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UNC honors the late Leo W. Jenkins

By Spaine Stephens
ECU News Services

Leo W. Jenkins would not look upon his latest triumph as a personal gain. Instead, it would be a victory for East Carolina University and its region.

Jenkins was posthumously honored April 10 with the University Award, the highest accolade given by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors for distinguished service to higher education. Jenkins’ son, N.C. Special Superior Court Judge Jack W. Jenkins, accepted the medallion on behalf of his siblings, who took the stage with him to a standing ovation.

Jenkins expressed pride in his father’s achieve­ments and the impact he had on statewide higher education and quality of life.

“As his son, as a proud graduate of East Carolina University, as a career public servant striving to live up to my father’s legacy, and as a lifelong Down East resident, I do, in fact, walk taller, as do all eastern Carolinians, because of Leo Warren Jenkins,” he said. “I’m certain my father would be deeply moved” by this honor.

The atmosphere in the George Watts Hill Alumni Center in Chapel Hill was reverent as the highlights of Jenkins’ legacy were summarized in a UNC-TV video, which played to the more than 275 guests.
The University Award

UNC President Tom Ross said Jenkins “dared and prodded eastern North Carolina to dream big.” He added, “He helped instill in the region a sense of pride and can-do spirit that never waned.”

ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard detailed how Jenkins’ work has affected not only the growth in academic programs at the school but also the leaders who have steered the university since Jenkins retired in 1978.

“He was a transformational leader. Leo Jenkins was a giant whose legacy lives on in dozens of ways…. The only negative that I can think of about Dr. Jenkins is that all chancellors who have succeeded him live in his shadow,” said Ballard.

“It is rare during our board meetings that I’m not asked, ‘How would Leo have handled this?’” Ballard continued. “I often wish I could have asked him.”

The change-maker

Jenkins stood at the helm during some of ECU’s most bustling, productive years in the 1960s and ’70s. He rallied campus and community to focus on expanding the reach and impact of what was then East Carolina College.

By the time the dust settled, Jenkins was credited with changing the face of ECU and spurring a chain reaction across the state as other colleges began realizing their potential. Among countless accomplishments, Jenkins guided the college to university status, fought for a medical school and oversaw expansions of academic, medical and athletic facilities. He also was instrumental in integrating campus without a court order, boosted support for creative and performing arts and pursued changes on campus that reverberated from the student body to citizens across the East.

“With his sense of selfless devotion, Leo Jenkins established a gold standard that we continue to honor and stand in awe of,” said John Tucker, ECU professor of history and university historian, “and we continue to emulate that to the best of our ability.”

Named dean of ECC in 1947 by then-Chancellor John Messick, Jenkins first turned heads because of his New Jersey roots and accent. It didn’t take long for his character to win over the campus and community, and he was named vice president in 1955. With a background as a Marine Corps officer as well as an education that included a master’s degree from Columbia University and a doctorate in education from New York University, Jenkins was worldly and brought a fresh perspective to ECC leadership.

By the time he was named president of ECC in 1960, Jenkins had a solid support system in place. His belief in East Carolina’s potential was infectious, and he rallied students, faculty and community members to expect more from the growing college. Then he took that campaign statewide.

His push for a medical school was met with skepticism by state politicians and leaders of other universities, who saw a medical school in Greenville as a threat to their funding and resources.

“He was a thorn in the side of the rest of the state,” said David Whichard, former editor of The Daily Reflector and family friend. “He had the character of both a ne’er-do-well and a hero, and he did both well.”

His campaign for university status for ECC also threatened to rock the state’s higher-education system that centered around one university and smaller colleges across the state. When ECC became East Carolina University in 1967, the campus and region could more easily picture how the institution could bring economic productivity, better health care and cultural growth.

“He saw the potential in eastern North Carolina and this institution,” Whichard said, “not what we could build today, but what comes tomorrow.”

Causing a stir

Yellowed newspaper pages from years gone by are testaments to the tumult Jenkins caused during those formative years. Editorials decried his efforts to take East Carolina to new heights, and political cartoons depicted him as a menace looking to shake the foundation of higher education in the state.

Leaders in state government and higher education urged Jenkins to back down, saying it was not the right time for East Carolina to expand its mission.

“It’s not an easy life to be challenged repeatedly by other people,” said Jim Bearden, who holds the longest continuous tenure as a professor at ECU and witnessed the campus growth during Jenkins’ tenure, “and his was a lonely role in that regard, but he carried it well.”

Jenkins used the cartoons and criticism as catalysts for his vision. His notoriety also meant people across the state caught wind of what the growing college was moving toward. “He really could let whatever criticism came his way fall right off his shoulders,” Bearden said.

Jenkins also had an instinct for handling issues that had the potential to shake the university’s foundation. He implemented integration gradually so it naturally occurred over time before government mandate.

“He accomplished desegregation without a court order,” said Ballard, “and he did it because he thought it was the right thing to do.”

Jenkins’ spirit sparked a renewed energy not only in Greenville but also in communities in the East that stood to benefit from a stronger East Carolina institution. “He was one of the greatest things to happen to eastern North Carolina,” Whichard said. “He was a great hero to all of us.”

Jack Jenkins said his father would consider the University Award the result of countless supporters’ efforts to see ECU serve the region and state to its highest potential.

“My dad would not take any personal credit, but rather would accept this on behalf of the Pirate Nation,” he said. “It’s nice to be recognized, but he knew that East Carolina’s success was a team effort, and that team includes generations of true Pirates everywhere.”

“He was not the kind of man who was looking to leave a monument or have his name on buildings,” Tucker said. “He didn’t expect to be recognized; he didn’t do it for the glory.”

Despite his expectations, Jenkins’ name adorns campus and community buildings, such as the Jenkins Fine Arts Center and the Leo W. Jenkins Cancer Center.

Although Jenkins died in 1989, the reverberations of his achievements are still being measured today.

“It’s only at this point that people are beginning to fully realize in ways that can’t be denied the truly incredible legacy that Leo Jenkins left ECU, the campus, region, state and nation,” Tucker said. “Now it’s clear. Whatever happens next, our record is officially solid.”

Jeannine Manning Hutson contributed to this article.