Legend Lost: Dr. Whitaker succumbs

Published 9:53 am Thursday, May 7, 2009

RALEIGH – He was, in his own terms, a plough boy who became a college president.

Dr. Bruce Gary Ezell Whitaker, the President Emeritus of Chowan University, died Tuesday morning in Raleigh. Dr. Whitaker, 87, left behind a legacy not only at his beloved Chowan University, but also as an advocate for mental health.

Those who worked with him and followed his legacy at Chowan are remembering Dr. Whitaker as a great man whose tenure laid the foundation for what the university has become by working with people.

“He built his own monument,” said Clayton Lewis, who served as Dean of Students under Dr. Whitaker for 19 years. “You can look around and see what he built on Chowan’s campus.”

During Dr. Whitaker’s tenure, the college grew from a tiny school with 300 students to a thriving junior college which at one time housed 1,500 students. The school went from three-quarters of a million dollars in assets to nearly $25 million.

The reason for Dr. Whitaker’s success, according to many of those who worked with him, was his ability to work with people and his care and concern for those on the Chowan staff.

“If you want proof of Dr. Whitaker’s ability and knowledge of getting along with people, you only need to look at the tenure of his staff,” Lewis said. “When he employed someone, he made sure they had ability and then he left them alone.”

Lewis said such was his love for working with Chowan that in 19 years he never applied for another job.

Cliff Collins, who served as Director of Student Financial Aid, echoed those thoughts.

“Dr. Whitaker knew how to run a business,” Collins said. “He knew how to give you a job and let you do it. As long as you did it correctly, you didn’t have to worry about interference from him.”

Ben Sutton Sr., who served as Chief Financial Officer at what was then Chowan College, said Dr. Whitaker was a good person to work with.

“He was a good man,” Sutton said. “He had a good heart. He assembled through his deans and those who worked with him, an excellent staff. We were all involved in our own separate ways in our churches and the lives of our communities.”

Sutton said the time at Chowan was successful for everyone.

“We had 30 good years there,” he said. “We never ran a deficit, always operated with a balanced budget and had no debt. In fact, we paid off the long-term indebtedness of the school.”

Warren Sexton, who taught in the history department at Chowan, said Dr. Whitaker was as good a person to work for as anyone could ask.

“I worked with him for 30 years and from that perspective I don’t think you could have ever worked for someone better than he was,” Sexton said. “He cared about the people and he look at the whole thing at Chowan as one large family. He wanted all the family members to be treated right and things to go well for them.

“I couldn’t have asked for a greater person than he was,” Sexton added. “He wanted you to do your job and he’d let you know if you weren’t, but if you were, he would let you do it.”

Collins said he and his wife, long-time Chowan volleyball coach Janet Collins, came to Chowan and spent their careers there because of Dr. Whitaker.

“For us, he helped guide our careers,” Collins said. “He gave Janet a job and we came here. As for me, I sometimes think he opened up a position for me just to keep Janet around.”

Allowing his staff to do their work led Chowan College to become one of the premier junior colleges in North Carolina as well as nationally and allowed many, like Hall of Famer Jim Garrison, the opportunity to see their careers thrive.

“I give Dr. Whitaker all the credit for allowing me to become the coach I was,” Garrison said. “The main reason I’m still there and still love the school that much is because of Dr. Whitaker and what he gave me the chance to do.”

Garrison said Dr. Whitaker wasn’t an athlete himself, but understood the importance of athletics to a school.

“Dr. Whitaker wasn’t an athlete,” the coach said. “He played a little golf, but was never an athlete. Even though he wasn’t, he realized what athletics meant to a school. He always gave support.

“He would always say ‘go get ‘em’ coach, meaning he wanted us to go out and bring in the athletes and students,” Garrison said. “He knew athletics was an integral part of the institution.”

Dr. Whitaker spent 32 years at Chowan, a feat which is almost unheard of, and led it to much success and many accolades.

“As a university president, I find it astounding what Dr. Whitaker did here for 32 years,” said Chowan University President Dr. M. Chris White. “My favorite term for him is ‘Dr. Chowan’ because this place wouldn’t be here without him.”

Dr. White said when he first became a college president, back in 1986, it was Dr. Whitaker who served as his mentor.

“Bruce and I were great friends as well as colleagues,” Dr. White said. “He was my mentor.”

“He deserves a lot of credit for being there as many years as he was,” said Dr. Jerry Jackson, who followed Dr. Whitaker as President of Chowan. “He certainly gave his life to that institution. He laid the foundation that I could build on when I got there.

“Everything I could say about Dr. Whitaker is good,” he added.

One of Dr. Whitaker’s main pushes was to have his school and staff involved in churches throughout the region.

“When I was interviewed, he asked me about my attitude toward church,” Lewis said. “He said it was because he wanted churchmen. He didn’t say Baptist, but took a much broader concept.”

His activity in local churches also led to a good relationship between Chowan and the local church community.

“When I knew him, Dr. Whitaker was a very dedicated, conscientious and sincere person,” said the Rev. Jack W. Byrd, pastor emeritus at Cashie Baptist Church in Windsor. “He loved the Lord and he loved young people from his many years of working with them.”

The Rev. Tom Caulkins is the retired minister of Murfreesboro Baptist Church and served as Dr. Whitaker’s pastor for nearly a quarter of a century.

“He was a fine man,” Rev. Caulkins said. “His whole life was thrown into the welfare of Chowan College. He got it on sound footing; did an excellent job.

“He was a good parishioner in church,” Rev. Caulkins added. “He was very supportive. As a minister himself, he understood the workings of the church.”

Almost to a person, those who spoke of Dr. Whitaker called him a great man and said he was someone who had touched their lives.

“He was a very passionate man,” Collins said. “His love for people was great. Sometimes it didn’t show, but it was there. He was a good friend.”

Sexton agreed.

“He was above board with people – always on the level,” Sexton said. “He was a person with no hidden agendas. He called a spade a spade and I liked that about him.”

“I think everyone in Murfreesboro will have fond memories of him,” Rev. Caulkins added. “He was a hard worker. He knew his business and dedicated himself to it.”

Sutton called Whitaker larger than life.

“He wasn’t a big man, but in his personality and outreach, Dr. Whitaker was larger than life,” Sutton said.

As for his legacy, Garrison may have summed it up best.

“He’ll be remembered for the greatness he had at Chowan University while he was in charge,” Garrison said. “Chowan University – where we are now and where we were, he’ll be remembered for that.”

Chowan University will honor the life of Dr. Bruce E. Whitaker at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 14 in Turner Auditorium of Marks Hall. The public is invited.