CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University conferred degrees on approximately 400 students and recognized a Western North Carolina business legend with an honorary doctorate as the university held fall commencement exercises Saturday (Dec. 14.)
Before the degrees were awarded to WCU’s newest graduates, Western Chancellor John W. Bardo bestowed an honorary doctor of humane letters degree upon Sol Schulman, who established himself as an icon of entrepreneurship, public service and philanthropy during almost seven decades as a Sylva businessman.
Schulman was 19 years old when he opened his retail store on Main Street. It was January 1933, the midst of the Great Depression, and many predicted Schulman would have difficulty surviving in such hard times, but Schulman’s Department Store became a downtown landmark, operating continuously in the same building for almost 70 years, until Sol Schulman retired earlier this year at the age of 90.
Schulman served two terms on the Sylva Town Board after age 80 and, at various times, has fulfilled leadership roles for Wachovia Bank, C.J. Harris Hospital, and the Jackson County Community Foundation. He also has served as president of the Sylva Merchants Association and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, and was chairman of the Fontana Regional Library.
Schulman’s efforts to assist those in financial need are noteworthy, and many of those efforts are only known by those who benefited from his benevolence, Bardo said. Schulman is a long-time patron of Western, providing financial assistance for many university causes.
“You measured thousands of customers in your store, recalling suit sizes, inseams and sleeve lengths with outstanding accuracy,” Bardo said, reading from the degree citation. “But, you also measured people in other ways. You took the measure of their humanity, their needs, and their value as fellow human beings and neighbors. Quick to size, but not to criticize, you were an astute observer. There were no barriers of faith, persuasion or rank when it came to your willingness to assist others in need. Your empathy for humanity and willingness to help others embodies the spirit of what this university is all about.
“You have fashioned a legacy of service, of spirit and of hard work that stands as a beacon to those who will continue to strive for the American Dream,” Bardo said.
Sol Schulman could not attend the commencement due to health reasons, but his son, David Schulman of Asheville, accepted the honorary degree on behalf of his father.
“I’m sorry Dad could not attend today, but he wanted me to be sure and tell you how proud he is of this honor and to make sure you know that he has not been any nicer or more supportive of WCU than the school, faculty and staff has been to him and Schulman’s Department Store. It has been a mutual love affair,” David Schulman said.
“If you will permit me to use bad grammar in accepting an honorary doctorate of humane letters for him — Dad, you done good!”
The primary address at the commencement ceremony was delivered by WCU junior Javier A.P. Arvelo-Cruz-Santana, who won the honor by virtue of his winning essay in a contest sponsored by Western’s Honors College.
Arvelo-Cruz-Santana told the graduates that whether their next step in life is to continue their educations or enter the work world, “all of you will depart this great institution and ask yourselves, ‘who is going to lead?’ And if you tell yourselves that it is you who will lead, then you will have to ask yourselves yet another question, ‘How will I lead?’”
Arvelo-Cruz-Santana encouraged the graduates to be honest and inventive as they lead and to learn what their “worthy purpose” is. “I recommend you figure it out, for the sooner you define your goals, the sooner you can begin paving the road toward them,” he said. “And when you finally begin your journey and begin approaching your goals, savor them, for those memories you make of your path will help you in the future.
“Self-discipline and self-knowledge – you need these two, because before you become somebody great you need to become somebody, and all of that is done through the planning and definition of goals,” he said.
Arvelo-Cruz-Santana, a native of Puerto Rico and currently a resident of Newton Grove, is majoring in English at Western, with a concentration in professional writing. During the last year, he co-founded and is now president of a new student organization, The Student Congress for the Advancement of Humanitarian Work. He is the son of Luis Antonio Cruz Santana of Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, and Patricia Arvelo Ortiz of Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico.