Western Carolina University presented honorary doctorates to Asheville businessman and philanthropist Joe W. Kimmel and to mountaineer and longtime benefactor Robert M. Failing as the university held spring commencement exercises Saturday (May 5) at the Ramsey Regional Activity Center.
The ceremony also included presentation of WCU’s Alumni Award for Academic and Professional Achievement to Tony W. Johnson, a 1970 graduate who now heads the teacher education program at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo presided over commencement and congratulated approximately 1,000 candidates for undergraduate and graduate degrees as their families and friends filled the Ramsey Center to near capacity.
Failing, a retired pathologist who has climbed to the highest points on six of the world’s seven continents, was awarded an honorary doctorate of science. A Michigan native, Failing earned his bachelor’s degree at WCU in 1951 and went on to earn a medical degree before beginning a 40-year career as a pathologist in Southern California.
Reading from the degree citation, Bardo said, “For more than five decades, you have permitted neither the passage of time, physical distance, nor a demanding schedule to deter either your involvement with or commitment to this university. Your willingness to make dozens of 5,000-mile roundtrip commutes to the campus to share your leadership and expertise, and your readiness to step forward with meaningful resources have set an exemplary model for those who support the university.”
The citation noted the support that Failing and his wife, Nancyann, have provided for a wide range of WCU programs in the areas of academics, athletics, student recreation and the arts. “Bob Failing, you give your talents, your time, your energy and your resources from a heart that loves this university and these mountains, and this university deeply appreciates your faithfulness,” Bardo said.
Failing told the commencement audience that he was “deeply moved” to receive the honorary doctorate.
“Today, you have heard, and will hear, what alumni and friends have contributed to Western, but far more significant is what Western has contributed to its students, especially me,” he said.
Failing said that since his graduation from WCU 56 years ago he has “reflected many times upon the impact this institution has had upon my life – what has made the difference between who I was, and who I became.”
That impact, he said, was largely due to exceptional faculty members such as Gerald Eller, a biology teacher at Western when Failing was a student. Eller is now retired and lives in Arden.
“He was a great teacher. He was truly inspirational,” Failing said.
Kimmel, who led his company, Kimmel & Associates, to prominence as one of the leading construction industry executive search firms in the nation, was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. A Las Vegas native, Kimmel has made contributions to many Western North Carolina organizations over the years, and in December 2005 he and wife Cynthia announced a pledge of $6.92 million to support WCU’s construction management program. Their gift was recognized with the naming of WCU’s Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology.
“The gift to Western is considered among the most important events in the university’s history and is expected to prove critical to the emerging economy of the state and the nation,” Bardo said, reading from the degree citation. “Industry experts say that your gift could not have come at a better time since there is a nationwide shortage of construction managers that will be needed to address $3.3 trillion in infrastructure construction and repair projects in the next decade.
“Your significant financial gifts to scholarship funds, nonprofit organizations, universities and the arts are changing the lives of many for the better,” Bardo said.
Kimmel told the graduating students that in their interactions with WCU faculty members, they have witnessed “what it is to be served by selfless, serving people.”
“Many of you graduates, I know that you’re bright and you’ve studied your way through,” he said. “As we go on through life, though, we understand more and more it is through grace, and less and less in our own doing.
“Selflessness has power in it, and greatness,” he said. “Self-fullness will never bring you anything. Go out and become a servant.”
In addition to the presentation of Kimmel’s honorary doctorate, the day’s highlights included participation in commencement by the first graduating students from the Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology.
Another “first” noted during commencement was the participation of five students who are the first to earn degrees in the new community college/higher education concentration of WCU’s doctoral degree program in education.
Johnson, recipient of the alumni award, taught and coached at schools in Swain and Mecklenburg counties before earning his doctoral degree in education at George Peabody College for Teachers at Vanderbilt University. Over the years, he became a widely recognized innovator in teacher education while leading the teacher education programs at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
“The successes I have experienced are largely due to the intellectual and nurturing community that characterized Cullowhee in the late 1960s and that continues to characterize Western Carolina University in 2007,” Johnson said. “It is truly an honor to be selected for this prestigious award.”
In his charge to the graduates, Bardo said the university has recently completed its Quality Enhancement Plan, a requirement for re-accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and that the plan will pave the way for continued improvements in academic programs.
“Our Quality Enhancement Plan is based on a synthesis of real-world activities, with theoretical learning and integrated concepts, ethics and values to help truly create an educated person,” he said. “As we move forward, your degree will be worth more because of the work of this great faculty and because of the contributions you have made.”
A complete list of graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.