By Bill Studenc
A member of a family with deep roots in Jackson County has established an endowed scholarship fund at Western Carolina University that will support students in the College of Arts and Sciences in honor of a family patriarch.
Jeff Gray, a 1981 graduate of WCU with a degree in political science and public affairs, created the Jerome Sutton Family College of Arts and Sciences Endowed Scholarship Fund in 2018 through an estate gift of $55,000. An attorney with the Raleigh firm Baily and Dixon, Gray increased the amount of the planned gift by another $25,000 in December 2022, pushing the fund to $80,000.
Gray named the fund in memory of Thomas Jerome Sutton, his maternal great-grandfather. “The Suttons are a proud mountain family – proud of their heritage, their ancestries, their contributions to the mountains and its people, and they are appreciative of the role Western Carolina University has played in the prosperous lives that they have led,” Gray said.
The estate gifts are intended to provide financial support to full-time undergraduate students who have declared a major in the College of Arts and Sciences and have a GPA of 3.0 or better. Preference will be given to students with demonstrated financial need who are residents of the seven westernmost counties of North Carolina – Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain.
“The College of Arts and Sciences is extremely grateful for Mr. Gray’s generous donation to the Jerome Sutton Family Endowed Scholarship Fund,” said David Kinner, the college’s dean. “This gift supports us in our goal to offer life-changing, engaged education that is affordable for our students and families. This gift is especially poignant given that it helps with the university’s mission in supporting students in the western part of the state.”
Gray said he had been thinking about donating to his alma mater for several years before deciding to initially begin, then increase, his planned giving to WCU. “The impetus was Chancellor Kelli Brown and her vision and fundraising goals for Western. I appreciate her leadership and the team she is surrounding herself with, such as former College of Arts and Sciences Dean and current Provost Richard Starnes, and many others,” he said.
“The more I see what is happening at Western and the direction the university is going, the more I want to do,” said Gray, who serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Advancement Council.
Gray said he considers himself fortunate to have attended WCU without needing scholarship support and blessed to be able to provide assistance to future students who do need help in reaching their educational goals.
“I feel very strongly that those who have that need have ample opportunities to receive it. No one with the desire to obtain a college education should be prohibited from doing so due to their financial situation,” he said. “My greatest hope for recipients of this scholarship is that they will remain in Western North Carolina and become active members of the community, which is something I did not do, but so many times wish that I had.”
After graduating, Gray attended Campbell University School of Law, earning his law degree in 1985. He points to former WCU professor Gordon Mercer as a mentor and significant influence on his career path.
“He made each student feel special and would tap us to do various tasks to promote the department and raise awareness of the value of being educated as to not only the American political system, but the systems of other nations in the world.”
At Mercer’s suggestion, Gray and other classmates established a campus organization called the Student Association for Government and Legal Affairs.
“We attended the Model United Nations in New York City, sponsored a well-attended candidates forum for state and local political candidates and debated among ourselves,” he said. “Dr. Mercer was a great teacher and brought enthusiasm to a major many thought of as boring and purely academic.”
As an alumnus, Gray said he is impressed to regularly see news media across North Carolina turn to Chris Cooper, who holds WCU’s Madison Distinguished Professorship, for expert commentary on local, state and national issues.
“A week does not go by that I do not read where some media outlet has turned to our own Dr. Chris Cooper for his views on some significant political issue,” he said. “It makes me even more proud of WCU and the College of Arts and Sciences. I believe that it gives value to the education I received to have a professor in my former department be ‘the voice’ of politics in our state.”
Director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute, Cooper characterized gifts such as Gray’s as “the lifeblood” of the university. “They recognize student excellence and provide support for students who need it. And when gifts come from a WCU alumnus, it shows our students just how supportive the Catamount family is. There’s no better demonstration of the purpose and promise of a WCU education than alumni supporting current students,” he said.
Sutton, the scholarship’s namesake, was born in 1850 in Cherokee County and moved to Jackson County with family as an infant. Sutton married Sarah Ashe in 1871, and they made their home in the Savannah community of Jackson County.
Sutton was a farmer, storekeeper and land surveyor, and, to quote from the Heritage of Jackson County, was “highly regarded in the community.” Between 1871 and 1894, Jerome and Sarah Sutton produced seven children, the majority of whom remained in the Savannah community and attended Wesleyan Methodist Church.
Gray’s family has owned and operated The Sylva Herald newspaper since 1945. His brother, Steve, currently serves as publisher.
For more information on creating an endowed or annual scholarship fund to help students pursue their higher education goals, contact the WCU Division of Advancement at 828-227-7124 or email@example.com, or visit give.wcu.edu.