Three alumni, former trustee honored at ceremony

Honorees during an Oct. 26 ceremony were (from left) Johnny L. Carson, Academic Achievement Award; Manteo Mitchell, Young Alumnus Award; Joan G. MacNeill, Distinguished Service Award; and Wesley R. "Wes" Ellingburg, Professional Achievement Award.

Honorees during an Oct. 26 ceremony were (from left) Johnny L. Carson, Academic Achievement Award; Manteo Mitchell, Young Alumnus Award; Joan G. MacNeill, Distinguished Service Award; and Wesley R. “Wes” Ellingburg, Professional Achievement Award.

Three alumni of Western Carolina University were recognized for their achievements and one of the university’s highest honors was presented to a former WCU trustee as part of Homecoming activities Saturday, Oct. 26.

During a ceremony at A.K. Hinds University Center, WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher presented the university’s Distinguished Service Award to Joan G. MacNeill of Webster, former chair of the Board of Trustees, who is now serving the entire University of North Carolina system as a member of the UNC Board of Governors.

Three awards were presented by WCU Alumni Association President Jack Hudson. Johnny L. Carson, a Chapel Hill resident and member of the faculty of the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, received the Academic Achievement Award; Wesley R. “Wes” Elingburg of Greensboro, a former executive with Laboratory Corporation of America in Burlington, was recipient of the Professional Achievement Award; and former WCU track star Manteo Mitchell of Cullowhee, who garnered worldwide recognition for his performance at the 2012 London Olympics, received the Young Alumnus Award.

Belcher said MacNeill joined her now late husband, Malcolm G. MacNeill, in founding the Smoky Mountain Railway, a “tourism cornerstone” for the region, in 1989. Joan MacNeill was the railway’s president and chief operating officer until it was sold in 2000, Belcher said.

“In 1997, three years before the MacNeills sold the railway company, Joan became involved with her adopted university, Western Carolina, as a member of the Foundation Board of Directors,” Belcher told the audience at the University Center. “That was the beginning of her 16 years of wonderful volunteer service to the university.”

MacNeill was chair of the Foundation board for two years, and then in 2003, she was appointed by the UNC Board of Governors to fill an unexpired term on the WCU Board of Trustees, the beginning of her 10 years of trustee work.

“That decade, starting in 2003 and continuing through June of this year, was, of course, a period of remarkable advancement on this campus in terms of enrollment growth, improvements in the physical plant, a refocusing of the university toward service to Western North Carolina, and the emergence of the Millennial Campus,” Belcher said. “During that decade, Joan served as Board of Trustees chair for four one-year terms. This university was incredibly fortunate to have someone of Joan’s caliber, intellect and passion on its leadership team.”

Belcher said he met MacNeill when she was serving on the search committee that brought him to Cullowhee in 2011. “I could not have wished for a better ally and friend as I began my chancellor’s journey,” he said. “She was a wonderful sounding board as I began to lay out an agenda and identify specific issues that needed to be addressed. She was in all ways a new chancellor’s dream of a trustees board chair. All those who were a witness to Joan’s work for this university know that everything she did emanated from her commitment to Western Carolina and making it the very best university it could be for the ultimate benefit of our students and the region that WCU is charged to serve.”

MacNeill began her four-year term on the UNC Board of Governors in July, and during her first meeting was appointed to serve as vice chair of that body’s budget and finance committee. “I know, because I see it every month at the board meetings, that her service for the entire UNC system will be as distinguished and remarkable as her work has been for Western Carolina for 16 years,” Belcher said.

After receiving the Distinguished Service Award, MacNeill said that “being part of Western’s family for the past 16 years has certainly been a blessing. From my vantage point, I got so much more out of it than I have given.”

Carson, recipient of the Academic Achievement Award, graduated with honors from WCU with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1971. As a student, Carson began to develop an interest in the biology of lower plants as he studied under the mentorship of longtime WCU biology professor Jim Wallace, who is now a professor emeritus of biology, Hudson said.

After leaving WCU, Carson earned a doctorate in biology at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1975, and he joined the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine faculty in 1980. He currently is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology.

“During his more than three decades on the School of Medicine faculty, Johnny has earned international recognition for his research that has focused on the cell biology and diseases of the airways leading to the lungs,” Hudson said. “He has helped the medical world understand how airway diseases develop as a result of injuries by infection, smoking, air pollution and genetic factors.”

Hudson also spoke about Carson’s work with patients and families affected by the rare genetic disorder primary ciliary dyskinesia, which affects the respiratory tract. Carson has served as president of a support organization that assists those families, the Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia Foundation, and is now a member of its medical and scientific advisory board. Hudson read comments from the organization’s founder that described Carson’s role as a “cheerleader” and “tireless champion” for the affected families. “The Academic Achievement Award is given each year to a WCU alumnus who has achieved great things of the intellect, but obviously this year’s recipient also has accomplished great things of the heart,” Hudson said.

After receiving the award, Carson told the audience that being a student at WCU was a “watershed” moment in his life and expressed gratitude for biology faculty members who mentored him and the many employees “with so much energy” who took care of him while he was a student.

“When I encounter people in my profession, I’m always quick to let them know that although I graduated a long time ago, Cullowhee remains one of my favorite places on the planet,” Carson said. “I am deeply grateful to this university for honoring me with this lovely award.”

Elingburg, recipient of the Professional Achievement Award, graduated with highest honors from WCU in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting. In 1980, he began work for Laboratory Corporation of America, the second-largest clinical laboratory in the world. Elingburg rose through the ranks of the company to become its executive vice president and chief financial officer, and during his 25 years with the company, LabCorp grew from fewer than 1,000 employees to more than 23,000 employees, and annual revenues increased from $25 million to $3 billion, Hudson said.

Elingburg retired in 2005, but he is now co-owner and managing partner of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, a Class A affiliate of the Miami Marlins. One of the most successful franchises in minor league baseball, with average annual attendance of 350,000, the Grasshoppers have received an award given to the most successful Class A franchise in minor league baseball. The team also won the South Atlantic League championship in 2011, Hudson said.

Elingburg has been a loyal supporter of WCU since he got his diploma, contributing to both the Loyalty Fund and the Catamount Club, Hudson said. In 2006, Elingburg provided a gift to the university that made possible the Wesley R. Elingburg Distinguished Professorship in Business Innovation, which brings a nationally recognized expert to campus to teach in WCU’s College of Business. Three years later, Elingburg took the lead in a matching gift program for the Loyalty Fund by offering to match gifts over a one-year period, and that effort brought in about $118,000 in new support for scholarships and other initiatives, Hudson said.

Also on the education front, Elingburg has been involved in the Greensboro Day School as a board member, and he currently is chair of the Elon University Board of Trustees, where his son earned two degrees.

“Wes, your record of professional accomplishments is remarkable, and we know it is a reflection of both the excellent education you received here in Cullowhee and the hard work, dedication and intelligence you brought to the table,” Hudson said.

After accepting the honor, Elingburg told the audience that his years at WCU were “transformative.”

“(WCU) provided a foundation for my life and took me down a career path that puts me here in front of you today,” he said. “For that, I will always be very appreciative.”

Mitchell, recipient of the Young Alumnus Award, came to WCU as a student-athlete from Cleveland County and became one of the most successful Catamounts in the university’s athletics history, Hudson said. While running for WCU, Mitchell broke school records in the 200- and 400-meter individual runs and was named the Southern Conference’s top track performer four years in a row. He contributed to the legacy of the WCU track and field program as the conference’s top program by being a member of five team conference championships, and he earned all-region honors seven times and all-conference honors 32 times. Those accomplishments came under the guidance of WCU track and field coach Danny Williamson, a WCU alumnus, Hudson said.

After graduating from WCU with his bachelor’s degree in sport management in 2009, Mitchell began work toward his goal of becoming a professional track athlete, Hudson said. Shortly before the 2012 London Games, Mitchell was part of the United States’ 400-meter relay team that won a world championship and gold medals in Turkey. At the Olympics, Mitchell was running for Team USA in the preliminaries of the 400-meter relay, and while he was running, his fibula broke. Mitchell kept running, even though he had a broken leg, and finished his part of the race, allowing the team to advance to the finals and eventually earn second-place silver medals, Hudson said.

“Of course, after that incredible display of grit and determination, Manteo was the toast of the Olympics and received a huge amount of press coverage all over the world,” Hudson said. “When Manteo and the rest of Team USA visited the White House a few months later, President Barack Obama said Manteo’s performance was one of his favorite stories from the entire Olympics.”

Mitchell was off the track for four months because of his broken leg, and he completed academic requirements and received his master’s degree in physical education at WCU in December 2012. Mitchell was back competing for Team USA last April at the Penn Relays, where he helped the Americans win the 400-meter relay, and he is now hoping to earn a spot on the team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He is still coached by Williamson and is sponsored by Nike and BP. Mitchell “always has been an ambassador for WCU as he has traveled around the world competing,” Hudson said.

After receiving the award, Mitchell told those in attendance that suffering the broken leg while running in London was painful, but Williamson “taught me to never give up, and that’s why I kept running.”

“I’m very thankful for this moment and I appreciate all your support,” he said. “This is very, very important to me because I love Western Carolina University. I do feel that I am an ambassador for this university and I forever will be – not only on the track, but off the track as well.”

In closing the awards ceremony, Belcher said the four individuals honored “are leaders, extraordinary achievers in their careers and models of commitment – not just to WCU, but to giving back to their communities.”