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ECU Presidents and Chancellors

Robert Herring Wright, 1909-1934

Robert Herring Wright was born in Sampson County, North Carolina in 1870.  He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 1897. He later attended graduate school programs at both John Hopkins University and Columbia University. Selected as the first president of East Carolina Teachers Training School, Wright served in that capacity for twenty-five years. During that time, he oversaw an enrollment growth of more than 1,000 students from an initial enrollment of just 175. He was also instrumental in the change in status to East Carolina Teachers College. In 1934, Wright suffered a heart attack in his office on April 23 and died on April 25. The death of their beloved president shocked the entire campus community. His funeral was held in the auditorium which now bears his name.

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Leon Renfroe Meadows, 1934-1944

The Alabama born Leon Meadows came to East Carolina as an English professor in 1910. In 1922, he was appointed director of the English Department, summer school director, and Secretary to the Board of Trustees. After Robert Wright’s death in 1934, the Board of Trustees via emergency action approved Meadows as the acting president of East Carolina Teachers College. He was formally installed on October 5, 1934, coinciding with the opening day of the twenty-fifth year of classes. Meadows implemented a committee system of management, diffusing campus authority in response to a growing campus community. In 1944, Meadows was forced to retire after a three-year investigation into the mishandling of student loan funds. He died in Ohio on March 6, 1953.

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Howard Justus McGinnis, 1944-1946

Born in West Virginia and educated in a one-room log building, McGinnis worked as a telephone lineman, coal miner, and railroad fireman as he attended Glenville State College and the University of West Virginia. He earned a Ph.D. from George Peabody College in 1927 after which he was hired by East Carolina. In 1928, he assumed the position of registrar in addition to teaching courses in psychology. He was named acting president in the wake of Leon Meadows’ resignation, serving in that role until August 1946. He continued to serve East Carolina as the Director of Field Services until his retirement in 1950.

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Dennis Hargrove Cooke, 1946-1947

Born in Maiden, North Carolina in 1904, Cooke earned degrees from Duke University and Peabody College where he would eventually become Chairman of the Department of Educational Administration. He began his duties as East Carolina’s president on August 1, 1946. Cooke announced his resignation in May of the following year, however, after accepting the position of president of High Point University, where he would remain until 1959.

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John Decatur Messick, 1947-1959

Born in Beaufort County, North Carolina on November 9, 1897, Messick graduated from Elon College in 1922. He spent five years teaching in the North Carolina public school system before serving as a principal, and later, superintendent. After earning a Ph.D. from New York University in 1934, he served as Dean of Men at Elon before leaving North Carolina to serve as the Dean of Instruction at State Teachers College in Montclair, New Jersey. In 1947, the East Carolina Board of Trustees selected Messick as the new president of East Carolina Teachers College. Messick quickly undertook a campaign to update the school’s name to East Carolina College, to better reflect the expanded curriculum. As president, Messick oversaw the establishment of a nursing program and successfully lobbied for increased legislative funding. Upon his retirement in 1959, East Carolina College was the third-largest school in the UNC-system. Messick would continue his career in education, first in Washington, D.C., followed by stints in colleges in Vermont and Oklahoma. Messick returned to North Carolina in retirement, living in Wilmington until his death in 1993.

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Leo Warren Jenkins, 1960-1978

New Jersey native Leo Warren Jenkins was born in 1913 and attended Rutgers, Columbia, and New York Universities before joining the United States Marine Corps during World War II. After the war, he taught school in New Jersey and worked at Montclair Teachers College under John Messick. In 1947, Jenkins followed Messick to East Carolina to serve as the Dean of Men. Popular with the campus community, Jenkins was chosen as president of the college after Messick’s sudden resignation. Jenkins led East Carolina through a period of tremendous growth that saw the attainment of university status, the addition of many new programs, and the founding of a medical school in addition to improvements to campus and inter-collegiate athletic facilities. In 1983, Jenkins was awarded the school’s first honorary doctorate degree. He passed away six years later in 1989.  

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Thomas Bowman Brewer, 1978-1982

Thomas Brewer was born in Fort Worth, Texas and attended the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Pennsylvania where he earned a Ph.D in American History. He served as a department chair at the University of Toledo and as a Dean at Texas Christian University before his selection as East Carolina’s new chancellor on July 1, 1978. He resigned in 1982.

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John McCade Howell, 1982-1988

John Howell along with his wife Gladys first came to East Carolina in 1957.  He as a professor in the political science department while she taught in the sociology department. John served as department chair (1966-1969), dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (1966-1973), and dean of the Graduate School (1969-1973). He was later appointed as vice chancellor for academic affairs before returning to a full-time teaching role in 1979. In 1982, he was selected to replace Thomas Brewer as chancellor. Howell retired in 1988 and remained in Greenville until his passing in 2016.

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Richard Ronald Eakin, 1988-2001

Richard Eakin was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania and attended Geneva College before earning a master’s and doctorate degree in mathematics from Washington State University. He taught at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, eventually rising to the position of vice president before accepting the position of chancellor at East Carolina. Popular with the campus community, Eakin continued to serve East Carolina after stepping down as chancellor in 2001 through roles as Director of the Alumni Association and Dean of the Honors College.

To learn more, contact the University Archives at recordsmanagement@ecu.edu

William Van Muse, 2001-2003

Born in Mississippi, Muse attended Northwestern State University in Louisiana and earned an MBA and PhD. From the University of Arkansas. He taught business administration at Georgia Tech and Ohio University before accepting roles as head of the business schools at Appalachian State University, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Texas A&M. He then served as President at the University of Akron (1984-1992) and Auburn (1992-2001). In 2001 he was installed as the Chancellor of East Carolina University.  He resigned in 2003.

To learn more, contact the University Archives at recordsmanagement@ecu.edu

William (Bill) Shelton, 2003-2004

Born in Tennessee, Bill Shelton earned degrees from the University of Memphis before earning a doctorate in higher education from the University of Mississippi. At East Carolina, he served as interim chancellor after William Muse’s resignation in 2003. Shelton had previously served as Vice Chancellor for University Advancement and returned to that role after the installation of Chancellor Steve Ballard at ECU in 2004.  

To learn more, contact the University Archives at recordsmanagement@ecu.edu

Steve Ballard, 2004-2016

Raised in Illinois, Steve Ballard attended the University of Arizona where he was a team captain and short stop of the baseball team. He later earned a doctorate degree from Ohio State and did postdoctoral work at the University of Oklahoma where he was named director of the Science and Public Policy Program. Administrative positions at the University of Maine and Bowling Green State preceded his term as provost at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. As chancellor at East Carolina, Ballard oversaw improvements to campus and athletic facilities and the founding of the School of Dental Medicine.

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Cecil Pope Staton, 2016-present

Born in Greenville, South Carolina Staton holds degrees from Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the University of Oxford. In addition to teaching at Brewton-Parker College in Georgia and serving as Associate Provost at Mercer University, Staton served in the Georgia Senate. He was announced as East Carolina’s new chancellor in 2016, replacing Steve Ballard.

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