Publisher feels warmth of Chowan University welcome

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 1, 2008

I’ve written a couple of times since I came to North Carolina from Texas about my exploratory trips to Kitty Hawk, to the Cape Hatteras, to Ocracoke and to Ashville.

I’ve told you how impressed I have been with all those places.

But earlier this week, I found a North Carolina treasure (and I don’t use that word lightly) 14.9 miles from the newspaper office where I spend most of my daylight hours.

Driving those 14.9 miles took me to the Columns Building on the Chowan University campus in Murfreesboro. There I had an opportunity to visit for a while with Chowan President Dr. M. Christopher White, with John Tayloe, with Sarah Ward and with others, including Chowan Student Body President Lance Jenkins.

I’ve been around a long time and, because of what I do for a living, I’ve been privileged to make a number of visits like the one I made to Chowan. But I’ve never felt more welcome than I did there.

Dr. White, at one point in our conversation, asked for my honest impressions of North Carolina. In response, I told him about another state in which I have lived. I told him that state prides itself on its hospitality, but, I told him, holding my thumb and forefinger about a half-inch apart, “the reality is that their hospitality is about that deep.”

In contrast, I told him North Carolina’s hospitality, it seems to me, is entirely sincere and very, very real.

Dr. White, who is Chowan University’s 22nd president, himself is a fascinating man. I’m told his impact on Chowan University has been obvious and of great magnitude.

Dr. White was third in his class at Mercer University in Georgia, where he earned his undergraduate degree, majoring in Mathematics and English. He was second in his class when he earned his Master of Divinity degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Then he went on to earn his Ph.D. at Emory University in Atlanta.

He was the first citizen of the United States to be awarded the honorary Doctorate of Musical Arts degree from the Moscow State Conservatory of Music in Russia in recognition of his support of music and the arts in higher education.

Dr. White’s career has been long and distinguished. He was instrumental in establishing a school of divinity at Gardner-Webb University, and that school, which today enrolls more than 200 students in masters and doctoral programs, bears his name.

In the time he has been at Chowan, the institution has transitioned from college to university; today has an endowment that exceeds $21.5 million for the first time in its history; has initiated its first Adult Degree Completion program, and has seen the largest enrollment in well over a decade.

Dr. White has led a campus-wide revitalization effort that has included the restoration of the historic McDowell Columns Building.

But, despite all that, Dr. White is “regular folks.” It’s been a long time since I’ve been more comfortable or enjoyed any more having a conversation with anyone than I did the one I had with Dr. White this week. He’s one of those people with whom you are immediately comfortable.

Likewise John Tayloe, who was standing on the front porch of the Columns Building waiting to meet me when I arrived, and Sarah Ward, director of university relations. I’ve dealt with a lot of Sarah Wards over my many years in this business, but I can’t think of a single one better at what they do than this one is.

I was given a tour of the Chowan University campus by Lance Jenkins, who is himself a very impressive person.

The first thing that impressed me about Jenkins was the obvious enthusiasm he has for Chowan and his encyclopedic knowledge of it.

Like the others I met that day in Murfreesboro, he exemplified the very sincere North Carolina hospitality of which I have written. And he is one of those rare people who gets the most out of life. His interests are varied and wide ranging. He’s a hockey fan (and I can’t help but wonder how many of those there are in northeast North Carolina) and he produces his own webcast that frequently pokes fun at campus personalities, but apparently in a way that never makes them angry.

I learned much during the three hours or so that I spent at Chowan University and what I learned will be of great value to me in the years to come.

But, more importantly by far, I came away feeling that I had made a number of new friends. I sincerely hope they all feel the same way about the new guy from Texas.

David Sullens is publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald.