Pat Kaemmerling, former chair of Western Carolina University’s Board of Trustees, has experienced life from both sides of higher education’s philanthropy equation – students who benefit from the contributions of strangers, and benefactors who make those contributions out of a desire to help others.
An educator who changed career directions to become a successful businesswoman, Kaemmerling delivered the keynote address Thursday, Oct. 28, at “Honoring Philanthropy,” an annual event connecting donors who have created endowed and annual scholarships to students who are attending WCU thanks to those contributions.
It was at the suggestion of a high school guidance counselor that Kaemmerling, a first-generation college student from the small Cleveland County town of Casar, consider WCU, located in the mountains that she often stared at wistfully from the porch of her home in the foothills.
She applied to WCU, was accepted and, with the support of scholarships, graduated in 1971 with a degree in middle school education.
“The first time I walked on this campus, it was love at first sight. This place called to me. I left home, came here and found another home. The day I moved into Helder dorm, I began a whole new life. It was exciting and scary, with so many unknowns,” she said, prompting knowing nods from many of the student attendees.
During her address, Kaemmerling discussed some of the differences between the university during her years as a student and the institution of 2021, including single-sex residence halls, dress codes, curfews – and beanies, which were required headgear for first-year students to wear every day until Homecoming weekend.
“Even though it was different then, some things were exactly the same. Western, then and now, put students first. There was always someone willing to help, support and encourage,” she said.
Although she majored in education, she decided after teaching for three years to try her hand at business. During her career, Kaemmerling has worked in sales, finance, management and corporate training. She now owns and operates an information technology and security business in the Atlanta area for the past 33 years with her husband, David.
“WCU prepared me not to be just an educator, but to be a productive member of society in any arena that I chose,” she said. “It never occurred to me when I left teaching to enter the business world that I would not be successful. That confidence was instilled in me here at WCU.”
It was about 15 years ago when Kaemmerling and her husband began thinking about estate planning. “Since we have no children of our own, we looked for ways to help other children. We decided to make a legacy gift to Western to help other children get an education. Because of that decision, I reconnected with my alma mater,” she said.
She has served on WCU’s Foundation Board and Board of Visitors, and as a member and chair of the Board of Trustees. She also co-chaired the search committee that recommended the appointment of current Chancellor Kelli R. Brown, who took office in July 2019.
“It has truly been a labor of love for me to be able to give back to the institution that has given me so very much,” Kaemmerling said.
In addition, she and her husband also funded a scholarship in her father’s memory during WCU’s “Lead the Way” fundraising campaign initiated by former Chancellor David O. Belcher. Launched in July 2014, that effort, with a focus on increasing support for endowed scholarships, culminated in April 2019 with more than $61 million in cash, pledges, grants and planned gifts. The Kaemmerlings’ initial legacy gift also will be used for scholarship support.
Kaemmerling thanked those who have established scholarship funds for deserving WCU students and asked those who have not to consider doing so, reassuring them that the WCU Division of Advancement has been a judicious steward of resources entrusted to it by donors.
“Through my volunteer work here, I have seen the impact of scholarships on Western students,” she said. “I have worked with faculty and staff who are extremely dedicated to our university. And I have seen how wisely our gifts are used to support the education of students and provide them the opportunity for a college degree.”
In recognition of Kaemmerling’s years of service to WCU, Jamie Raynor, vice chancellor for advancement, and Ben Pendry, assistant vice chancellor for development, presented her with a framed display of the original “freshman beanie” she wore as a first-year student.
Despite challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic year, more than 800 friends and donors contributed and pledged $2.3 million toward scholarships at WCU during the 2020-21 academic year, Raynor said. In addition, 24 new scholarships funds were established last year, with 11 new funds created since the 2021-22 academic year began in July, she said.