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Gratitude for education, experiences at WCU inspire decades of support for Catamount athletics

kenny messer

Kenny Messer (right) and Melanie Clark enjoy a pregame tailgate in Cullowhee.

By Bill Studenc

For chemical industry executive Kenny Messer, who grew up in rural Haywood County plowing tobacco fields behind a mule, providing philanthropic support to Western Carolina University is a way to show appreciation for an institution that saved him from a future of staring at the north end of a southbound pack animal.

Named president and chief executive officer in July 2022 of HarperLove, which produces specialty adhesives, performance additives and wet-strength resins, Messer has often credited the education and experiences he received as a first-generation college student at WCU with setting him on the path to success.

That’s why he has consistently contributed to his alma mater annually since earning his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1986, with a total lifetime giving tally of more than $325,000 –  most of it directed toward support for WCU athletics. Together with partner Melanie Clark, Messer recently made gifts and pledges totaling $100,000 to go toward much-needed renovations of the university’s athletics facilities.

WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown characterized Messer as someone who has been willing to contribute to the university not just financially but also through his leadership and service over the years.

"Kenny is a unique alumnus who has made WCU a philanthropic priority every year since he graduated 38 years ago and who also has shared his time and his talent through his service on several university boards," Brown said. "Together, Kenny and Mel are super supporters in every sense of the word, including their important work as active members of the steering committee that is guiding our Fill the Western Sky comprehensive fundraising campaign."

The $75 million Fill the Western Sky campaign has a significant focus on raising money to support enhancements to athletics facilities, with a goal of raising at least $30 million in philanthropic gifts to help fund those specific upgrades. Messer said he is glad to be able to contribute to the effort as part of his ongoing philanthropy.

kenny messer toast

From left, Kenny Messer and Melanie Clark speak to student philanthropist Gillian Kaminski at the 2024 Senior Toast event.

Recipient of the WCU Alumni Association’s Professional Achievement Award in 2018, Messer shared his story at an annual Senior Toast Tuesday, April 23, for graduating students who are members of the 1889 Club. A giving society named after the year of the university's founding, the 1889 Club recognizes donors for gifts made to the Fund for WCU on an annual basis. Students can join the society for contributions as small as $18.89 a year.

“WCU changed my life and enabled me to have a successful professional career,” Messer said prior to the event. “Athletics is the façade of the university to the outside world. It’s critical we have athletic programs and facilities that allow the university to accurately reflect our mission as a top-tier regional comprehensive university.”

As members of the Fill the Western Sky Campaign Steering Committee, Messer and Clark say they have seen firsthand the need for enhancements to facilities used by Catamount student-athletes.

“We have incredible student-athletes and coaches, but the athletic facilities are severely lagging compared to other institutions in the Southern Conference. Facilities matter for recruiting, athletic performance and fan pride. Mel and I continue to support athletics through annual giving and the Catamount Club,  but it’s imperative we also raise capital to enhance and build our infrastructure,” Messer said.

Clark agreed. “The WCU campus is a gem in a beautiful area of the world,” she said. “We have world-class faculty, staff and coaches and incredible students. It’s time that we have the same level of excellence with our athletic facilities. This can be a source of pride for our community, which will only enhance the experience and help continue to draw the best to Western.”

The university has undergone numerous facilities improvements for academics and student life in recent years, but there have been no major construction or renovation projects for athletics since the mid-2000s. West Side Stands were added to E.J. Whitmire Stadium in 2003. The Catamount Athletic Complex – home to women’s tennis, women’s soccer, and men’s and women’s track and field – went up in 2005, and the Catamount Softball Complex opened in 2006.

“We need upgraded and new facilities, which will allow our student-athletes to reach their fullest potential,” said Messer. “I want to see a place of pride for our fans when they attend sporting events.”

The fundraising campaign with its emphasis on financial support for athletics facilities improvement comes at a critical time in the rapidly changing world of intercollegiate sports, Clark said.

“College athletics is at a crossroads; however, Western has never veered from the mission of preparing all our students for success in life. It’s time we also provide our student-athletes the tools to be successful in their chosen athletic field,” she said.

Messer and Clark also are supporting WCU student-athletes in ways beyond their financial contributions. They recently hosted the Catamount women’s golf team at the Reynolds Lake Oconee Invitational and the WCU men’s golf team in the Southern Conference Championship, both held in Greensboro, Georgia, where they reside.

“We want to do our part in helping prepare these young women and men for not only success on the field or court, but in the game of life,” Messer said. “Any experiences we can share to help support the personal and professional growth of a student is rewarding for both parties.”

Although she is not an alumna of WCU, Clark said she has embraced the university and its athletics program and is eager to join Messer in supporting the Catamounts.

“We consider Western an extension of us. Everyone has always welcomed me and made me feel part of the Western family,” she said. “Kenny’s demonstrated commitment to this university runs deep, as evidenced by his participation in so many leadership activities. At Western, I feel like I personally can make a difference in our students’ lives. This is powerful and a motivating factor.”

Clark shared a personal example of how supporters of WCU athletics can have a lasting impact on student-athletes. “Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a Western women’s softball pitcher. Western was a long distance from her home, which didn’t allow her parents to attend her games,” she said.

“When I learned this, I made an effort to attend games to support her. This created a lasting bond with her. Now today, many years later, we are still friends and remain in contact,” Clark said. “Overall, just to see the faces of our athletes when you are there personally to cheer them on and support them is a wonderful experience.”

Messer spent almost 30 years with Milliken Chemical Co. before joining Sartomer Americas at Arkema in 2014. He served as president of Arkema Coasting Resins Americas beginning September 2019 before joining the executive leadership team at HarperLove in 2022.

He is a former member of the WCU Board of Trustees, and former member and president of the WCU Alumni Association Board of Directors and Catamount Club Board of Directors. He served on the committees that conducted national searches leading to the appointments of the university’s current chancellor, Kelli R. Brown, and former chancellor David O. Belcher, and he was a member of WCU’s 2020 Vision Strategic Planning Committee.

Messer, who counts the WCU football team’s victory over Furman in the playoffs in 1983 to advance to the national championship game as his favorite Catamount sports memory, encouraged other alumni, fans and community members to participate in the Fill the Western Sky campaign.

“I challenge all our fans, friends and alumni to step up and support the campaign,” he said. “Western exudes excellence in so many ways. It’s now time to let that excellence shine through in our athletics facilities.”

For more information about how to support the Catamount athletics program through the Fill the Western Sky campaign, contact Julie Miller, associate athletics director for development, at 828-227-3084 or visit

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