Nearly 100 alumni, friends and supporters of Western Carolina University gathered along the banks of Cullowhee Creek on a picture-perfect late spring afternoon to celebrate the long-lasting impact of philanthropy on WCU and its students through native flora, symbolic of the institution’s deep roots in the mountain region.
Now in its second year, the annual Planting Day event, hosted by the Division of Advancement and WCU Foundation, honors new and current members of two giving societies and acknowledges their legacy of significant financial contributions to the university. Attendees were introduced to five species of native vegetation to be planted at sites across campus after the ceremony, held Friday, June 10.
The Madison Legacy Society recognizes donors who have made planned gifts to the university or the WCU Foundation, while the Cullowhee Society acknowledges cumulative giving of gifts totaling $100,000 or more. Both societies, established in 2020, acknowledge lifetime giving to WCU and the vital role that private philanthropy has in “making the transformative power of higher education” possible for many, said Jamie T. Raynor, vice chancellor for advancement.
“I think Planting Day is a perfect way to honor members of these giving societies,” Raynor said. “Our students are, in a way, like seedlings. And your gifts help provide the nurturing, care and cultivation to help them mature and flourish, to bear fruit as productive and successful members of society. Thank you for helping our garden grow.”
Similarly, the members of the Madison Legacy and Cullowhee societies also will help till the ground necessary for the university’s upcoming comprehensive fundraising campaign to take root, said WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown. Still in its infancy with an overall goal yet to be set, the effort will be titled the “the Honoring Our Promise” campaign, Brown said.
“We need everyone, and I do mean everyone, from Catamount Nation to join us,” she said. “With priorities around academic excellence, both inside and outside of the classroom, and a robust student experience including adequate athletics facilities, we will especially need our giving society members to be active and vocal ambassadors and advocates for Western Carolina University, telling the stories of impact that your gifts accomplish. We want you to tell those stories loudly and proudly.”
Bob Roberts, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, provided an update on membership in the two giving societies, with 139 current members of the Madison Legacy Society and 237 members of the Cullowhee Society.
“These 376 donors have given gifts totaling $111, 535,709.21. Just think of the impact of that generosity,” Roberts said. “Last year, more than 1,400 students received scholarships supported by donors like you. That is 1,400 students whose lives have been forever changed for the better through the power of philanthropy.”
Roberts was among several speakers who shared quotes from students benefiting from the gifts of WCU’s donors. Quoting a letter of thanks from Owen Cosenke, a tight-end on the Catamount football team and recipient of the Wallace and Jeanette Hyde Football Scholarship, Roberts said:
“Western Carolina took a chance on me. Five full long years later, I have hung up the cleats and I am preparing for a career in engineering. The road has not been a smooth one, but I wouldn't trade any part of it for the world,” Cosenke wrote. “I now feel an obligation to success in order to one day repay my debt to the hopeful youth of WCU in the upcoming years. I truly bleed purple and will be a Catamount Club member for the rest of my life.”
Chancellor Brown read comments from Trinity Leger, recipient of the Jack and Judy Brinson Honors College Annual Scholarship, Friends of the Arts Scholarship and Mickey and Sondra H. Pettus Alpha Xi Delta Scholarship: “This funding is my reason to keep studying, to push me to succeed, and to fill the world with positive change. If I can make even a little bit of difference in this world, I’ve done my job. It can only be through generous contributions such as this that someone like me can have a head start on her future and the dedication to make it happen.”
She then introduced Brandon Rice, a rising senior majoring in communication with a concentration in public relations and a minor in music who also is a member of WCU’s Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, by saying, “I could easily stand up here and continue to share comments from the students who benefit from these scholarships, but you should hear it directly from a student.”
Rice, who plays the front-and-center instrument of electric violin in the nearly 500-member marching band, is recipient of the PATH Scholarship and Patrick Lee Carmody Scholarship. Thanks to that support, he has gone from a struggling high school student conditionally admitted to WCU through the Academic Support Program to earning a 4.0 GPA in the program and ASP’s Timothy M. Adams Award.
That honor is presented “…in recognition of the dedication, achievement and enthusiasm embodying true leadership and a pledge of continued commitment to make a positive difference on campus and in the world around you as demonstrated in the Academic Success Program at Western Carolina University,” Rice said.
“Now, not only am I going into my fourth and final year playing electric violin in this amazing band, but I’m now a staff coordinator as well, the highest student leadership position in this band. Thanks to Pride of the Mountains, I’ve gotten shout-outs from my violin idols when they noticed my playing skills,” he said.
During the ceremony, Donna Winbon, chair of the WCU Foundation Board, summarized the symbolism of Planting Day.
Following the event, a native Fraser magnolia sapling will be planted in honor of Madison Legacy Society donors. “Fraser magnolia trees grow tall and produce beautiful cream-colored blossoms. The deep roots of the Fraser magnolia symbolize your gift of perpetuity as planned giving donors,” Winbon said.
For Cullowhee Society donors, four different native plant varieties – each representing one of the four individual giving circles within the society – will be planted in their honor, she said. They are:
Video from the event is available online.
To learn more about WCU’s giving societies, visit the website give.wcu.edu/GivingSocieties.