Three Western Carolina University alumni were recognized for their achievements and a former chair of the WCU Board of Trustees received one of the highest honors bestowed by the university, the Distinguished Service Award, during recent Homecoming activities on campus.
As part of a ceremony at A.K. Hinds University Center, WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher presented the service award to Teresa Williams, a Huntersville resident who served on the Board of Trustees a total of eight years, including two years in each of the positions of board secretary, vice chair and chair.
Awards bestowed by the WCU Alumni Association to recognize alumni achievements were presented by association President Frances Owl-Smith. Brandon Robinson, a two-time WCU graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history who is now an attorney in the Durham area, received the Young Alumnus Award; Dr. Keith M. Ramsey, a Greenville resident and professor of medicine at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, received the Academic Achievement Award; and Michell Hicks, former principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, was recipient of the Professional Achievement Award.
Williams, a native of High Point, earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was appointed to serve a four-year term on the WCU Board of Trustees in 2007, and then reappointed to another four-year term in 2011.
As he presented the award, Belcher said that Williams, in her role as a trustee, “always brought extraordinary ideas to the table, always looking for ways to raise the bar.” One of those ideas was the creation of WCU’s Board of Visitors, he said. That board, which eventually will consist of up to 30 members, serves in an advisory role to the chancellor, and as advocates and ambassadors for the university. “I am excited about the impact this board is already having and its potential to help our university further tell its story across our state and throughout our region,” Belcher said.
As chair of the Board of Trustees, Williams was “insightful, wise, strong and forward-thinking,” Belcher said. “She mentored individual board members. She planned and ran a great meeting. She advocated on Western Carolina University’s behalf with elected officials. She was, and is, passionate about Western Carolina University and the role it plays in serving Western North Carolina and our state. She has been my great partner in leadership, and with her many contributions she has changed Western Carolina University for the better.”
As she accepted the Distinguished Service Award, Williams praised the university’s faculty and staff for creating “this most wonderful place that is famous for opening new growth patterns for discovery and exploration for everyone who would participate.”
“I came to you a stranger, and you took me in,” she said. “In the days and weeks and years that would follow, I came to know that’s simply your way, with your own special blend of friendship, of community, of compassion, and support and encouragement. You do that every day for students and adults alike.”
Robinson, recipient of the Young Alumnus Award, is a native of Mocksville who went on from WCU to earn his law degree at North Carolina Central University, where he graduated in 2013. In June of 2014, Robinson became the first African-American to be sworn into the practice of law in his home county of Davie since its founding in 1836.
As she presented the award, Owl-Smith related to the audience that, as an undergraduate student in Cullowhee, Robinson began a self-directed reading project that included 300 works of literature ranging from Western philosophers to biographies of American presidents. “As the epitome of a lifelong student, Brandon is still reading, of course,” Owl-Smith said. “While working hard as a full-time attorney, he still reads at least one book each week about history, philosophy, law or politics.
“Are you getting the concept that I’m working toward here, that Brandon Robinson is an amazing example of what can happen when someone possesses a relentless passion for pursuing knowledge?” Owl-Smith asked the audience. “This has nothing to do with cell phones, computers or any of the other paraphernalia of modern life, by the way. It’s just Brandon and his books, leading the way to provide for us all a wonderful glimpse of what a truly educated life looks like.”
In accepting the award, Robinson expressed appreciation to the faculty members who mentored him in WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“My heart simply swells with gratitude when I think of Western Carolina University,” he said. “Western Carolina University is really my family, and aside from the rugged hills of Davie County where my ancestors have roamed since before the Civil War, there’s no place on the Earth more sacred to me than the Cullowhee Valley.”
Hicks, the Professional Achievement Award recipient, earned his bachelor’s degree in business management at WCU and received an associate degree in accounting at Southwestern Community College. He began working for his tribe, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, in 1987 as an assistant business manager.
Hicks was elected principal chief, the tribe’s top leadership position, in 2003, and in later years was re-elected to two additional four-year terms, making him only the second chief to be elected to a third term in the history of the tribe. “His tenure as the top leader for the Cherokee people turned out to be a period of spectacular advancement for the tribe in terms of economic development and cultural advancement,” Owl-Smith said in presenting the award.
Some of the major developments on the Qualla Boundary during Hicks’ tenure included expansion of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and development of an accredited Cherokee language immersion school, golf course, tribal justice center, hospital, and the new Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Hotel and Casino near Murphy, Owl-Smith said.
“The Cherokee people needed a strong, smart and discerning leader with great vision at the helm as they entered the 21st century, and you answered the call,” Owl-Smith said. “The members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and all of Western North Carolina, have benefited from your service.”
As he accepted the award, Hicks recognized one of his mentors in the audience, Joyce Dugan, who formerly served as the first woman principal chief of the Eastern Band. Dugan earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at WCU and is now a member of the university’s Board of Trustees. “A sincere thank you, not only for what you’ve done for the tribe, but for me personally,” Hicks said to her.
The audience at the awards ceremony included WCU students, and Hicks urged them to consider their long-term impact as they go through their working lives. “As you think long term, what decisions will you make that mean something 25 or 100 years down the road?” he said. “Focus on the things you can do today that affect people down the road in a positive way.”
Ramsey, recipient of the Academic Achievement Award, is a native of Asheville who was raised in Sylva and graduated from Sylva-Webster High School (now known as Smoky Mountain High School). After graduating from WCU with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Ramsey went on to earn his medical degree at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Ramsey was a member of the faculty at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston from 1983 until 1990, “where he applied his research interests to a terrible new disease called AIDS,” Owl-Smith said. “Groundbreaking research into HIV and AIDS would eventually dominated Keith’s early professional life as he and his colleagues literally wrote the book, page by page, about that topic,” she said. “Keith’s dedication to public health and welfare took him around the world as he presented papers and lectures to help disseminate correct information and dispel myths about the disease.”
In 1990, Ramsey was recruited to the faculty at the University of South Alabama, where he served as director of the Division of Infectious Diseases for 14 years and led development of one of the largest clinics for treating HIV patients along the Gulf Coast, Owl-Smith said.
Ramsey returned to North Carolina to join the faculty at the Brody School of Medicine in 2005. He also now serves as medical director of infection control for a 10-hospital system in eastern North Carolina and as chair of the Pitt County Board of Health.
“Through his groundbreaking research, medical practice and philanthropic work, Keith has had a profoundly positive effect on the welfare of humanity,” Owl-Smith said.
Ramsey also addressed the students in the audience as he accepted his honor. He said he has been fortunate to receive some awards for his work over the years. “You don’t set out to win these awards,” he said. “You learn from your parents and teachers, work hard, set goals, establish relationships, and you serve other people. If you do those things, you might win awards or you might not, but the real reward is the journey you take to get there.”