Honorary doctorates, alumni award presented at May 11 commencement

CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University conferred degrees on its brand-new graduates Saturday, May 11, and took time out to honor three graduates from the past – a federal judge, a benefactor and servant to education, and a research scientist who is working to solve the mysteries of cancer.

Before 680-plus members of the university’s spring 2002 graduating class received their degrees, the university conferred honorary doctorates upon Judge James A. Beaty Jr. of Winston-Salem and Wallace N. Hyde of Raleigh, and awarded Thomas E. Meigs, who was raised in the shadow of WCU, the Alumni Award for Academic and Professional Achievement.

Beaty earned a bachelor’s degree at Western in 1971 and a law degree from the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1974, and then went on to a distinguished career as a Winston-Salem attorney. Beaty was appointed a Superior Court judge in 1981, when he was just 31 years old, and in 1994 he was appointed by President Bill Clinton, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, as United States Judge of the Middle District of North Carolina.

Beaty’s life of service has extended past the courtroom doors to include a dedication of time to organizations that benefit young people, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Salvation Army Girls Club Advisory Council, and the Youth Opportunity Home Council.

“This is indeed a great honor for me and one that I take humbly and with pride,” Beaty said after receiving his honorary doctorate.

Beaty told the crowd at WCU’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center that coming back to Cullowhee reminded him of his days on the Western campus, when he was a member of Black Students United for Liberation, WCU’s first organization for African-American students.

Members of the group were few in number, Beaty said. “We didn’t want our voices to be missed among the chorus of concerns about the activities taking place after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But we were heard by a caring community,” he said.

“It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child,” Beaty said. “I like to extend that further and say the village of Cullowhee has been part of my extended community and I can think of no greater village to be in than Cullowhee, N.C.”

Hyde, a native of Western North Carolina, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at WCU and a doctoral degree at New York University. He moved to Asheville in 1964 to enter the insurance business, and in 1969 he began a long tenure of service to education, serving at various times both as a member of Western’s board of trustees and as a member of The University of North Carolina system Board of Governors.

When the state began examining the structure of its system of higher education in 1971, Hyde was named by Gov. Robert Scott to the State Committee on the Structure and Organization of Higher Education, and he became a member of the first Board of Governors when the 16-campus system was established in 1972. Hyde continues his service to WCU as a current member of the university’s Development Foundation.

In a short and humorous acceptance speech, Hyde said a friend who recently received an honorary doctorate told him “any fool can get a doctor of education degree if he’s fool enough to go through all the hoops he has to jump through. But an honorary degree proves, at least, that some of your associates approve of you.”

Meigs, son of long-time Western faculty members Joseph and Carolyn Meigs, grew up in Cullowhee and attended Smoky Mountain High School two years before enrolling at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, where he graduated in 1986.

Meigs came back home to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology at Western in 1990, and then went on to receive a doctoral degree in biological sciences at Stanford University. He now serves as a research scientist, working to reveal basic knowledge on the mechanisms of cancer, at the Center for Chemical Biology at Duke University Medical Center.

Meigs told the new graduates that he recalled the “complex mixture of feelings” he had when he graduated from Western 12 years ago.

“Now, with the benefit of 12 years of hindsight I can say with conviction that Western Carolina did a fantastic job of preparing me for many things I expected, and for many things that I didn’t know I would need to be prepared for,” Meigs said.

“I often think of what it was about Western that helped me be that well prepared,” he said. “I think the one thing that keeps popping up is the sheer quality of teaching in this place. Western is blessed with some unbelievably skilled faculty.

“As you go out into the world, know that this place has given you the tools — the mental equipment — that you’ll need to succeed in this world,” Meigs said.

In his charge to the graduates, Western Chancellor John W. Bardo reminded them that even though they may be leaving Cullowhee, “you’re not ending your education here today. Education is a lifelong process. I hope that you’re leaving Western with an understanding that in your world, the world of the future, rapid change will be inevitable. You must continue to engage in formal learning and education.”

“We hope you will remember your roots,” Bardo said. “Those of us still in Cullowhee care about you and we will follow your achievements with pride. Western is yours for life, and you are ours for life.”