A decades-long friendship that began with a chance encounter in a dormitory parking lot and has endured despite differences in political philosophies has resulted in the creation of new endowed scholarship for student employees of the Department of Residential Living at Western Carolina University.
Former N.C. Sen. Thomas Apodaca and his family have established the Keith Corzine Residential Living Endowed Scholarship to honor Corzine, associate vice chancellor for auxiliary enterprises, who is retiring effective Jan. 1 after a career of more than 34 years in WCU’s Division of Student Affairs, most of it in the student housing profession.
Apodaca, a 1980 graduate of WCU with a degree in finance, was working as head resident in Albright-Benton Residence Halls and gave Corzine his first job in student housing, hiring him to serve as a resident assistant beginning in the spring semester of 1980.
Corzine, a 1982 graduate of WCU with a degree in management, said he recalls that December day clearly. He was on his way to his home in Clyde for the winter break in 1979 after interviewing for a resident assistant position in Harrill Residence Hall when he remembered his building was scheduled to be rekeyed over the holidays.
“I was a third of the way to Sylva when I realized I didn’t leave my keys, so I turned around and drove back to campus. I parked and walked through the side entrance to Albright-Benton. Back in those days, the head resident had a reserved parking space right beside that entrance, so as I came walking up, Tom comes walking out the door,” Corzine said.
“Tom goes, ‘Corzine, how come you didn’t interview.’ I said, ‘Because you didn’t call. I interviewed at Harrill, and I never heard from them.’ So, he looked at me and goes, ‘You still want to be an RA?’ And I said, ‘I do.’ He said, ‘You be here January the whatever for training, and you’re going to be on second-floor Albright. That’s what started my career in housing, and a lifelong friendship and respect for one another,” Corzine said.
Corzine took over responsibility for what he described as “a rowdy, all-male floor” for the 1980 spring semester, then became an RA on a different floor of Albright-Benton for the 1980-1981 academic year before accepting a job as head resident – the senior student housing position within a residence hall of 400 men.
A past member of the WCU Board of Trustees, Apodaca also remembers that parking lot encounter. “I was down an RA and I said, ‘Corzine, would you come be an RA in Albright.’ He took the job and now he is, what, associate vice chancellor for auxiliary services? So, he may work out, we’re not sure yet. It’s been 42 years and the jury’s still out,” Apodaca said, with a hearty laugh. “I had met him and gotten to know him. I was always impressed by how level-headed and mature he was. At times, that’s hard to find in a dormitory.”
Thus began a friendship that has endured the test of time, survived in spite of opposing political opinions and thrived in a time when civil discourse has become anything but civil. Apodaca is a staunch Republican, while Corzine is a devoted Democrat.
“Sometimes when I introduce myself to his political colleagues, I say that I’m Tom’s liberal buddy,” Corzine said. “I’ve often been proud of our relationship in that regard. I think mine and Tom’s relationship politically has been a healthy one and represents the type of politics that a democracy has to have because of the fact that we have common ground.”
Apodaca agreed. “This is how it should be, although it’s a burden because I’m always right,” he said, with a chuckle. “But I want to hear what Keith has to say. We’ve had great discussions and we’ve never really gotten cross with each other over it. We may disagree, but we move on. It really hasn’t been an issue, and that’s been a great thing.”
It is somehow fitting that Apodaca’s political party is represented by the color red, while Corzine’s is represented by blue. “You put red and blue together, and you get purple,” Corzine said, noting that purple is WCU’s school color.
“People so often make assumptions that they are complete opposites and don’t have common ground that they don’t attempt to find it. I do think that Tom, with his influence and regardless of my political views, was an incredible advocate for Western Carolina University and still is,” Corzine said. “We are no doubt in a much better position as an institution because of Tom’s influence through the years with him in the Senate and as part of our Board of Trustees.”
Did Corzine ever envision his one-time college residential living supervisor becoming one of the most powerful politicians in North Carolina, serving as chair of the Senate Rules Committee and co-chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and Higher Education? “Well, not at the time, but when you sit down now and think about it, you might think, well, now I see it,” he said.
Corzine recalls his first visit to Apodaca’s head resident apartment in Albright-Benton. “I noticed the phone jack was way down the hallway and there’s duct tape with telephone line running into the bathroom. There was a phone extension on the hall in the bathroom, and when I asked him about it, he said, ‘You take every opportunity to make a deal. You just never know when the deal’s going to happen, and you have to be prepared.’ So there was a phone right there by the shower, the toilet and the sink,” he said. “We should have seen it coming then.”
Both men attribute their lasting friendship to bonds forged as members of the unofficial residential living fraternity.
“I wasn’t in a fraternity and in fact wasn’t allowed to be in one because, back then when I was a head resident, they wouldn’t allow us to be in a fraternity,” Apodaca said. “But we kind of had our own fraternity. We had to put up with a lot of things, some that are hard to forget and some that aren’t. It’s just being there and having the same environment and the same interests and the same things happening.”
Corzine described housing folks as being like “one big family, with an ‘all-for-one, one-for-all’ kind of mentality.”
“I would argue that your RA position is your No. 1 student leadership training position on a college campus,” he said. “They are taking people who come from different pieces of our society. That’s what a residence hall is – it’s a densely populated reflection of our society and larger community. RA’s are trying to help facilitate community and helping people work through being away from home, learning to be disciplined and to study, and to see the bigger picture of why being educated, moving forward and going out to become a productive citizen is important.”
Apodaca said that Corzine and another former RA and longtime friend, Dean Hamrick, a 1984 graduate who now lives in Texas, have always stayed in touch since their time at WCU. “Always,” said Apodaca, founder and managing partner of Vista Strategies and Solutions, a lobbying firm with headquarters in Raleigh and Hendersonville. “And we’ve tried to be in touch with each other at important events. I remember the day I announced I would be running for Senate. Keith and Dean were there in Hendersonville. We’re there for each other for a lot of things in our lives.”
That’s part of what led Apodaca and his wife, Lisa, a 1980 graduate of WCU, to contribute $25,000 to begin a scholarship fund in recognition of Corzine’s contributions to the university, kickstarting an endowment that had long been discussed by residential living staff.
“He deserves it. Lisa and I were thrilled to be able to do it, and I can’t think of anybody more deserving of it. We’re happy to do it and I’m glad to help get it started and seeded,” Apodaca said. “I’m truly proud of him. His reputation is impeccable. I’ve never really heard anyone say a bad thing about him. He’s almost dedicated to a fault. It’s hard to get a danged return phone call from him because he’s always so busy.”
The scholarship fund will provide financial assistance to students who have worked for the Department of Residential Living for at least two semesters, including resident assistants, office assistants and maintenance, housing, paint and student mail crew.
“Sure, I’m proud. I was a little embarrassed when he said he was going to name it after me, but he also had this sternness in his voice and he talked about his other scholarships in other peoples’ names,” Corzine said, referring to the Pilar Apodaca Scholarship, established in honor of Tom Apodaca’s grandmother, with preference given to Hispanic American students.
“He was very much willing to support this scholarship effort, but he was pretty adamant that if he was going to do so, it would be in my name after working all these years and being involved in the program as I have been. I’m honored, I’m pleased. I thank my friend for years and years of support for Western Carolina University in lots of obvious ways. This one comes home.”
Sam Miller, WCU vice chancellor for student affairs, has worked alongside Corzine since 2007. “Keith may be 'headed to the house,' as he would say, but his legacy of commitment to the mission of the Department of Residential Living will remain thanks to the scholarship fund established in recognition of his numerous contributions. His work has directly and positively affected the lives of thousands of students over the years, and he will continue to do so indirectly through this scholarship,” Miller said.
Those interested in honoring Keith Corzine’s work and recognizing his retirement may contribute to his scholarship online.
For more information on making a tribute gift to a fund of your choice to honor someone else during this holiday season, contact the WCU Division of Advancement at 828-227-7124 or email@example.com, or visit give.wcu.edu.