History & Traditions
Wingate University is known for its focus on preparing students for the future. A quick look at Wingate history shows why.
Wingate University has established itself as a leading North Carolina university today, but it wasn’t even a college when it was founded in 1896. The Baptist associations in Union County, North Carolina, and Chesterfield County, South Carolina, sought to provide literacy education from first grade through high school.
At the time, public schools were scarce in the Carolina Piedmont. The location was chosen because it was close to the Seaboard Air Line Railway. It was also close to Meadow Branch Baptist Church.
The Wingate school was built on 10 acres that had fine oak trees and a spring. From this serene setting, its founders nurtured the young school:
- Trustees named it after a successful graduate of Wake Forest University, Washington Manly Wingate.
- Another Wake Forest graduate, Marcus B. Dry, served as its first leader.
- Dry and Miss Polly Crowder taught the curriculum.
- 175 students attended the first year.
- In 1904, enrollment reached 292.
As more public schools began popping up in North Carolina, Wingate started boarding students, mostly high school students in the upper grades. During this time, Wingate:
- Purchased more land
- Built teaching and boarding facilities
- Established a sound academic reputation
Wingate Becomes a College
The private prep school era in North Carolina came to an end, and public schools were a dime a dozen in the early years of the 20th century. Wingate changed with the times by offering the first two years of baccalaureate education in 1923. That same year, Wingate became one of several institutions supported by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. This support was necessary as the school struggled to enroll students and worked to establish its new identity.
Wingate nearly closed its doors for good during the Great Depression:
- The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina stopped supporting Wingate in 1930.
- Students failed to pay tuition.
- Faculty members were not being paid.
To make matters even worse, the administration building burned down in 1932. But Wingate’s fourth president, Coy Muckle, led a team of determined professors who believed in Wingate too much to let it fail. They held classes at Wingate Baptist Church, right next to campus. A few years later, a new administration building was constructed where the old one had stood. In the 1960s the building was named the Burris Building, to memorialize President C.C. Burris, who led the college from 1937 to 1953. Today, it remains one of the chief academic buildings on the Wingate campus, as a reminder of those who kept the school alive.
The college saw better years after World War II:
- Returning veterans stabilized the enrollment.
- North Carolina Baptists began supporting the college again.
- The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools granted membership and accreditation to Wingate College.
Wingate’s 6th president, Dr. Budd Smith, and his wife, Ethel, focused on increasing enrollment and financial support of the college. Smith interested textile magnate Charles A. Cannon, of Kannapolis, North Carolina, in Wingate. Cannon saw Wingate as a place where children of textile workers and others in the middle class could go to college. Cannon supported the college in many ways:
- Investing in the renewal of the physical plant
- Expanding the curriculum
- Providing first-class facilities for the growing student body
- Directing the planting of flowers and trees on campus
Because of the Smiths’ hard work and Cannon’s generosity, the young college toughed out the hard times and looked to the future with confidence.
Wingate Changes With the Times, Again
By the mid-1970s, Wingate College had established its reputation as an outstanding private two-year college. But again, the education market was changing in North Carolina. Upwardly mobile young people wanted bachelor’s degrees. Wingate needed to recruit at least 800 first-year students each year to maintain its enrollment since it lost juniors to four-year colleges and universities.
Wingate responded once more, adjusting to the changing times:
- Under the leadership of 7th president, Dr. Thomas E. Corts, Wingate added upper-level college courses.
- The college granted its first bachelor’s degrees in 1979.
- Wingate added more majors and graduate programs during the 1980s.
- In 1978, Wingate launched W’International, our signature study-abroad program.
Wingate Continues to Grow
The Wingate University Board of Trustees, under the direction of the 9th president, Dr. Jerry McGee, voted to formally acknowledge the school’s growth by changing its status to university. It was during this period that the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina ceased direct financial support of the university.
Wingate has continued to grow:
- The School of Pharmacy opened on the main campus in 2003 to offer the PharmD degree, the school’s first doctorate degree.
- The School of Education began offering a master’s degree in educational leadership in 2006.
- In 2008, Wingate began offering a Master of Physician Assistant Studies degree and a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership.
- The Levine College of Health Sciences opened on the main campus in 2011 to house the School of Pharmacy and the Department of Physician Assistant Studies.
- The Hendersonville campus opened in 2011 and provides doctor of pharmacy and physician assistant programs to western North Carolina.
- The Hendersonville campus added PA Studies in 2013.
- Wingate added the Doctor of Physical Therapy program in 2014.
- The Doctor of Occupational Therapy program was added in 2019.
- Wingate is exploring the addition of a master's program in public health.
In April 2015, Dr. Rhett Brown was named the 10th president, when Dr. McGee stepped down after leading the institution for 23 years.
Beware the Seal!
Students take care not to step on the seal in front of Burris Hall. They wrap the Quad in toilet paper. They follow these other Wingate University traditions.
Meet me at SpringGate
Wingate University students take their academics seriously. But before they take their spring semester exams too seriously, they enjoy SpringGate. The event takes place the week leading up to finals and is packed with a 5K, movie night, a festival and a concert.
Soapsuds in the fountain and TP'ing the quad!
The fountain has been in front of the Dickson-Palmer Student Center for only a few years. That’s plenty of time to become part of a student prank. A dish soap-wielding student filled the fountain with soap suds during the first homecoming the fountain ever saw. The suds were blue, of course. And they’ve been blue ever since except during the football game that raises awareness for breast cancer. Then the suds are pink.
And speaking of pranks involving useful household products, toilet papering the Quad has become quite a homecoming tradition. The picture at the top of this section shows what a Cottonelle-covered Wingate campus looks like. Undoubtedly the original pranksters supplied their own toilet tissue when they decorated campus.
Commencement on the Quad
In the middle of campus, the Quad is a picture-perfect place for Spring Commencement. The weather gods think so too. For 26 years running, the rain has stayed away so that Wingate University graduates can enjoy their day in May on the Quad. Speakers such as Lou Holtz and John Kasay have also brightened the day over the years.
Each Commencement, faculty members form a gauntlet that graduates file into before they receive their diplomas. It’s the professors’ and graduates’ chance to chat, hug, high-five or cry before our new Bulldog grads venture into the world.