CULLOWHEE -- Five Western North Carolina residents assumed a prestigious place in Western Carolina University's academic history Saturday (May 13) as they received the first doctoral degrees ever awarded by the institution.
The five were among a group of approximately 730 students who received graduate or undergraduate degrees as Western held its spring commencement at the Ramsey Regional Activity Center.
The five students awarded doctoral degrees in educational leadership are Leah Beatrice Hammond of Fletcher, Ted Scott Henson of Waynesville, Betty Jamerson Reed of Brevard, Sharon Wimpey Thurman of Hayesville, and Kenneth Gary Waddell of Asheville.
WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo hailed the conferring of the doctoral degrees as a milestone in Western's 111-year history.
"This doctoral degree program is especially significant, not just to the university, but to the Western North Carolina region as a whole," Bardo said following the ceremony. "This program specializes in training educators to be leaders in public schools in rural areas, and as we all know, having strong schools is the key for this region as we begin this new century.
"We are all very proud of these first five students, and we know they will serve their communities well," Bardo said.
Waddell, currently assistant principal at Vance Elementary School in Asheville, said WCU's doctoral degree program in educational leadership is "a rigorous and comprehensive program that prepares senior school leaders, not only to understand how and why our schools work, but also how they have worked in other times and places, and, more importantly, to imagine how they might work differently tomorrow.
"It's an awesome moment for me, personally and professionally," Waddell said. "I feel honored, not only to receive this degree, but also to be among the first to complete the program."
Also during commencement, Western presented its Alumni Award for Academic and Professional Achievement to Waynesville native James L. Breece.
Breece, who graduated from Western Carolina University in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, is vice president with Safety Kleen Corp. of Elgin, Ill., where he is responsible for activities such as management, product development and technical computing.
Breece and his wife, Waynesville native and WCU alumna Joan Morrow Breece, have two daughters, Rose and Janet. In 1999, the Breeces established the James L. Breece Scholarship at WCU to benefit WCU chemistry majors from Western North Carolina.