Maybe it was that intramural basketball game in the early 1980s when his team, named the Braves in recognition of the Western Carolina University students’ affinity for Atlanta’s Major League baseball team, somehow won the campus championship after defeating a squad that included future NFL star Clyde Simmons.
Maybe it was that “stern talking to” delivered by an economics professor who convinced a less-than-stellar student on the verge of flunking out to see the error of his ways and begin taking his studies seriously.
Or maybe…just maybe…it was a little of both, along with a deep and abiding love for his alma mater and Catamount athletics that has led a man who is now the president of a Durham-based oil company to consistently provide financial support to the university that nearly told him to pack his bags and go back home.
Regardless of the reason, one thing is for certain – Steve Couch, a 1985 graduate of WCU with a degree in industrial technology – is having a major impact on the lives of current students and student-athletes.
Twenty-six students in WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology have received financial assistance through the Carlton O. and Margaret W. Couch Scholarship Fund initially established through a gift of $25,000 from Couch in 2010. That endowed fund now stands at the $150,000 mark after additional contributions made over the years, and will reach $500,000 through a planned estate gift pledge made in 2018.
Diego Valenzuela, a senior from Charleston, South Carolina, majoring in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics, is the current recipient of the Carlton O. and Margaret W. Couch Scholarship. Receiving the award was “a huge financial help” for paying tuition and college expenses, Valenzuela said.
“The scholarship was also a big motivation for me,” said Valenzuela, who plans to attend graduate school and work toward his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering after graduating from WCU. “Sometimes we work very hard and we may find ourselves questioning our progress and achievements, but acts like these are what remind us to keep going and that our work does not go unrecognized. They remind us that we have people around us who want to see us succeed and are willing to help.
“I am excited for the semester and I’m thankful I get to focus more on school without the worry of tuition playing as big of a part as it would without the help from this scholarship.”
The most recent example of Couch’s legacy of giving is a June 2022 pledge totaling $250,000 over the next five years to benefit the Catamount athletics program. The gift commitment includes $75,000 for the Catamount Club, $25,000 for the men’s basketball program and $150,000 toward athletics facility renovations.
“Steve is enhancing the lives of so many Western Carolina University students and Catamount student-athletes through his ongoing acts of generosity, while honoring his family and leaving a legacy of his own,” said Jamie T. Raynor, vice chancellor for advancement. “The university depends upon loyal and consistent donors such as Steve to help us provide the transformative power of higher education to our students and to enhance their academic and extracurricular experiences during their time with us.”
Although Couch had made small contributions to WCU on an infrequent basis since 1990, it was a meeting with a member of WCU’s Division of Advancement fundraising staff about a dozen years ago that sparked his philanthropic fire.
“Through that conversation, it brought back a lot of good memories about how the people at Western were so good to me when I was in school. I realized after that conversation that I should make it a priority to give back to WCU because, man, that place really did mean a lot to me,” he said.
Shortly after endowing the scholarship fund in his parents’ memory, Couch was invited by then-Chancellor John W. Bardo to return to Cullowhee to tell his story at the university’s annual scholarship luncheon, which pairs donors with the students who benefit from their gifts.
“I just about got kicked out of Western my second year because my grades were so bad. I had a professor who also was my adviser, and he sat me down and set me straight. He said, ‘Your parents are paying for you to be here to get a college education, so you better straighten up or just go on home.’ He may have officially been teaching me Economics 203, but what he really taught me was Life 101,” Couch said.
After that academic intervention, Couch began hitting the books in earnest, improving his grades to the point where he made the dean’s list his final two semesters. “I ended up getting a good education after that. Talking about my college experience made me realize I really needed to do even more to give back to the university that gave me a second chance,” he said.
Couch’s philosophy on giving has changed even in the last year, he said. “Why not give as much as you can while you’re still living? Donors can see the fruits immediately and the university is enhanced in real time. Of course, planning for retirement is important, but you can also ‘budget’ to ‘give’ now and for your remaining years,” he said. “This allows WCU to be as good as it can be – now.”
Couch said he grew up in a close-knit family, learning a lot about business and industry as part of the family-run Couch Oil Co. of Durham. His mother passed away in 1992 and his father died in 2003, at which point Couch became president of the company.
“I was fortunate enough to work closely with my parents for many years after college, and I felt like it was a no-brainer to name the scholarship after them to honor them for what they did for my sister and me. Both of my parents modeled Christian principles to live by, and this has a lot to do with my daily walk and purpose,” he said.
His sister, Janice Couch Thompson, is a retired guidance counselor in Durham County Schools who volunteers as coordinator of the Couch Oil Cares Scholarship Program, which is affiliated with the Durham Bulls Minor League Baseball team. Six high school seniors are awarded $1,000 each during a Bulls baseball game each July, with 42 students receiving awards totaling $42,000 over the eight years since the program was created in 2015. “This is one Couch Oil community endeavor and would not be possible without our dedicated employees, customers, scholarship committee and friends,” he said.
Couch also has become increasingly engaged as a volunteer at the university, first serving on the Board of Visitors and currently as a member of the WCU Foundation Board of Directors.
“Through my involvement, I have learned that WCU needs help to get better-qualified students and to get more students not only from across the state, but from around the country,” he said. “Hopefully, this scholarship will help some students who deserve support and who might not be able to attend the university without it. I felt it was important to do my part to be sure we have an abundance of scholarship support in every department on campus.”
Couch called it a highlight of his life to be back involved with his alma mater. “Full circle, and it’s really the way it’s meant to be for alumni – giving back to the organization so they can continue to have a positive impact on current students.”
WCU’s annual Homecoming weekend also played a part in keeping Couch connected with the university as close, lifelong friends from Cherokee and the surrounding area have reconvened for the last 37 years. “All these guys are like brothers to me. There have been very few Homecomings missed since then, and It played a part in my giving today,” he said.
Although Couch did not participate in intercollegiate athletics as a student-athlete during his time at WCU, he said he has been a loyal fan of the Catamounts since he first set foot on campus.
“College athletics was very important to me, even as a freshman. I didn’t play on a varsity team, but I sure enjoyed playing pickup basketball games in Reid Gym and participating in intramural sports. And I enjoyed going to basketball games. I would sit in on practices, admiring Coach Steve Cottrell, how he coached and how he led,” he said.
Couch said some of those pickup and intramural games involved Catamount student-athletes, including the football team’s defensive end Simmons, who would go on to enjoy an illustrious career in the NFL highlighted by two Pro Bowl selections and leading the league in sacks in 1992.
“I still remember being there in 1983 when Western made it to the national championship game. It was so exciting to follow the team that year and to have those experiences. The football team was good then, and basketball was good then, too,” he said.
That’s a big reason for his commitment to provide financial support to the athletics program, Couch said.
“It is my hope that I can help Catamount athletics to be more successful. I think that the program is back on the right track now. I am glad we have Alex Gary, a former Catamount athlete, leading that department. I feel like we have a lot of hope in the athletics program and its future, and that makes we want to help them get back to where they used to be,” he said.
Improvements to athletics facilities are an important part of that future, he said.
“I am hoping that, when they bring recruits to campus in the near future, in terms of facilities we are at the same level as the other schools that we are competing against. I know athletics has been through some lean years, but our people are not the problem. We have great people. But we need to improve our athletics facilities to attract the best athletes,” Couch said. “I hope this gift and others from friends, alumni and fans will help us have some of the best athletics facilities in in the country.”
For more information on creating an endowed fund or supporting funds for immediate use to help students pursue their higher education goals, contact the WCU Division of Advancement at 828-227-7124 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the website give.wcu.edu.