McConnell spent numerous hours volunteering whenever he had the chance but was first and foremost a father, a husband and a friend.

By the age of 69, McConnell had accomplished many great things. He graduated from Cullowhee High in 1962 and went on to play basketball at Western Carolina University, graduating in 1966. McConnell then pursued master’s degrees from both WCU and Winthrop College in Rock Hill, S.C. Deciding that was not enough, he then received his doctorate in Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

McConnell not only loved learning but also public service. He spent a total of over 30 years dedicated to the education of the future generations and was a co-founder of the New Century Scholars program at Southwestern Community College. As a member of the Rotary Club, McConnell received the Paul Harris Fellows Award, given to those who give abundantly to others. In 2012, he was the recipient of the Governor’s Medallion Award, rewarded to those who have shown their ample compassion and concern for their neighbors. From 1981 through 1991, McConnell was the Superintendent of Haywood County, and then returned to Jackson County as the superintendent until his retirement in 1997.

McConnell was always supported by his wife of 46 years, Ruth Morgan McConnell. Together, they raised three children: Greg, Jeff and Kristy. McConnell instilled the love and compassion that he lived by in his children. Selfless love seemed to be his mantra.

Harold Messer, McConnell’s best friend and right-hand man, opened windows into the life of his mate.

“There is no human being on this earth that could tell you all the things Charlie [McConnell] did for this community and different people. He loved apple fritters and a good laugh. He would always bring people things from his garden. He was always giving to others,” said Messer.

Messer shared a story about one windy, snowy day when he and McConnell, then only children, paved the way to help others.

“It was one cold winter when we were asked to find some furniture for a family that didn’t have any at all, and I had a table and some chairs that I was going to give. Charlie [McConnell] went with me to deliver them. It was so cold in that trailer, and there were two little kids, one was a little girl about six and the other was a boy who was about four or five, and they were running around that trailer with no shoes, no socks and barely any clothes.

“[Charlie and I] got back in the truck,” Messer said, “and I said ‘It really hurts me that there are those babies running around with it being so cold. I wish there was something we could do.’ Charlie said, ‘There is.’ He took me straight down to Wal-Mart and we bought socks, boots and coats for the both of them and brought them directly back to those kids. That little girl threw her arms around him and gave him a big hug. We went back to the truck and it just touched our hearts.”

Messer explained how that one act led to the start of Neighbors in Need.

“Two months later, we met at the old Webster school, and he had eight people from the community, and we started talking about what we could do as a group to help people in the winter . . . That was the beginning of Neighbors in Need. That all came about through two little children and Charlie’s big heart,” said Messer.

“You could count on him,” Messer added about McConnell. “That kind of dynamic person could remember things, and he had a soft heart. Now, he was a big man and had a big personality, and we would go to these houses and see these people wrapped up in four quilts sitting in a chair and he’d cry. It flat out broke his heart to see people suffering. It’s hard to find people with that kind of true feeling for others.”

McConnell was the type of man that attracted people to him. He was always ready with a smile and a story. You could count on him to make you laugh while he was helping you out of a rough patch.

Messer said, “Everywhere we went, Charlie would know someone. I used to pick on him and say ‘You couldn’t go to the dump without meeting someone you know.’ He was a magnet, people would just come to him. He was just a dynamic person. He would never let anyone feel inferior just because you didn’t have the education that others had.

“People would always say he was a homebody, and I always told him that,” said Messer. “We would invite him to go places in the winter, and his rebuttal would always be ‘Someone may need me.’ He always put himself last. It was more important for him to be available to help people than to go and bask in the sun for a week. Very few people are that self-sacrificing.”

McConnell was not a man to work for his own recognition. He did not do what he did for the glory or attention. He did it because there was something to be done. It didn’t matter what the problem was, he would use every ounce of his charisma to help others.

When asked about McConnell, Ginger Fulbright said, “He was a big man with a bigger heart, and he was always looking for a way to help others. When he found a project, he put his whole heart into it and recruited the help and attained the resources needed to get the job done without any fanfare.”

McConnell was a wonderful influence on the young people of Jackson County. His life was an inspiration that greatness can be achieved if you work for it. With his passing, there is a hole in the backbone of Jackson County. His loss is not just felt by those who were close to him but by all. Many may not have known him directly, but his influence and warmth has reached throughout the community.

As Messer said, “You couldn’t say no to him. There aren’t 10 people in this world that can line up and fill his shoes.”

He was everywhere doing things to better this community. No one can ever replace Charles Candler McConnell, Jr., but there is a need in this county. There is a need to help others. We can only hope that people can hear about his life and his heart and take it upon themselves to reach out and help others.

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that donations be made to New Century Scholars, 447 College Dr., Sylva, NC 28779; Jackson Neighbors in Need/Mountain Projects, 25 Schulman St., Sylva, NC 28779; or to the First Baptist Church of Sylva New Kitchen Fund, 669 West Main St., Sylva, NC 28779.