Susan Brummell Belcher, wife of late Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher, received one of the top honors bestowed by the university, the Distinguished Service Award, and three alumni were recognized for their achievements as part of Homecoming activities on campus Saturday, Nov. 3.
During the annual Chancellor’s Brunch and Alumni Awards Ceremony, Interim Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar presented the service award to Susan Belcher, who took on the role of ambassador for the university when her husband became WCU’s leader in 2011. Ed Holland, president of the Alumni Association, presided over presentation of three awards given by that group. Facebook researcher Mary Beth Fallin Hunzaker, a sociologist with expertise in the social psychology of information transmission, received the Young Alumni Award. Elizabeth Ransom, who also is a sociologist and who is known internationally as a top scholar of agriculture and the food system, was honored with the Academic Achievement Award, and Kenny Messer, president of Sartomer Americas, a specialty chemical company, was recipient of the Professional Achievement Award.
Belcher earned her master’s degree in vocal performance at Northwestern University and gained professional opera training with the Chicago Lyric Opera Center in Chicago. After retiring from her operatic career, she worked 16 years at the United Nations before moving to Springfield, Missouri, where she was education director, and later, executive director of the Springfield Regional Opera. It was in Springfield that she also met and married her husband, David O. Belcher. After the couple moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2001, Susan Belcher taught as an adjunct vocal professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and continued to perform and direct opera productions for young people.
“And then the Belchers arrived in Cullowhee,” Morrison-Shetlar said to the audience during the awards ceremony at A.K. Hinds University Center. “I hesitate now, wondering if a list exists somewhere of all the activities that Susan participated in for the next seven years as a full-time partner to David. If I had such a list, I wouldn’t be able to read it to you because we would all miss the 3:30 (p.m. Homecoming football) game.”
As the chancellor’s full-time partner, Susan Belcher “proved herself to be a passionate advocate for Western Carolina University and a true ambassador for the institution” while also playing “a hugely important role in enhancing relationships between the university and the communities and the region that it serves,” Morrison-Shetlar said.
The Belchers embraced the WCU community as family over the years, “but they especially loved our students,” she said. “To have had the opportunity to observe them as they related to our students, and the way the students responded to them, was an inspiring thing to watch, and so authentic and so meaningful.
“The Belchers have been role models for all of us, and their enthusiasm for the transformative power of higher education and their desire to help future students in Cullowhee was visibly demonstrated by their very generous gift pledge of $1.23 million for student scholarships that jump-started our current (Lead the Way) fundraising campaign one year ago,” Morrison-Shetlar said.
After receiving the Distinguished Service Award from Morrison-Shetlar, Susan Belcher began her comments with raised arms and a vigorous shout of “Go Catamounts!” – as her husband did so often as WCU’s leader. “I just had to do that. That one’s for you, David,” she said. Chancellor Belcher died in June after a more than two-year battle with brain cancer. She also commended Morrison-Shetlar for stepping forward “to take on the great responsibility of this university since David’s passing.”
Reflecting back on the arrival of her and her husband in Cullowhee, Belcher said the university community built the foundation for her service to the institution in three ways, including giving her “permission to serve.” Some higher education institutions prefer that the top leader’s spouse not be too involved, but that wasn’t the case at WCU, she said. “From the very beginning, Western Carolina University embraced the idea of two-for-one, and Western allowed me to be a full-time partner in the shaping of this university, and that sentiment and that environment allowed me to thrive. And, I had the time of my life,” she said.
Belcher said the university also gave her the resources she needed to be able to serve, specifically in the form of assistance from many individuals on campus ranging from the chancellor’s office staff to event planners, creative teams, facilities management staff and the staff of Aramark, WCU’s food service partner. Plus, she said she was allowed to utilize her abilities as an individual, with the university community not expecting her to be just like her husband, who she described as a visionary who could see a goal 10 years into the future and then determine how to take the university there, one step at a time. Susan Belcher told the audience that she “lives in the world of now. What should I do now? WCU allowed me to take that approach and to offer what I had to offer and didn’t ask me to be David, but said, ‘No, you can just be Susan.’
“My home for the last seven years has been Western Carolina University, and that uniquely good-hearted and wonderful institution gave me permission to serve, gave me the resources to serve, and gave me the support I needed to serve in my own way,” she said. “I will never forget that, and I will be forever grateful because David’s and my years at Western Carolina University were the best years of our married lives. And, as David said, ‘It was a joy.’”
Mary Beth Fallin Hunzaker
Hunzaker, recipient of the Young Alumni Award, enrolled at WCU as a sociology major in 2008 and graduated in 2010. The native of Madison went on to earn a doctorate in sociology at Duke University, where she spent a year as a graduate fellow at its Kenan Institute for Ethics. Last year, Hunzaker joined the Sociology Department at New York University as an assistant professor, teaching statistics and social psychology. At that institution, she was co-recipient of a highly competitive Russell Sage Foundation grant to study political polarization and public opinion concerning inequality, race and immigration in social media echo chambers. This past summer, she left academia to join Facebook’s News Feed team. In her new role, she conducts research aimed at understanding patterns of information sharing on that platform.
After receiving her award, Hunzaker said that when she came to WCU in 2008 she couldn’t have imagined her current career path, but she doesn’t believe it would have been possible if she had not decided to attend the university. “My experiences at the university and the mentorship and support that I received from professors here were really foundational for setting me on this pathway,” she said.
Ransom, who received the Academic Achievement Award, is originally from Smyrna, Georgia, and double-majored in sociology and political science at WCU in addition to being a decorated athlete on the track and cross country teams. Following her graduation in 1994, she went on to graduate study at Michigan State University, focusing on agriculture and food systems in sub-Saharan Africa for her research. After earning her doctorate, Ransom joined the faculty at the University of Richmond, where she expanded her research to focus on the global trade in beef and the impact on local farmers in Botswana and Namibia. This past summer, she joined the faculty at Penn State University, where she expects to expand on her research in sub-Saharan Africa.
Ransom told the audience that she discovered an array of academic disciplines and ideas when she got to WCU, but she was “ultimately drawn to sociology and political science both for the faculty and the content that was offered by these two disciplines.”
She said her experience mirrors Hunzaker’s in that she also was strongly influenced by the WCU faculty members who taught her courses. “I was fortunate enough to have faculty who saw in me things I didn’t see in myself. They became my mentors,” she said. “I hope that I have inspired a few students in the same way that I was inspired by faculty here at WCU.”
Messer, recipient of the Professional Achievement Award, related to the ceremony attendees that he was raised on Hemphill Mountain in rural Haywood County, where he spent his boyhood plowing tobacco behind a mule and cooking on a wood stove. He said that was a “great life,” but he had a dream of going to college – a dream that was strongly encouraged by his parents, who didn’t have much formal education. His academic credentials would have allowed him to attend larger schools outside Western North Carolina, but Messer’s guidance counselor at Tuscola High School, WCU alumnus Tom Dowell, steered him toward Cullowhee. “(Dowell) knew that Western Carolina was a special place and the place for a first-generation college-bound country boy like myself,” Messer said.
Despite some initial academic struggles, Messer said he flourished at WCU, with faculty members reaching out to him with a helping hand. “All that was required of me was to reach back,” he said. “I wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t for the commitment of this fine institution to student success.”
After his graduation with an undergraduate degree in chemistry in 1986, Messer progressed through the ranks of the chemical industry to become president of Sartomer Americas, which is located in the greater Philadelphia area. Over the years, his involvement with WCU has been extensive, with Messer providing financial support for many university programs and activities, and filling the role of president of the Catamount Club and Alumni Association. He is currently serving his second term on the WCU Board of Trustees.
Messer closed his remarks by encouraging those attending the ceremony to consider making a gift to the university “Lead the Way” fundraising campaign, which is focused on increasing scholarship support for deserving students. “Your contributions can make dreams of college education a reality, and you can be part of changing lives now and into the future,” said Messer, who benefited from scholarship support when he was a student.
“If it wasn’t for the generous contributions of others, I wouldn’t be standing on front of you today,” he said. “This university has given me much more than I could ever return.”