Students are home for the holidays and campus is quiet. It is easy to find parking and there is no line of cars waiting to enter the traffic circle to access N.C. Highway 107. The hum of big machinery busy with campus construction has replaced the tick-tick-tick of the metronome from the Pride of the Mountains drum line rehearsing around campus. And so, it seems the perfect time to reflect on the past year as it slips seamlessly into the year ahead.
The year 2018 brought a multitude of long-awaited, exciting and sometimes sad news. On March 1, WCU officially launched the public phase of its comprehensive fundraising campaign, Lead the Way, by announcing a minimum goal of $60 million to be raised by early 2019.
The kickoff event was live-streamed from the University Center where faculty, staff, students, alumni, and board and community members all gathered to celebrate this ambitious goal. During the event, Mickey Charles Hughes announced his pledge of $5 million as an estate gift to the Leone Hyde Ray Endowed Scholarship Fund.
The next day, March 2, more than a dozen current and former members of the General Assembly and other state officials joined 200-plus spectators who gathered for a ceremonial groundbreaking to mark the start of construction on WCU’s Tom Apodaca Science Building. The new $110 million facility should be completed and in use by June 2021.
And just two months later, on May 11th and 12th, WCU recognized a record number of graduates in a trio of commencement exercises.
The Saturday morning undergraduate commencement included the presentation of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching to WCU English professor Laura Wright, who was recently announced as one of 17 recipients of that honor across the UNC System.
On May 28, the N.C. General Assembly released the state budget proposal which included the first of two $16.5 million installments to replace the university’s ancient steam plant.
Joe Walker, WCU associate vice chancellor for facilities management; steam plant crew members Terry Riouff, Darryle Buchanan, Harold Bailey and David “Dudley” Burress; and Lee Smith, director of operations and maintenance for WCU’s Department of Facilities Management, were so delighted that they took to social media to send the Legislature a “thank you” message.
Then, in June, on Father’s Day, the university received incredibly sad news. Our beloved chancellor, Dr. David O. Belcher, had passed away. Although he had taken medical leave at the beginning of the year and the news was expected, the entire Catamount community grieved together in the days and weeks following.
Dr. Belcher was celebrated at a memorial service on Saturday, June 23, at Bardo Arts Center. On July 2, WCU’s College of Fine and Performing Arts was renamed the David Orr Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts to honor Dr. Belcher’s dedication to the arts.
Before going on medical leave in December, Dr. and Susan Belcher announced their plans to set the tone for WCU's Lead the Way comprehensive fundraising campaign with a commitment of $1.23 million to the campaign, and Dr. Belcher requested in his obituary that memorials be directed to foundation endowments.
After Dr. Belcher’s passing in June, Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar transitioned from Acting to Interim Chancellor and on August 15th, addressed the entire faculty and staff at the 2018-19 Opening Assembly.
“We have achieved incredible things together. We have embraced our mission – our purpose. We have changed lives. But we cannot push pause on our momentum. Our students deserve much more,” Morrison-Shetlar said in her address.
When students returned or arrived for the first time as Catamounts in August, they were among the largest class to ever attend WCU.
And the enrolled class of 2018 was the first to participate in NC Promise, the tuition reduction program implemented at WCU and two other University of North Carolina institutions by N.C. state legislators to reduce the overall costs of attending a four-year college.
Shortly after the 2018-19 academic year kicked off in August, the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band received a visit from representatives of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade organization and the men’s basketball team got a new coach.
“On behalf of the band selection committee, Macy’s is incredibly proud to welcome back Western Carolina University to the streets of New York City,” said Wesley Whatley, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade creative producer during an announcement celebration on campus. That same week, Coach Mark Prosser was named to lead the WCU men’s basketball team.
But all the excitement wasn’t just taking place on campus. On Saturday, Sept. 1, Catamount Keion Crossen, a seventh-round draft pick of the New England Patriots, learned he was a member of the team’s 53-man roster. That same afternoon, Detrez Newsome, who played at WCU alongside Crossen, landed a spot on the Los Angeles Chargers’ roster.
WCU athletes were thrilled to see former Catamounts succeeding after college, but many were just as excited to be able to work out in a new state-of-the-art weight room made possible by a donation of more than $400,000 from alumni David and Marie Brinkley.
“What we’re doing is improving an avenue for [young people] who are blessed by God, who have athletic ability, who can run and jump and throw and hit better than the average person,” said David Brinkley, a former Catamount football player who graduated from WCU in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in education.
For nearly 800 undergraduate and graduate students, the most important event of the year would take place on December 15th – commencement.
Interim Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar delivered the charge to the graduating students and alumni. “Graduates, each of you have worked diligently, passionately and tirelessly, earning the distinct privilege to be seated before us today,” she said. “You have believed in your dreams. You have set sights on your goals. You have completed all the difficult and necessary tasks to reach this day, a day that represents one of the most significant milestones in your lifetime. A milestone that makes possible a future of unlimited possibilities. Graduates, it is now up to you to create the world in which you wish to live.
And then, to everyone’s delight (well, almost everyone) came the snow. The weekend of December 8th & 9th brought heavy snowfall to much of the surrounding area. While Cullowhee saw only a few inches, it was the perfect holiday treat for many students who bundled up for snowball fights and sledding, and campus became a winter wonderland.
And now, with exams completed and first semester grades in hand, students have returned home to family and friends or have set out on some new adventures. On campus, the rumble of construction continues and staff work diligently to prepare for the coming year, occasionally reminding ourselves of the final words of Dr. Belcher, “For isn’t this our ultimate goal – to serve our students, families and communities who need so much?"