FOUNDER OF NUTRITION, DIETETICS PROGRAM PASSES

Barbara Anne Cosper, founder of WCU’s Nutrition and Dietetics Program, died May 10 at the age of 72. Cosper came to WCU in 1977 to help fill a gap in educational opportunities for students from Western North Carolina interested in careers in food, nutrition and dietetics. During her 22-year career at WCU, she earned numerous awards for her teaching and service to the region, including membership on the Western North Carolina Health Systems Agency Governing Body, a health planning agency for the westernmost counties of the state. She retired in 1999.

LATE BIOLOGY CHAIR HELPED GROW NATIVE PLANTS CONFERENCE

James Heathman “Jim” Horton, former head of the Department of Biology at WCU, died May 5 at the age of 86. Horton joined the WCU faculty in 1961, serving as department head from 1967 to 1974. A former chair of the Faculty Senate, he was president of the N.C. Academy of Sciences, delegate to the University of North Carolina Faculty Assembly and member of the Regional Planning Task Force of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He was instrumental in coordinating WCU’s annual Landscaping with Native Plants Conference. Horton retired in 1992 after 31 years of service.

FIRST ADMISSIONS DIRECTOR GUIDED WCU’S EARLY GROWTH

Tyree H. Kiser Jr. ’51 MAEd ’53, WCU’s first director of admissions, died Dec. 22 at the age of 89. A member of the first class of master’s degree graduates, Kiser served for three years as principal of Sylva Elementary School before he joined the WCU staff. Student enrollment increased from approximately 1,000 in 1956 when he became alumni secretary and field representative to 6,800 during his leadership of the admissions office. Kiser received the Alumni Association’s Outstanding Service Award in 1963 and the Paul A. Reid Distinguished Service Award in 1978. He retired in 1984 after 36 years of service.

THE FINAL CURTAIN FALLS FOR BELOVED THEATER PROFESSOR AL WIGGINS

The world lost a treasure Feb. 22, the day the final curtain fell for Alfred Washington Wiggins. The second of three children born to educators in Louisville, Kentucky, Alfred followed his parents’ education tradition. He received his master’s degree in theater from the University of California, San Diego, and began to teach. Wig, as he was affectionately called by his students, came to Cullowhee in 1984. He would not know how that decision would affect so many lives.

To know Wig was to love him. Sure, that sounds cliche, but in this instance it is so true. A brilliant writer, orator, teacher, storyteller and actor, he rose through the ranks to become associate professor of communication and theatre arts at WCU. He founded WCU’s Black Theatre Ensemble, providing black students an opportunity to perform and share their history and culture. Over the years, the ensemble performed across North Carolina and in several Southeastern and Midwestern states. It often presented Wig’s original works, including “Us and Ours,” a production illustrating how the church, family and a legacy of the spirit have enabled African-Americans to not only survive, but thrive.

Wig would engage in conversation with anyone. He was not one to try to convince you to accept his opinion, but he definitely would give you a lot to think about. Many WCU graduates, myself included, had the opportunity to be blessed with Wig’s presence, knowledge and advice. He truly cared for his students. He was not only a professor, but also a father figure to many. That’s not to say we needed a “father” in our lives. Many of us had that, but the guidance Wig gave was needed because most of us were miles away from home. The state of North Carolina recognized his impact in 2001 when Wig received the Governor’s Award for Excellence.

He made it a point to put education first. His passion was theater, radio and the arts in general, but when he spoke to you, he wanted to know how the whole person was doing. He wanted all of his students to succeed. He wanted students to understand their history and culture. He wanted students to be proud of where they came from – and where they were going. Whether it was through a story he told as we traveled to perform or through the performance itself, he made sure there was always a message to be given – and received.

Wig will be missed, but his legacy lives on through his students. His impact is felt today because he has several students who have gone on to follow his footsteps by performing, educating or both. Several former students are currently involved in productions on stage, TV, radio or film.

I was fortunate enough to extend my time with Wig after graduation as business partners and friends. It is hard to imagine where my life would be if I had not chosen WCU and if WCU had not chosen Wig. I am sure that sentiment is echoed by former students throughout North Carolina and beyond. Wig, thank you for sharing a piece of your journey with “us and ours.”

Joe Monroe II ’99, a former Student Government Association president, lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is an actor and business owner.

MOUNTAIN HERITAGE DAY PIONEER LEAVES A LASTING LEGACY

Doug Davis, a Western Carolina University staff member who served as chairman of the Mountain Heritage Day committee for 18 years, passed away April 14 in Sylva. He was 92 years old.

As a guiding force in the early days of WCU’s popular event that celebrates Southern Appalachian culture and traditions, Davis established much of the format and started many of the functions that continue today. It was Davis who affixed Mountain Heritage Day to the last Saturday in September and led the festival to its position as a major regional celebration.

“Doug Davis was the architect of the Mountain Heritage Day celebration,” said Jim Rowell ’72, retired director of WCU’s Public Relations Office and a former festival committee chair. “It was his design and handiwork that remain fundamental to why the festival has grown and prospered for decades. Doug managed to do what (then Chancellor) H.F. ‘Cotton’ Robinson had envisioned it to do – be a real link to culture, music, folks arts and essence of this region. It links the university and mountain people in a way nothing else has matched.”

Davis retired as assistant vice chancellor for student development in 1992 after a 26-year career at the university, but remained involved with Mountain Heritage Day through subsequent years. He and his wife, Angela, who survives him, established an endowed fund in 2007 to help financially sustain the annual event.

“In 2014, when we created an exhibit celebrating the 40th anniversary of Mountain Heritage Day, we realized what an enormous influence Doug Davis had on the festival,” said Pamela Meister, director of WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center. “He served on the very first Founders Day steering committee, chaired the festival for its first 18 years, and was the recipient of the 1994 Mountain Heritage Award. Doug’s hands-on leadership and infectious enthusiasm, as well as his Mountain Heritage Day costume of slouch hat, white shirt, and red suspenders, will live in the memories of generations of festivalgoers.”

HARRISON WAS THE UNIVERSITY’S FIRST O. MAX GARDNER AWARD WINNER

Frederick W. “Rick” Harrison, professor of biology and Western Carolina University’s first O. Max Gardner Award winner, died Dec. 29 at the age of 78.

An internationally recognized authority on the biology of freshwater sponges, Harrison’s academic and professional achievements were vast. He was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Morphology and editor of The Microscopic Anatomy of Invertebrates, a 23-volume encyclopedic treatise on the biology of animals without backbones. In 1991, he was named recipient of the O. Max Gardner Award, which recognizes the faculty member of the University of North Carolina system who has “made the greatest contributions to the welfare of the human race” in that year.

He earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of South Carolina, where he played football. Before joining the WCU biology faculty in 1977, he taught at Presbyterian College in South Carolina and at the Albany Medical College in New York. His research took him from the bottom of the ocean, where he encountered a previously undescribed species of sponge, to outer space (at least vicariously), when he and a student placed sponges aboard a space shuttle flight to determine the effects of zero gravity on the creatures.

As Harrison’s obituary put it: “He was relentless in dragging his family to obscure parts of the world in search of obscure invertebrates. No freshwater sponge was ever too rare, and no tax deduction was ever too small.”

OTTO SPILKER REMEMBERED AS QUINTESSENTIAL PE TEACHER

Being able to walk on his hands from one side of a gymnasium to the other is only one of the many things that bring smiles to former colleagues and students when they remember Otto Spilker. A favorite Western Carolina University physical education professor, Spilker died May 5 at age 90. He is remembered as a committed educator who urged students to put children first while being a living example of the fitness he taught in the classroom.

“He was an incredible athlete, and I’ve seen many,” said Jim Hamilton, a retired WCU physical education professor who met Spilker for the first time in 1966. “What was most amazing was how he could control his body and do things others couldn’t. He stayed active.”

From walking across gyms on his hands to riding on campus on his tandem bicycle to being able to do complete gymnast moves well into his 70s, Spilker was a well-known figure on campus. Many had stories of watching in awe as Spilker would work out, usually in standard-issue gray shorts and T-shirt. He is equally remembered for the lessons about being a professional and caring he taught many students over 35 years.

“So many good memories of him,” said former Jackson County educator Larry McDonald ’66 MAEd ’70 EdS ’83. “I met him as a student in 1962. He was such a committed educator, and he wanted to be sure anyone he taught was ready. He reminded you over and over that you taught children and they were No. 1.

He inspired a professionalism about how you taught physical education.”

Spilker’s career included being named the North Carolina Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance College/University Professor Physical Education Teacher of the Year in 1993. He won the 1984 Taft Botner Distinguished Teaching Award in WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions. He received the WCU Outstanding Professor
of the Year award in 1973 and the university’s 1988 Paul A. Reid Distinguished Service Award.

Spilker once stated his teaching philosophy as: “Be ready. Over-prepared. If I don’t know the material, I’m in big trouble.” He was certainly prepared for racquetball games at Reid Gym, too. “I never could beat him,” said Dennis Proffitt ’74 MAEd ’89, a former Jackson County educator and administrator. “He was not overpowering, but he would dink and dunk the ball in all corners of the court. You couldn’t keep up with him. He had such a passion for staying active and teaching others to do it. He loved kids. I’m very thankful I had the opportunity to know him.”

In Spilker’s honor, friends and co-workers have created a scholarship awarded annually to students in the health and physical education program. To make a donation, visit the website give.wcu.edu.

Reprinted in edited format with permission of The Sylva Herald. Written by Todd Vinyard.