CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University dedicated its new child development center in the name of benefactor Mary King Kneedler on Wednesday, Feb. 27, in tribute both to her significant financial contributions that made the facility a reality and to her role in the creation of the national Head Start early childhood program.
Kneedler, an Asheville resident, cut the ribbon to officially open the Kneedler Child Development Center on Western’s campus after being serenaded by a group of preschool children who will receive daycare and child development services at the facility – a charmingly off-key musical performance that had many in the crowd of nearly 100 dabbing their eyes.
Kneedler, wife of the late Jay Kneedler, a member of Western’s business faculty from 1962 to 1972, has given and pledged gifts totaling $100,000 toward the new child development center.
“What a pleasure, what an honor this is,” Kneedler said. “There are many opportunities that come to all of us, and in my life I was delighted to have opportunities galore. I thank you today for this one.”
The first head of Western’s department of nursing, Kneedler was appointed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson to serve on a panel of experts examining the needs of preschoolers. That panel’s recommendations resulted in the formation of Head Start and Well Baby Clinic programs nationwide. Among those was a program once housed in the old Camp Laboratory School building on the Western campus, now home to the University Outreach Center and Kneedler Child Development Center.
The symbolism of naming the facility in honor of one of the people responsible for directing national attention to early childhood education was not lost on speakers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Pasty Dowling, executive director of Mountain Projects, one of two community partners helping manage the center, spoke about her first-hand knowledge of the impact Kneedler’s work has had on the lives of young children.
“I cannot tell you how much I personally appreciate her involvement in setting national standards for early child development,” Dowling said. “I know, because I was lucky enough to benefit as a Head Start child in this very building so many years ago.”
Sheila Hoyle, executive director of Southwestern Child Development Commission, the other community partner, said the new center will help ensure that the youngest members of the campus community get off on the right foot. “We’ve learned that what makes for good citizens in tomorrow’s workforce is what happens today to young children between the ages of 1 and 5,” Hoyle said.
In the works for nearly five years, the 5,000-square-foot facility will serve children from birth through age 5, with 11 full-time teachers and three-part time teachers, said Robert Caruso, vice chancellor for student affairs at Western. “It also will serve as a site for student volunteers, interns, observers and others interested in academic programs related to early childhood education.”
The center is designed to provide affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare for Western students, staff and faculty and the surrounding community, said Chancellor John Bardo. “A few years ago, we realized that we were not being especially friendly to younger families, which represent one of the most rapidly growing segments of those involved in higher education,” Bardo said. “We also realized that we were seeing younger faculty and staff, who also have young children, who were having difficulty trying to balance their careers and their families.”
Western bestowed an honorary doctorate upon Kneedler during May 2001 commencement exercises.