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125 Difference-Makers II

Uncompromising History Teacher: Carolyn Gaddy

Carolyn Gaddy head shot

Barely older than many of her students, Carolyn Gaddy was a somewhat timid bookworm when she began her career at Wingate in 1932. She quickly became a seasoned veteran and one of the toughest but most appreciated teachers at the College. She was uncompromising. When she was over 20 years into her career, President Budd Smith insisted that Gaddy grade using a bell curve. She refused, instead securing employment at nearby Marshville High School. Smith relented, convincing her to remain at Wingate, and he promised no further interference in her grading.

Gaddy taught at Wingate for 43 years. Students looked forward to her classes, because she tied history so well to current events. One student said: “The debt I owe to her I can never repay.” In an age when there were no televisions and few radios or telephones on campus, Gaddy would update the campus on current events each Tuesday during the required chapel session. In 1958, the newspaper in Marshville estimated that Gaddy had taught half of the history teachers in Union County. The 1942 Gate yearbook was dedicated to her.

Gaddy coached the Wingate debate teams to glory in state and national competitions and also led the drama club, in addition to advising The Gate staff.

Once a shy schoolgirl but now an accomplished (and outspoken) speaker, in her retirement Gaddy became politically active, serving two terms on North Carolina’s Senior Tar Heel Legislature, which advised state lawmakers on issues regarding the elderly. In 1981 and 1995, Gaddy was a delegate to the national White House Conference on Aging. Hers is one of the 10 bronze busts located around campus.

Strict Grammarian: Rommie Pierce

All schools have them: that professor whose standards are so exacting that the mere mention of their class elicits groans from students. In the 1930s and ’40s at Wingate, that teacher was Rommie Pierce. Pierce taught English for 18 years at Wingate, and they were difficult but rewarding ones for scores of students. Pierce would critique papers out loud in class. If you weren’t on time, you weren’t getting in the door. And he required students to stand and recite lessons. Pierce’s freshman English required “blood, sweat, and tears,” Sylvia Little-Sweat wrote. But students learned grammar and syntax, and usually admitted in later years how much they got out of his class.

International Flavor: Cuban students

For three decades, Cuban students brought the world to Wingate. Virtually the only students on campus who weren’t from the Carolinas, a host of Cuban students populated the high-school and junior-college classes starting in the late 1930s – as many as 16 in a year (1953). It was a connection born out of Wingate’s Baptist background, with Baptist missionaries, most notably Bessie Negrin, and Wingate professor Ruth Horton directing Cuban students to Wingate year after year. Long before W’International began taking Wingate students abroad, a steady stream of Cubans provided Wingate with all of its international flavor.

Faithful Servant: C.C. Burris

The Rev. J.B. Little, who had served as business manager under Coy Muckle, spent a year as president before resigning to become a preacher. In his shoes stepped Craven Cullen “C.C.” Burris, who ushered in an era of consistent leadership. Burris was a faithful employee, having had an association with the school that dated back to 1910, when he first visited, as a 19-year-old from neighboring Stanly County. In 1937, Burris would become the first of two Wingate graduates to lead the institution (the second currently occupies the president’s office).

C.C. Burris portrait

In hiring Burris, the Board was doing a 180. Whereas Little was a man of numbers, Burris was a scholar and a teacher. Burris was 21 when he enrolled at Wingate in 1912, splitting his time between studying at Wingate and teaching at a district school in Stanly County. After he received his degree in 1914, he went on to Wake Forest, as a ministerial student. But Wingate School stayed ever present in his mind. “There is something at Wingate that helps a student find himself,” he said. “The old school has turned many a boy and girl off the rocks to a journey across life’s sea and a safe entrance into a haven.”

Burris returned to Wingate in 1919 to be assistant principal, teach Latin and history, and be dean of men. He also pastored King Street Baptist Church in Waxhaw. He was named acting president in 1937 and president in 1938; he remained in that position until 1953.

Burris’ tenure marked the beginning of a period of stability for the College. Despite leading Wingate through the last years of the Depression and the tumult of World War II, Burris managed to do more than simply keep the College afloat. By 1953, when he retired as president (but kept teaching), Burris had reduced institutional debt and overseen the construction of Alumni Dormitory and the Efird Library, and he guided Wingate’s re-adoption by the North Carolina Baptist Convention (which had curtailed its support during the Great Depression) and adoption into the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. He also began the 30-year trend of enrolling Cuban students.

In the 1940 yearbook, The Gate, which Burris revived after it was discontinued during the Depression, he wrote: “He who loves and serves humanity will write his name high upon the immortal arch of fame.”

After stepping down as president in 1953, Burris taught at Wingate until 1962, giving him a 50-year association with the school (43 in its employ).

Burris seemed to embody Wingate: a student at the school, a Baptist preacher, a teacher and a servant. Carolyn Gaddy, another longtime Wingate employee, said of Burris: “He gave a soul to Wingate College that, with God’s help, will never be entirely lost.”

In remarks eulogizing Burris in 1969, Joel Herren ’38, a longtime business manager at the College, marveled at Burris’ range of interests: Shakespeare, basketball, Tennyson, the Union County Public Schools, student-faculty plays, the minor English poets. “Yet, in all of this, his paramount interest was in the student as an individual,” Herren said.

Language Lover: Helen Cowsert

Helen Cowsert head shot

Helen Cowsert worked for four presidents during her 44 years teaching foreign languages at Wingate. Bilingual from an early age (she was born in Rio de Janeiro to missionary parents), Cowsert never lost her belief in the importance of foreign languages to the mission of a liberal arts college. “Her class was a fascinating place of beautiful and exotic sounds combined with patience and sensitivity,” said Maurice Thomas, a student of Cowsert’s and eventually a longtime Wingate English professor. “I’m sure she contributed to my fascination with the music in language.” In 1985, the year she retired as the longest-serving faculty member ever to that point, Cowsert received the Corts Award for Excellence in Teaching. A lifelong learner, in 1954 she won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Sorbonne, and in 1964 she returned to Paris to study at Alliance Francaise. She set up the Helen E. Cowsert Excellence in Foreign Languages Scholarship to help proficient upperclassmen continue language studies.

Hotshot Coach: Danny Miller

Danny Miller with Wingate basketball players in the 1940s

Until Danny Miller arrived on campus, athletics was a nice diversion but not a serious pursuit at Wingate. Miller changed things instantly. A strict coach of fundamentals, he nonetheless allowed his players some freedom on the court. Taking over a .500 team that had been led by three different coaches in the previous three years, Miller got his team playing a more modern brand of basketball. He went 17-6 his first season, winning the state junior-college championship, and repeated that feat his second year. By the early ’50s, Miller’s teams were a junior-college power, at a time when junior colleges were plentiful across the country. In 1951, Wingate went 40-4 and finished fourth in the nation. In 1952, the Bulldogs went 27-1 in the regular season and placed eighth in the national tournament. Miller recruited well, bringing in Wingate Sports Hall of Fame members Neild Gordon, Jack Musten and Darrell Floyd. Gordon would go on to average 24 points per game at Furman, Musten would play at Elon, and Floyd would lead the nation in scoring in consecutive years while at Furman.

The 1950 and ’51 teams played an inside-out game that took advantage of the talents of 6-foot-6 big man Gordon, the top scorer in the nation as a freshman. The style appealed immensely to the players. “At that time they didn’t have a clock, but we didn’t hold the ball,” Gordon says. “We ran a lot.” Wingate had to move several of its games to Benton Heights School in Monroe, because the crowds that came to watch the Bulldogs play quickly overwhelmed McIntyre Gym on Wingate’s campus. The fans were treated to a dominant, high-scoring team. In Miller’s final year at Wingate, the ’Dogs averaged nearly 84 points per game and had an average winning margin of 26 points. In a late four-game stretch, they averaged 98 points per game in wins over Charlotte, Gardner-Webb (twice) and Campbell. Miller left after the 1952 season to take over as head coach at Davidson College. He went 159-39 in six seasons at Wingate.

Deep Baptist Roots: Baptist State Convention

For nearly six decades, Wingate University relied on the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina for a healthy proportion of funding – an average of half a million bucks a year between 1949 and 2007. With the Wingate School having been founded by the Union Baptist Association, it was a natural arrangement. The BSC also controlled the institution in its early days as a junior college. Support ended the first time because of the Depression. In 2007, several Baptist-affiliated colleges and universities, including Wingate, gave up their BSC funding in order to be able to elect their own trustees. But the remnants of the relationship live on in Wingate’s motto – Faith, Knowledge, Service – and the Baptist ties will forever be a large part of the Wingate story.

Strict Encourager: Bessie Gaddy

Bessie Gaddy head shot

Granddaughter of Wingate founding father W.M. Perry, Bessie Gaddy received all of her schooling at the Wingate School, graduating in 1911. A born educator, she spent many years in public education before becoming a history professor at Wingate in 1950. When she retired 10 years later, The Gate yearbook was dedicated in her honor.

Carl Jarrell, who graduated from Wingate and later taught on the faculty, said that Gaddy’s encouragement made him “more determined than ever to finish college and proceed accordingly.” Gaddy taught Donald Haskins, later the longtime dean of men and vice president of student development at Wingate, when he was in ninth grade in Greensboro. He called her a master teacher and strict disciplinarian, saying, “I was afraid not to learn.” Gaddy once said that she was not trying to put the fear of God into her students but “the fear of Bessie Gaddy.” After her retirement in 1960, at the age of 65, she began giving tours throughout North America, making her final world tour at the age of 73.

Ambitious Expansionist: Budd Smith

If Coy Muckle and C.C. Burris were hampered by life-threatening economic storms, Budd E. Smith, who took over as captain of the Wingate ship in 1953, did his best to make up time on smoother waters. In the first eight years under Smith, the College’s student body increased 329%, from 192 to 823, and its physical-plant value increased ninefold, from $300,000 to $3 million. By 1964, enrollment was 1,320, a 587% jump in 11 years.

Budd Smith at his desk

But Smith had to work some fundraising magic to make it all happen. He once wrote that, on the day he started as president of Wingate, he’d barely gotten settled at his desk when someone from the business office strode in with an armful of papers – bills from 352 businesses. And there was no money to pay them.

If there was one thing Budd Smith knew, though, it was work. It was said that, as a young adult, he could pick more cotton than anyone in his native Benson, N.C. He rolled up his sleeves and started figuring out ways to pay off creditors and put the College on a sounder financial footing.

By March of 1955, the only indebtedness was a loan for the boys dormitory. Before long, Smith was persuading prospective donors that Wingate was a good investment for the community. His courting of Charles A. Cannon and other members of the business community, especially in Charlotte, paid dividends for decades. 

Smith oversaw an unprecedented expansion of the College. Enrollment grew and grew, the campus footprint expanded greatly, more and more money was raised (from many influential donors) and several significant building projects were completed (Sanders-Sikes Gymnasium, the W.T. Harris Dining Hall, the Burnside-Dalton Building, the Holbrook Administration Building, the Ethel K. Smith Library, etc.).

At the end of the 1970-71 school year, Wingate was the largest two-year church-related college east of the Mississippi, and the second-largest in the nation, with 1,767 students. As Hubert Hester wrote, Smith had replaced the “haunting fear of extinction” with “assurance and confidence in the future.”

Inspired Giver: Charles Cannon

Charles Cannon at his desk

It could be argued that without Charles A. Cannon, Wingate University would not exist today. When Budd Smith took over as president of Wingate College in 1953, the College had been through a couple of turbulent decades: the destruction of the administration building by fire, the Great Depression, World War II. That Wingate College still existed was a minor miracle performed by C.C. Burris and his staff. But in 1953, there was not enough money to pay professors. Smith had to write to creditors for extensions on loans and other bills totaling $16,000. He decided to pay a visit to Cannon, a wealthy textile executive in Concord whom he knew was a generous philanthropist. Cannon was intrigued, giving Smith $5,000, but he was most interested in helping “those who are willing to help themselves.” In other words, Smith and Wingate would have to prove themselves before seeing a substantial investment from Cannon. Two years later, with most of the College’s debts wiped out, Cannon expressed newfound interest in Wingate. On May 25, 1955, he issued a challenge: He would donate $100,000 if Wingate raised an equal amount by Jan. 1, 1956. It very nearly didn’t happen. After a few months, “the task seemed impossible to all but the stout-hearted,” Hubert Hester wrote in The Wingate College Story.

With 16 days remaining, Wingate was $61,000 short of raising the needed hundred grand. At a special meeting of the trustees, Smith didn’t mince words: If Wingate couldn’t raise the money to trigger Cannon’s generous gift, “the school could not continue to operate.” After Smith finished his plea in tears, board member J.P. Hackney stood up and pledged $5,000. Herbert Bridges did likewise. At the close of the meeting, the $39,000 amount had risen to $65,000. That still left $35,000 to raise, but with wind in its sails the administration managed to zoom past that figure, eventually raising $139,000. Cannon, impressed, gave the promised $100,000 plus an additional $75,000 as other gifts continued to come in, and Wingate eventually had $350,000 for expansion and improvement.

The Cannon gifts “opened the gates and inspired many other donors to contribute,” Hester wrote. Essentially, Cannon’s challenge gift turbo-boosted Wingate’s development in the 1950s, enabling Smith to see his vision to fruition, and it led Wingate to become one of the top junior colleges in the region in the ’60s and ’70s. It also began an association that continues to this day. All told, the Cannon Charitable Interests (Charles A. Cannon Charitable Trusts, The Cannon Foundation, and the Mariam & Robert Hayes Charitable Trust) have given over $36 million to Wingate over the years, helping construct and renovate all manner of buildings on campus, purchase equipment, and beef up the endowment.

“It’s fair to say that Charles Cannon’s initial investment, coming when it did, was vital to the survival of Wingate Junior College,” says Wingate University President Rhett Brown. “But the Cannon Charitable Interests have done so much more since then. We would not be the University we are today without their generous support.”

Ace Recruiter: John Cox

John Cox was hired in 1955 to head the College’s public-relations and student-recruitment efforts. A “dyed-in-the-wool Wingater,” Cox did the job of several people in a bid to fill Wingate’s classrooms and dorms. “He was an old-school guy,” says Steve Poston, who assisted Cox in admissions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “At one time, he was the whole admissions office. He did it all. And he understood how it was going to evolve into a more competitive market out there with the student-recruitment process.” Thanks to his efforts, Wingate became one of the largest junior colleges in the nation in the early 1970s, with enrollment doubling in Cox’s first decade on the job. Cox remained at Wingate until his death in 1986, when he was a part-time advisor to Alumni Relations.

Indispensable First Lady: Ethel K. Smith

Ethel K. Smith at her desk

Few husband-and-wife teams at Wingate have accomplished more than Budd and Ethel K. Smith. When Budd was hired to lead the College in 1953, it was understood that his wife would do more than simply act as “first lady.” She was an employee with an exacting manner and exceptional organizational skills. Armed with a master’s in library sciences from UNC, Ethel K greatly enhanced the educational standards at Wingate. Her intelligence and focus on the well being of students made her an indispensable part of the College. Her dedication lives on in the form of the Ethel K. Smith Library, which opened in 1957.

Nothing But Wins: Jack Perry

Wingate’s run of highly successful baseball squads began with Jack Perry. A Wingate native, Perry won a whopping 82 percent of his games as coach of the Bulldogs (81-18) over five seasons (1955-59), taking two state championships and four conference titles. His 1956 team went 18-0, part of a lengthy two-season winning streak. “I came when Jack Perry was the coach, and he won 33 straight,” says Beverly Bailes Christopher ’57, wife of Ron Christopher, who would coach Wingate’s baseball team for 24 years. “When Ron would get the least bit cocky because they were doing so well, I would say, ‘Well, when I was here they went two straight years without losing.’”