For the son of a small-town Baptist preacher who went to college to become a classically trained pianist, only to find his professional career take an unexpected change of tempo into academia, the June 23 memorial service for Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher hit just the right note. Billed as “a celebration of a life well lived,” the service was equal parts church, musical performance, remembrances of a beloved university leader and, perhaps most fittingly, an opportunity for Belcher to deliver one last altar call on behalf of higher education and its ability to change lives.
Belcher died June 17, after battling brain cancer for more than two years. More than 800 people filled the performance hall of the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center for the service, with hundreds more watching online via a live video stream. Known for his signature line “we are in the business of changing lives,” he asked his brother, Philip Belcher, to read his final personal statement, recounting his early years in South Carolina, his post-high school educational opportunities and his early years in academia, during the service.
“As I moved through my years as an administrator, first as an academic dean, then provost, then finally chancellor, my understanding of the world, its needs and the role an individual – and a university – can play to address those needs, broadened,” the chancellor said in remarks delivered by his brother. “I learned that, while my parents grounded me in critical principles, values and knowledge of what brings people together, experience, knowledge and values are essentially useless without doing something. I had to ask myself, ‘Will I just think about serving, or will I actually serve? Am I going to be a noun or a verb?’”
Just three days following Belcher’s death, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved a resolution in recognition of his transformative leadership as chancellor at WCU since taking the position July 1, 2011. N.C. Reps. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon) and Mike Clampitt (R-Swain) introduced the resolution, which was unanimously approved by the House, with the Senate concurring.
Several legislators rose in a bipartisan show of support for the resolution, noting Belcher’s impact not just on the university where he served, but on the entire University of North Carolina System and on higher education in general. “David Belcher was just an extraordinary man and educator. I used to joke with him that I wish we could clone him so we could have more than one David Belcher as a chancellor in our UNC System,” said Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-Burke). Rep. Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) characterized Belcher as having “… that perfect mix of creativity and precision and detail that you find in a classically trained musician. He played wonderful music not just on the piano, but at the university as well.”
Then, in a special conference call meeting July 2, the WCU Board of Trustees unanimously approved the naming of the academic unit that is home to the university’s programs in music, stage, screen, art and design as the David Orr Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts in recognition of his background as a classically trained pianist and his contributions to higher education and the arts at WCU and across Western North Carolina.
“The College of Fine and Performing Arts, where Chancellor Belcher held his academic appointment, is proud to bear his name and mantle of continuing to inspire and educate our exceptional students here in Western North Carolina, both as artists and citizens of the world,” said George Brown, dean of the college. “We will honor his legacy, as we, too, believe in the transformational power of education, by actively working to make our region and the lives of our people better through the power of the arts.”
And, on June 27, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce posthumously recognized Belcher for his contributions and commitment to the region with its Excellence in Public Service Award. Belcher’s wife, Susan Brummell Belcher, accepted the award, sponsored by First Bank, from Kit Cramer, chamber president and CEO.