Ask WCU alumnus T.J. Eaves to describe Chancellor David O. Belcher's initial impact on Catamount Nation and he answers before the question even ends: "Like a wrecking ball." And then he can't help himself: "At a hundred miles an hour."
Eaves, who graduated from Western Carolina University in 2012 with a degree in business administration and law, served as WCU's student body president for the 2011-12 school year, which was his senior year and Belcher's first as chancellor. He feels incredibly lucky to have witnessed such transformative energy from a man he considers a father figure and mentor – a man who put WCU on a new trajectory, and who helped Eaves reach his own career path.
"If you think about it – and this is no disrespect to Chancellor John Bardo or any chancellor before him – but if you think about Western Carolina University in March 2011, you think about a sleepy university with a lot of potential. Then think about Western Carolina University in November 2017. They're two entirely different places."
Eaves said he witnessed a new excitement and love for WCU the first time he heard Belcher speak to the campus community, an emotional connection he had not seen before among students, faculty, and staff for their university. But was this guy for real? "Honestly, I thought to myself, 'there's no way this is how he actually is, there's no way he could be this excited to be our chancellor, there's no way he can keep up with all these meetings he wants to do. I doubt he's actually going to be this involved on campus.' And I was wrong," Eaves said. "He 100 percent was up to all of it and he has raised the bar to a new level every semester."
Thanks to scholarship support, Eaves was able to stay in Cullowhee the summer between his junior year and senior year to prepare for his role as WCU's new student body president and for the dynamic new energy of the newbie chancellor. "The scholarships took a financial burden off my back, which meant I didn't have to find some big job somewhere," he said. "I didn't have to worry about making money or staying with my parents. I was able to stay around and focus on the university, which was really nice."
And helpful, because the winds of change were blowing, and Eaves knew it, moments after Belcher was introduced to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors as WCU's next chancellor. "I, along with then-current SGA President Daniel Dorsey, traveled to Chapel Hill for the announcement," Eaves said. "We were both introduced to him right outside of the boardroom. Right afterward, we took a picture together, which I still have. Chancellor Belcher's in the middle and he's got his arms thrown around us. He's got that big David Belcher grin on his face and you can tell he's just ecstatic to be hanging out with two students. I thought that was really cool. It was like a tone-setter for how he ended up presiding over the university."
As student body president, Eaves began meeting regularly with Belcher as they started to build a relationship and learn from one another. The meetings, Eaves said, were "surprising, refreshing and invaluable."
"I think his first year, he focused more on using me and other visible student organizations as a method to learn about the campus and to get trust amongst students," Eaves said. "I think he broadened his position out to be essentially not just the chancellor, but almost like the mascot, this visible leader of the university, which was different than it had been in the past."
Eaves was so taken with Belcher's vision and strategic plans for the university that he worked with WCU's student-run closed-circuit television station, TV 62, to broadcast live the SGA State of the University Address on Jan. 31, 2012, an event that normally received little attention, much less a live broadcast.
"I wanted the university to be able to hear what Chancellor Belcher was doing about the budget cuts, tuition increases and just generally everything that was going on at the university," said Eaves. "But it also provided an opportunity for TV 62 to provide a live broadcast in what they considered to be prime time. So, it was good for those students to experience that as well. It was a lot of fun."
But talk of budgets and tuition and other university issues eventually gave way to which law schools Eaves was considering, why he was considering them, his strategies for getting in and even whether he was studying enough for his Law School Admission Test. Eaves had his eye on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law but was unsure whether he could get in. "I was lucky enough that Chancellor Belcher wrote letters of recommendation for me," he said. "Eventually, I got into UNC, and we sat down to talk about it and it was a very proud moment. I just consider myself lucky to have been able to have the access to him that I did."
Eaves, who now works as an assistant district attorney for the Wake County District Attorney's Office, is a member of the WCU Alumni Board and keeps a "Lead the Way" poster in his office. "I actually started giving to the university when I was a senior," Eaves said. "I did the senior class gift. My year was the first year we did that, and then we did the senior class toast with Chancellor Belcher, which was an amazing experience. I think it's important to give back to the university that gave me so much. If I were to donate every month for the rest of my life, I don't think I would be able to give back enough because I don't think I would be sitting where I am right now without those professors, advisers, and Chancellor Belcher."
Susan Belcher, the chancellor's wife, is an important part of the equation, too, he said. "To me, I don't think about Chancellor Belcher without thinking about Susan," he said. "Maybe because I know that she grounds him and keeps him energized and takes care of him and makes sure he doesn't run himself into the ground. And maybe because she was just as excited about the university as he was. I mean, she's not the person who runs out on the football field with all the freshmen or gives a speech, but she loves Western just as much as Chancellor Belcher."
Now 28, married and a parent, Eaves ponders his future through the lens of a Jedi trained by Yoda. "In 10 years, I see myself back at a university. I like doing legal affairs for the university because it's so complex and there are so many different issues. But, I'd like to be a chancellor of a university and it's directly because of Chancellor Belcher. I would not have said that before I met him."
By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell