125 Difference-Makers X
by Chuck Gordon
Jade Montgomery playing soccer

Athlete of the Year (x3): Jade Montgomery

Jade Montgomery ’15 was not only the SAC player of the year three consecutive years but in 2015 also became the first three-time league athlete of the year. Montgomery led the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament four times (the 2011 through 2014 seasons), was named to five All-America teams, and helped Wingate to 59 total wins. She led the nation in goals scored (21) as a sophomore, including seven game-winners. “Jade’s just always been the toughest competitor on the field and the most humble off it,” says current Bulldogs head coach Jack Vundum. Montgomery played professionally for two seasons overseas.

Bulldog Fanatics: Ella and Ralph Hargett

Ella Hargett head shot

Ella Hargett didn’t attend Wingate and has never worked there, but the University is a huge part of her life, as it is for many members of the community. For decades, she and her husband, legendary high-school basketball coach Ralph Hargett, took daily walks around campus, beautifying the grounds along the way by picking up trash. After they left public-school teaching, Wingate provided a way for Ralph to ease into retirement, and it became a focal point of their lives. Ralph coached the University’s men’s golf team for seven years, spending much of his days gabbing with his fellow coaches and planning the lunch spot for the day. He was entering his eighth season when his heart failed him suddenly, in 2000.

Wingate threw Ella a lifeline, providing her with a much-needed diversion in the past two decades. She has reciprocated, giving Wingate enough fan support to cool a sub-Saharan village. “She started going to about every Wingate sporting event there was,” says Ella and Ralph’s eldest daughter, Kim. “When my sister and I would try to plan events, Mom would check her calendar and say something like, ‘We’ve got to go early because I’ve got a volleyball match’ or ‘I can go after the basketball game’ or ‘Yes, the football team is away so I can go.’ My sister, Ty, would get so frustrated, saying, ‘Are you playing? Are you coaching? You act like they can’t play without you.’” They can, but having fans from the community, such as Ella, makes a huge difference.

Tom and Carole Williams portrait

Enthusiastic Alums: Tom and Carole Williams

Standing tall as a symbol of knowledge and growth across Wingate University’s campus, the Old Wellspring is an eye-catching campus attraction. The Old Wellspring Fountain was dedicated in 2016 – a beautiful gesture made possible by Lifetime Honorary Trustee Tom Williams ’61 in honor of his wife, Carole Flowers Williams ’90. The couple built the Old Wellspring as a celebration of Wingate School’s transformation from school (1896), to junior college (1923), to college (1977) and to university (1995) and as a memorial for Wingate scholars of the past, present and future. Retired former president of ATI Allvac (now ATI Specialty Materials), Tom was prompted to give back to his alma mater by the late Harry Sherwood in the 1990s. Williams, who doesn’t do anything halfway, eventually served several stints on the Board of Trustees, and he received an honorary doctorate and a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2016.

Pitch-Perfect Leader: Gary Hamill

Gary Hamill smiling

Gary Hamill ’94, ’08 (MASM) arrived on the Wingate campus in 1992 to be the assistant men’s soccer coach. After three weeks, he was promoted to head coach. He was only 24, but despite his youth the Northern Ireland native knew the game, figured out where to find top-quality players, and could talk to anybody. He quickly turned Wingate into a contender in the SAC. In 28 seasons (prior to spring 2021), Hamill has gone 343-164-31 and has had only two losing records. In 2016 he reached the pinnacle of his profession when he led Wingate’s men’s team to the NCAA Division II national championship, behind the play of Alex Nelson ’17, the national player of the year. That year, Wingate finished 19-1, and Hamill and his staff were named National Coaching Staff of the Year. It was Wingate’s first team national championship in any sport since 1971, and the school’s first in NCAA Division II.

Since then, Hamill has turned his attention to a more civic-minded pursuit. In 2019, he was elected mayor of the town of Wingate. He continues to coach the men’s soccer team – and very well, leading Wingate to the Division II quarterfinals in 2019 – but he now wants to do more for his adopted hometown. “I’m not one of those guys who wants to sit around and say people should do this, that and the other,” he says. “I prefer to get in there and get involved.”

Steve Poston smiling holding soccer trohy

Top-flight AD: Steve Poston

The longest-serving administrator ever at Wingate, Steve Poston came to Wingate as head baseball coach in 1972 and is leaving full-time employment later this year as vice president and director of athletics. In between, he has led admissions, directed the Matthews Center graduate programs and been vice president of student affairs. “I’ve joked that Wingate has been relentless in trying to find a job I can do here,” he says. Under Poston’s leadership the past two decades, Wingate Athletics has won 13 consecutive Echols Awards (for top athletics program in the SAC) and has produced one team national champion (men’s soccer in 2016), countless conference titles, several national-tournament teams and a slew of Academic All-America selections. “I’ve got a big lump in my throat when I think about all this coming to an end,” Poston says. “Wingate University has been a blessing to me.”

Kaitlyn Brunworth portrait

Medical Volunteer: Kaitlyn Brunworth

How she had time to do it is a mystery. But between making a 4.0 as a biology major and earning All-America honors on the soccer field, somehow Kaitlyn Brunworth ’17 found time to organize her own medical mission trip during her senior year. Over spring break in 2017, Brunworth and a group of Wingate students built a staircase in a shantytown outside Lima, which helped the community qualify for government assistance, including free health insurance. They also helped nurses give screenings for breast cancer and other diseases. A recent graduate of the medical school at the University of Colorado, Brunworth traveled extensively as a Wingate student, to Costa Rica, Cambodia, Spain and Honduras. She plans to continue her international volunteer efforts after she earns her medical degree. “I just have a million things I want to do with my life,” she says.

Innovative Builder: Robert Supernaw

Bob Supernaw portrait

When Bob Supernaw was hired away from Texas Tech in 2002 to start a pharmacy school at Wingate, the task was daunting: The first cohort of students was arriving a year later. “I didn’t have a faculty, didn’t have accreditation, didn’t have a curriculum, and certainly didn't have students,” Supernaw says. “I thought, This is about as tough a challenge as I’ve ever seen. If I feel I’m worth my salt, I better get going on it.” He was up to the challenge. Called a “tireless worker” by Dr. Christian Dolder, one of his first hires, Supernaw had the school up and running on time, and with an initial cohort of 60 students. He was also innovative, introducing a novel approach to teaching that has since been replicated at universities across the country: Students wouldn’t wait until their fourth year to get practical experience; they would be put in clinical settings as P1s. In 2019, the faculty of the School of Pharmacy established a scholarship in Supernaw’s honor, benefiting students with financial need.

Roy Blank doing paperwork

Doctor on a Mission: Roy Blank

As professor and medical director in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies, Dr. Roy Blank changed lives through his dedication to teaching students how to think. But for about a decade he found a way to have an even bigger impact by taking students to Haiti and Nicaragua on medical mission trips. Students praised the real-world problem-solving experience they got on those trips, while also getting a chance to improve the health of people in poorer countries. Closer to home, Blank also serves on the board of Community Health Services of Union County and volunteers at its clinic, which initially offered free diabetic care but, thanks in part to Blank’s vision, has developed into much more. Seeing the need for expanded services and knowing how valuable the experience could be for health sciences students, Blank led the push for a partnership that would turn the clinic into a full-service primary-care provider for uninsured or underinsured patients and a hotspot for hands-on training for student PAs, pharmacists, nurses and medical interpreters.

Community Unifier: Russell Booker

Russell Booker in his office

An indifferent high school student, Dr. Russell Booker ’91 found his footing at Wingate. A member of the football team, Booker loved the small class sizes and emphasis on faith. He got an education degree, became a teacher and in quick order worked his way up the administration ladder. By the time he was 36, he was a superintendent. Recently retired from Spartanburg (S.C.) District 7, Booker and his wife are trying to make a difference in the second half of their lives. They’ve launched One Acorn, a leadership-based consulting firm, and Booker is also executive director of Spartanburg Academic Movement, a nonprofit designed to spur economic mobility through academic achievement in his native Spartanburg County. “I’m like most people,” he says. “I want to see a unified community.” In 2020, Booker received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor. He is also an 18-year member of Wingate’s Board of Trustees and in 2015 was inducted into the SAC Hall of Fame as a distinguished alumnus.

Alicia Rubio Gomez head shot

Counselor for Kids: Alicia Rubio Gomez

Alicia Rubio Gomez ’20 came to Wingate intending to study nursing. “I just wanted to be in a career where I could help people,” she says. A “listening ear” for family and friends who is fascinated by the psychology behind counseling, Rubio Gomez switched her major immediately after finding out more about human services. She is now finishing up an internship with Eliada Homes, a facility in Asheville for adolescents with particular behavioral and mental-health needs, and is planning to stay on full-time. The work can be stressful. Rubio Gomez is learning to deal with multiple crises at a time, putting the strategies she learned at Wingate, such as employing “reflective responses,” to good use. “The types of students we get here have gone through a lot of different kinds of trauma,” she says. “That’s the kind of thing that motivates me: to see the progress the students are making and bettering themselves.” At Wingate, Rubio Gomez was a Golden Door Scholar, a program started by Red Ventures’ Ric Elias that provides full scholarships to qualifying undocumented students. An accounting minor, she worked with the VITA program helping people with their taxes free of charge, and she received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award in 2020 after helping transform the Latina American Student Association into more of an advocacy group.

Humble Helpers: James and Bronnie Braswell

Longtime Wingate residents James and Bronnie Braswell were not ones to splash out on extravagances, preferring instead to use their money to help others. James Braswell was a bank president, farmer and president of the Union County Chamber of Commerce. But he and his wife were “humble people who chose to live modestly,” says George Bower, who manages the James R. and Bronnie L. Braswell Trust, which he used to establish the Gateway Scholarship Fund in 2019. Gateway Scholarships go to early-college graduates in Anson, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Montgomery, Richmond, Scotland, Stanly or Union counties who have earned an associate degree and have demonstrated financial need.

Homegrown Talent: Rhett Brown

Rhett Brown illustration

The second Wingate president to attend the school (C.C. Burris is the other), Rhett Brown graduated in 1989 with a degree in English and soon after was hired to launch the student-service organization UCAN and to serve as a residence director. Thus began a stretch of service to the institution that seems almost storybook-like. A first-generation college student from tiny Pelion, S.C., Brown attended two other colleges before finally finding his academic feet at Wingate. He credits the University with setting him on the right path, and he’s worked for the past 30 years to repay that debt.

Over the years he took on many roles, including associate dean of students, university planning officer and dean of enrollment management. When he was tapped to succeed Jerry McGee, he had been serving as vice president for student life and enrollment services for six years. Except for one year when he moved to California to work for his wife’s grandfather, Brown has been a fixture at Wingate since first setting foot on campus in the fall of 1986, a wide receiver on the newly established football team.

Brown’s bailiwick leading up to his promotion to president was enrollment management, and he’s put that expertise to good use. In 2017, Wingate welcomed its largest class of first-time undergraduate students ever: 1,150. In Brown’s first five years in charge, Wingate’s overall enrollment grew 15%, and undergraduate enrollment grew 37%. In a higher-ed world in which colleges and universities are closing their doors, especially as the coronavirus pandemic has held the world in its grip, Wingate has stayed healthy, in more ways than one.

Under Brown, Wingate has taken the focus on healthcare to another level, starting a Doctor of Occupational Therapy program in 2019 and planning to begin bachelor’s and master’s programs in public health in 2021, pending approvals from accrediting bodies.

A Bulldog to the core, Brown is leading an ambitious University forward, mindful of its eventful past but always striving to serve its students better.