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Teacher, mentor, dean, coach: Surratt remembered for decades of service

by Luanne Williams

“When I think of Jerry Surratt, I think of Wingate – Wingate Junior College, Wingate College, and then Wingate University; for Jerry personified what was best in that institution,” professor emeritus Dr. Robert Doak wrote on Monday, a day after his colleague’s passing. “For roughly 60 years, he accepted this iconic mantle; first as a sterling student, then as a revered professor and a many-titled administrator, and finally as a golf coach.

“In these years, Jerry was undoubtedly the most admired person at Wingate.”

Dr. Surratt died early Sunday morning after his fifth battle with cancer. A private burial is planned for Saturday, with a Celebration of Life to be held at a later date. But on Monday, friends, colleagues and former students immediately began sharing memories, describing Surratt as a kind and modest Renaissance man.

A student-athlete at Wingate Junior College, Surratt lettered in basketball and tennis. He graduated from Wake Forest University in 1959, Southeastern Baptist Seminary in 1962 and Emory University in 1965. In 1967, he returned to Wingate as a professor.

He served as academic dean during the 1970s and helped shape Wingate’s signature study-abroad program, W’International, before shifting his focus back to the classroom and then finishing his 34 years on the faculty as dean of the Charles A. Cannon College of Arts and Sciences.

Jerry Surratt in his office around 1985.

Dr. Sherene McHenry, a 1985 alumna and a professional speaker and author, still can’t get over Dr. Surratt’s command of his subject matter.

“Dr. Surratt was a kind and mesmerizing professor,” she said. “He told the stories of history every class from start to finish without ever looking at a note. All the information was filed away in his brilliant brain. After earning three degrees and spending 18 and a half years as a professor, I’ve never seen another person have the ability to do that.”

Colleagues say that while Surratt was wowing students in the classroom, he was never too busy to help new faculty get acclimated or to help administrators take the University to the next level.

Dr. Robert Billinger, one of several professors who came from Palm Beach Atlantic College in 1979 as part of an “expansion team” of Ph.D.s needed to teach upper-level courses, was comforted by Surratt’s friendly smile and welcoming nature. Billinger hailed from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, home of the Moravian Church in the American colonies, and he felt at home seeing the Moravian Church symbol hanging behind the desk of Surratt, who was writing a book about the early Moravians in Salem, North Carolina.

“Jerry was one of the ‘old-timers’ at Wingate who helped to guide the school from junior college status to that of a four-year college, and then a university,” Billinger said. “Along the way he helped us ‘newcomers’ to feel right at home as we learned to love and adhere to the Wingate motto of Faith, Knowledge, Service. He became my department head, mentor, colleague, friend and even preacher, occasionally, at Wingate Baptist Church.”

Doak also remembers Surratt’s time as interim pastor of Wingate Baptist Church, calling him “a person who held the church together with his steady guidance and profound sermons.”

A servant until the end

Doak said Surratt was always in demand as a speaker, giving graduation addresses, memorial speeches, and talks to parents of students. Doak will never forget a Founder’s Day address in which Surratt related an incident from his basketball days at Wingate Junior College. In college hoops in those days, dunking was prohibited in games, so players routinely showed off their above-the-rim prowess during warmups. The 6-foot-6 Surratt was no exception.

“During one warm-up time, early in the season, Jerry, in the old McIntyre Gym, tore out down the court and went up for a gorilla dunk, only to miss the rim and fall flat on his back,” Doak said. “The fact that Jerry, the honoree on that special day, told that story hints at one of his most admired characteristics: his modesty. He could be formal and even a bit intimidating in his height. But he was always ready to accept, even solicit, differing opinions. And what made him even more endearing – he did not seem to take himself too seriously.”

Dr. Pam Thomas, who taught at Wingate from 1977 to 2015, said she never doubted that Surratt appreciated her work in the English department.

“Jerry was always a supporter of my teaching and academic contributions and made that clear to me in his comments,” Thomas said. “I knew that Jerry always did his best not only to teach effectively but to make Wingate, the Wingate Baptist Church, and the campus and larger community better places. He will be greatly missed.”

Surratt was elected to the Town of Wingate’s Board of Commissioners in the mid 1980s, served a stint as chairman of the Union County Historic Preservation Commission and penned the second half of “The History of Wingate Baptist Church 1810-2009: ‘Saturday Before the Second Sabith.” He continued to teach North Carolina history at Wingate for many years after retiring from the classroom in 2001.

In 2004, he found yet another way to serve the University, becoming head men’s and women’s golf coach. He coached the men for seven seasons and the women for 10.

“I consider it an honor to have had the opportunity to convince him to come out of retirement to lead our golf programs,” said Steve Poston, director of athletics. “He built championship teams and mentored many young women and men through his teaching and coaching. I was honored to serve alongside him. He was a mentor to me as well.”

Jerry Surratt

Between his 2001 departure from the classroom and this year, Surratt had battled and beaten four different types of cancer and had lost his wife, Alice, to the illness in 2019. This summer, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

“I accept the odds of this fifth experience with cancer and will have lived my four score plus years with pleasure. Together with Alice, we produced and raised a wonderful next generation of strong women,” Surratt said in an email to retired colleagues in mid-July, referencing his three daughters.

Even as he promised to keep friends abreast of his latest health battle, he was looking for ways to help others.

“All of this demonstrates that we possess finite bodies that age and lead us to the next experience of reality, inspired by our faith and bound by truth. We do not disdain our human nature and experience on this earth,” he wrote. “I will share my coming days with you and depend upon your strong support. Perhaps my experience will assist others who journey on similar roads.”

Read more about Surratt’s contributions to Wingate Athletics. Here is his obituary.

Aug. 18, 2020

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