Always lead. Never follow. – That was the theme of Wingate’s 1997 yearbook and a motto that seems to have stuck with senior class president Brad Baldwin.
The first African American to hold the office at the school that had two years earlier gone from college to university status, Baldwin would go on to find himself the first minority winner of a YMCA scholarship at Camp Thunderbird and, after graduation, the camp’s first black director.
Now a senior global talent advisor with a specialty chemicals company in Charlotte, Baldwin still uses interpersonal skills he gained at Wingate to lead and encourage others.
“Take your vitamins, say your prayers, do at least two nice things each day and meet at least two new people,” Baldwin advises. The secret to his success and his infectious smile, he says, is realizing that “relationships are everything.”
Already a self-proclaimed “people person” when he graduated from high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and headed to Wingate in 1993, Baldwin would undergo a number of both humbling and empowering experiences between his first day and his graduation as class president.
“Three weeks after my acceptance to Wingate, my dad passed away. So on the first day of college, my brother brought me here. All I had with me was my suitcase and a boombox when I moved into Helms dorm,” he says with a laugh. A walk-on to the football team, he was feeling pretty good about himself until he ran for freshman class president and, in his words, “got pounded.”
Rather than be depressed by the defeat and the fact that he wasn’t getting any gridiron playing time, Baldwin said he decided he needed to become more intentional in his Christian faith. He also began looking for avenues for involvement outside of sports and found himself a perfect fit as a resident assistant.
“African American students on campus back then, you could count them on your hand,” Baldwin says. “Being an African American RA was a rarity. I think there were only three. Every class I was in, I was usually the only black person.”
Having spent much of his early life in a nearly all-white neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., Baldwin said he was unfazed by being the sole member of his race in the classroom.
“I loved everybody,” he says. “I didn’t care if you were short, tall, Asian, fat, skinny, whatever. I knew you have to embrace everyone.”
Growing through ups and downs
Lynn Moss, dean of students at the time, noticed Baldwin’s success as an RA and recommended he take a summer job as a counselor at Camp Thunderbird.
“A summer in the woods? Are you crazy? I’m a city boy,” Baldwin remembers telling her. But he took a leap of faith and by the second summer had been named head counselor.
Not only was he honing new skills that would lead him to shift his major from education to human services, but he was also a burgeoning pop star at the camp, having formed a quartet that had campers lining up for his autograph. Back on campus that fall, the Wingate family that had encouraged him to try new things would also temper what might have been a bit of prideful enthusiasm.
“I went straight to the Music Department and wanted to join the chorus, and they gave me an audition,” Baldwin says. Sure of his newfound skill, he stopped the pianist in the middle of “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” demanding a slower pace to highlight his vocal style.
Baldwin can’t contain his laughter now as he relates the story: “Guess who didn’t make it into the chorus?”
Like the lack of football playing time and the failed election his freshman year, Baldwin says, the experiences humbled him and helped him grow as much as his successful endeavors as an RA and camp counselor did.
“I think all those things that happened to me those years prior, God was preparing me to accept that and be humbled,” Baldwin says. Satisfied that he wouldn’t be a singer, he poured himself into his studies, his RA duties, volunteering with UCAN (University Community Assistance Network) and continuing to build strong relationships across campus.
When his senior year rolled around, a classmate urged him to run for president, and he wound up winning a run-off against a popular Chi Omega sorority girl. It wasn’t until the student newspaper requested an interview that he realized he was Wingate’s first African American senior class president.
“Madeline Albright spoke at Wingate that year, and I got to lead the Pledge of Allegiance,” Baldwin says, recalling that his uncle on the other side of the country saw him on C-Span. He also got to spend time with then-Wingate president Jerry McGee, who became a mentor. And he became a point person for Wingate’s growing minority population.
“We didn’t have a black awareness club or a black fraternity, but our Black History Month events were organic,” Baldwin recalls. “I remember getting the movie Eyes on the Prize and us showing it and having discussion that crossed a lot of racial lines.”
After graduation, his growing leadership skills gave him the confidence to push for a high-level post at Camp Thunderbird, where he knew he had made a difference in children’s lives and could continue to do even more.
Camp Thunderbird is in Lake Wylie, South Carolina, in the River Hills community. During Baldwin’s time there as director, 90 percent of the campers he served were white.
“There were kids who had never interacted with a black person in their lives. So for them, it was a game-changer,” he says.
Baldwin recalls how parents whose children came home from camp talking about him would often show up the next day in the day camp pickup line and ask to meet him, only to drive right past him in search of a person they thought better fit the profile of camp director. He refused to take offense.
“That changed a lot of parents,” he says.
As a parent to a teenage daughter, loving husband to his wife, LaDonna, as well as serving as a member of Wingate’s Board of Visitors, Baldwin is excited to see the campus growing and becoming more diverse. Since he graduated, the percentage of African American undergraduates has nearly doubled, to 20 percent. Total enrollment has gone from 1,127 to 2,764.
“After leaving here, I realized that all those things that happened at Wingate prepared me to succeed and to be a first in a lot of places,” he says. “That’s why I love to come back and give back to my Wingate family.
February 12, 2020