125 Difference-Makers V
by Chuck Gordon

Big-Time Server: Audley Bell

Audley Bell head shot

The son of a domestic worker in Jamaica, Audley Bell ’71 by chance got a job as a ball boy at a tennis resort when he was 9. “It was like a gift from God,” he says. When they weren’t working matches, Bell and his fellow ball fetchers were allowed to play tennis, and Bell proved to be a natural. Within three years, he was teaching lessons. By the time he’d graduated from high school, he was on his way to Wingate, where he and the Bulldogs would dominate. Bell was a member of Wingate teams that won junior-college national titles in 1970 and 1971. He went on to play No. 1 at Wake Forest, where he became the first black player in the ACC, before forging a successful career in business. Bell retired in January 2019 after a long career as an accounting executive, including the last seven and a half years as chief audit executive for World Vision International. He also gives back to the University as trustee.

First National Champ: Ron Smarr

Ron Smarr holding tennis racket

In the late 1960s, Wingate Athletics had produced some outstanding individual players and a few coaching legends. What the College did not have was a national championship. Ron Smarr changed that. Barely out of college himself, Smarr assembled a team that, two years after his arrival, dominated junior-college tennis. Boasting a top six that would all go on to play Division I tennis, including All-American Tony Pospisil ’70, the Bulldogs beat several Division I teams and went unchallenged by junior-college programs on their way to national titles in 1970 and 1971. Smarr would eventually become the winningest collegiate tennis coach in history, helming teams at South Carolina, Colorado and Rice. “He was no-nonsense and fair,” says Audley Bell ’71, who played on both title teams and later played No. 1 at Wake Forest. “He was a fierce competitor.”

Generous Investor: Arthur Byrd

Arthur Byrd ’72 got interested in the stock market while a Wingate student. “I was lucky enough to learn some serious investing lessons when I really didn’t have anything to lose,” he says. “Oh, it hurt – bad. But I became fairly successful at avoiding trouble and finding things that paid off in the long term.” Byrd has built up a healthy portfolio, and, through a trust, he and his wife, Terry, are leaving virtually all of it to Wingate University. They are adamant that their gift be used to fund scholarships. “I want this to help a person, not a system,” Terry says. “We were both very fortunate when we finished college to have no student debt, and because of that we’re at the financial well-being we’re at today. That’s how we can give somebody else a chance.”

Bobby Bell smoking a pipe

Reverent Sociologist: Bobby Bell

A preacher who wound up teaching sociology for a career, Bobby Bell gave students “a critical sense of values that will stay with them,” said Carolyn Gaddy. His classes were some of the most sought after on campus. It was said that some of Bell’s courses, particularly Marriage and the Family, were recommended by faculty as unofficial prerequisites for graduation. Bell played a big role in designing Wingate’s first graduate program, in elementary and middle-grades education. He received the Corts Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1986.

Legislative Friend: Aaron Plyler

Although he never attended college himself, Aaron Plyler made a huge difference in the lives of many Wingate students, and continues to even after his death. In the 1970s Plyler was instrumental in the passage of the N.C. Legislative Tuition Grant Program, the precursor to the North Carolina Need-Based Scholarship, which provides financial support to many undergraduate North Carolina residents studying at private universities in the state. A lifelong resident of Monroe, Plyler was a state representative and senator who wielded enormous influence in Raleigh, being one of the “Gang of Eight” who drew up the state budget. A longtime proponent of higher education, Plyler also worked behind the scenes to expand the state’s community-college system and UNC Charlotte. The Plyler-Griffin Athletic Center and Plyler-Griffin Recital Hall are named for Aaron Plyler and Bruce Griffin.

Change Agent: Tom Corts

Budd Smith resigned as president in 1974 after being involved in a nearly fatal car/train collision at the main crossing in Wingate. After 21 years of his leadership, Wingate was in good financial shape, and with the higher-education landscape changing, the College was in need of a new kind of leader. The first of two brothers to lead Wingate, Tom Corts was a visionary who changed the course of the institution.

Tom Corts illustration

Corts immediately set about planning the College’s transition to a four-year college, after 55 years as a junior college. Within three years, the University had its first crop of juniors on campus, and in 1979 Wingate granted its first bachelor’s degrees. This obviously changed the College’s course dramatically. But Corts had another major initiative up his sleeve that would put Wingate on the map. “He felt that we needed something that was unique in the college scene in North Carolina that would set us apart from other, similar institutions,” said the late Jerry Surratt ’57, dean of arts and sciences and a history professor, who helped devise the program: Winternational.

In the first few years, the study-abroad program (known since the 1990s as W’International) was completely free. It is still offered for a much-reduced price and, for more than 40 years, has enlightened the minds of Wingate students by exposing them to cultures they otherwise would not have encountered.

Corts also secured $600,000 from C.C. Dickson to build the Dickson-Palmer Center, a modern student center across from the W.T. Harris Dining Hall.

After eight years, Corts left Wingate to become president of Samford University, a position he held from 1983 to 2006, when he retired. Along the way, he served as president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and chaired an organization that attempted to change the 1901 Alabama Constitution to address what critics say are institutionalized racial and economic inequalities.

Humble Giver: C.C. Dickson

Intimately involved with Wingate for more than four decades, C.C. Dickson Jr. was a modest leader, reluctantly allowing then-President Tom Corts to put the Dickson name on the new student center in the late 1970s. Paradoxically, much of the work he did on behalf of Wingate brought more attention to the University, if not to Dickson himself. Dickson was a key bridge between the University and the nearby Jesse Helms Center, serving on the boards of both entities. The end result of that association was the Jesse Helms Speaker Series, which brought some of the most important political figures in the world to the Wingate campus in the 1990s: Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, Kofi Annan. “Dad loved seeing students getting a better education,” said Dickson’s daughter Wynne Stegall ’76. “With every change in the University, the better the education they received.”

Polly Griffin

Gateway to the World: Polly Griffin

A real “go-getter,” according to Jerry Surratt, Polly Griffin was instrumental in getting W’International off the ground. Griffin (Polly Winfrey at the time) was the assistant to President Tom Corts during the planning stages of Corts’ new international-travel program, and he essentially handed her the keys to the project. She found the travel agent, made sure the accommodations were adequate, and kept everything on budget. Griffin ultimately became registrar and director of international programs (and is currently the registrar at Princeton University). Because of her skill in setting up the first study-abroad programs at Wingate, for more than four decades W’International has opened countless students’ eyes to the wider world.

Forward Thinker: Paul Corts

Paul Corts illustration

As one Corts departed, another arrived. Paul Corts took over from his brother in 1983, assuring the Wingate community that, as game-changing as his brother had been during his tenure, Paul was no clone of Tom. “We have established our own selves and backgrounds,” Paul said at the time. “I will be bringing to bear what I have to offer as he has brought what he had to offer.” What the younger Corts offered was financial savvy and a vision for campus expansion and improvements. During his time, the Cannon Complex, Cuddy Arena and the Stegall Administration Building were constructed.

Paul Corts was goal-oriented. During his tenure, the faculty expanded, more financial aid was offered to students, and the endowment grew. He also took a page from his brother’s book and introduced a travel program, Great American Heritage, that allowed sophomores an opportunity to travel within the United States, to give them a taste of travel before their W’International excursion as a junior.

Corts heavily focused on the College’s academics, establishing Wingate’s first master’s program (in education), the Spivey Instructorship (a research sabbatical for faculty members) and the position of provost. He also foresaw a move to university status. In 1989, he attempted to change the name of the school to Cannon-Wingate University. Thanks in part to a plea by former longtime faculty member Carolyn Gaddy, acting as a representative of Wingate Baptist Church, delegates to the Baptist State Convention voted to reject the motion to change the name.

Corts stepped down as president in 1991 to become president of Palm Beach Atlantic College in Florida, having established his legacy as one of always striving forward.

Effortless Scorer: Dianna Monroe

Wingate’s women’s basketball team has produced countless standouts over the years. The first big star was Dianna Monroe ’83. A three-time All-American, Monroe led the NAIA in scoring in 1982. Fans packed Sanders-Sikes Gymnasium to watch her lofty jump shot befuddle defenders. “She had the weirdest shot,” says longtime former Wingate assistant Doug Jones ’84, ’86, ’10 (M.Ed.). “She shot two-handed, over her head, like a crane almost. It was perfect.” Monroe was so good in the first half of one game that Wingate’s opponents got in their vans and left at halftime. “She could take over a game in a heartbeat,” Jones says.

Creative Mentor: Doug Helms

Doug Helms doing pottery

An alumnus who came back to teach art for nearly 20 years, until his untimely death in 1993, Doug Helms ’66 had an easy rapport with students – which made his demanding nature as a teacher easier for students to take. “Like all the faculty at a close-knit school like Wingate, he was readily available and approachable,” says his son, Brannon Helms ’93, “but the nature of his studio really made him available to students for so much more than most academic office hours can offer. He’d often be making pots and being creative alongside his students.” Working in the tactile medium of ceramics, Helms welcomed all students and pushed each to his or her own ceiling. “The work is literally hands-on, and every imprint of the creator is in the finished piece,” Brannon says. “Dad would often relay that on a spiritual and Biblical level, too, with students who were interested.” In 1994, Helms was posthumously honored with the Corts Teaching Award.

Program Creator: Steve Wilt

Steve Wilt leaning on his desk

When Steve Wilt was hired to start a football program at Wingate in the mid-1980s, he really had to build it from scratch. “We didn’t have anything,” he says. “We didn’t have a football, a kicking tee, a field to practice on, a fieldhouse.” For the first spring practice, the 25 players he’d recruited to that point hung their equipment on nails pounded into plywood walls in a storage area of the now-demolished McIntyre Gym. He made sure recruits never darkened the door of the coaches’ offices, which were upstairs in the same building. “There were some windows that were stuck open and you couldn’t shut ’em,” he says, “and there were some windows that were stuck shut and you couldn’t open ’em.”

From those humble beginnings, Wilt built a team that managed to win its first two games. He stayed eight eventful seasons, compiling a 35-44 record while starting a program, moving into a new conference and then moving from NAIA to NCAA Division II. He got the team to a national ranking, groomed one All-American (offensive lineman Jimmy Sutton) and five Wingate Sports Hall of Famers and even recruited the current president to campus as a wide receiver.

Having a football team for the first time in 25 years brought a new dynamic to the campus. “School spirit, camaraderie, diversity,” Wilt says. “Bobby Bowden used to say that the football program is the front porch of your university.” In the past three (non-pandemic) seasons, Wingate has made the NCAA playoffs, going 28-8 – perhaps a far cry from Wilt’s scheduling Union College in Kentucky, but a record he can still be proud of. “We were part of the foundation,” says Wilt, who went on to be the head coach at Taylor University in Indiana for 12 years. “To see where the program is now is very satisfying, to know that we had a hand in that, to get it going.”