“Family” matters take center stage as WCU holds spring commencement

CULLOWHEE — “Family” was the theme of the day Saturday (May 12) as Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo conferred degrees on approximately 750 students at Western’s spring commencement.

It was a day that saw WCU bestow special honors on two of its own — longtime public health leader Mary K. Kneedler and alumnus G. Gordon Greenwood — and award degrees to a father and son duo from Mars Hill. Another “family” moment came when a couple from Saudi Arabia left their newborn son under the protective care of a WCU student marshal as they filed across the stage to receive their degrees.

Kneedler, the first head of WCU’s department of nursing, was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree. Now retired and living in Asheville, she played an instrumental role in both the establishment of WCU’s nursing program, and in the creation of the national Head Start early childhood program.

Kneedler, who joined the WCU faculty in 1962 along with her late husband, Jay I. Kneedler, thanked the WCU nursing program faculty, College of Applied Sciences, chancellor and trustees for honoring her.

Kneedler told the audience at WCU’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center that she has had a recurring dream over the past several years, and always in that dream she is driving around the state to various universities, trying to find a course that would lead to her receiving a doctoral degree. “Always in my dreams, it doesn’t quite work out. But now I can tell that dream to go away,” Kneedler said.

The Alumni Award for Professional Achievement was presented to Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of the Bank of Asheville. He began his banking career in Asheville shortly after receiving his bachelor’s degree in business administration from WCU in 1969.

Greenwood lends his time to many community and humanitarian organizations in the Asheville area and the region, and he urged Western’s new graduates to do the same.

“I encourage you to be a leader and volunteer in your community, and that you choose to help your community thrive and grow. The Unites States is a nation of volunteers, and that’s what makes our nation great,” Greenwood said.

Two graduates listening to Greenwood’s words carried the “family” theme to the highest level. Michael Wilson and his son, Christopher Wilson, received bachelor’s degrees in electronics engineering technology.

Michael Wilson earned an associate’s degree in electronics engineering technology at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in the early 1970s, around the time his son Christopher was born. The son followed in his father’s footsteps and earned the same associate’s degree from A-B Tech in 1993.

In 1996, the Mars Hill residents enrolled in WCU’s electronics engineering technology program offered in Asheville. They took several courses together, always pushing each other along, academically.

“We were very competitive. It probably raised both our scores. I didn’t want him to beat me!” Michael Wilson said prior to the WCU ceremony. Questioned about who ended up with the highest grade-point average, Michael Wilson pointed at the gold cord hanging around his son’s neck, signifying that his son was graduating with honors, and said, “Look at this!”

The Wilsons received their degrees before about a dozen family members. “It’s a doubly proud day,” son Christopher Wilson said.

It was a proud day, also, for Saudi Arabia residents Bakheet Al-Zahrany and his wife, Fatamh Al-Zahrany. The couple filed into the Ramsey Center accompanied by their 10-day-old son, Sultan. The newborn was originally due on graduation day, but arrived in time to join the other spectators at the Ramsey Center. While a student marshal took on a part-time babysitter’s role in the audience, the baby’s father received a bachelor’s degree in emergency medical care, while his mother was awarded a master’s degree in mathematics.

In his charge to the graduates, Bardo told them rapid change is inevitable in the world, but one thing that will never change is that they will always be Catamounts. “You are ours for life,” Bardo said. “Those of us who remain in Cullowhee still care about you and will follow your accomplishments with pride.”

Among the new graduates were 23 students who comprise the first full graduating class of WCU’s Honors College. The students joined the program for high-achieving students after it was elevated to “college” status in 1997.