Last week, Brian Perry (’97), sent me this interview he did with Dr. Newt Wilson before his retirement. What a sweet reminder of the heart Dr. Wilson had for Belhaven.
Wilson Speaks: His life as a Belhaven student, his life as a Belhaven teacher, his life as Belhaven’s ninth President
The Quarter Tone: March 21, 1995 (Volume 2, Edition 8)
Interview by Brian Perry, Editor
QT: How long have you been associated with Belhaven?
Wilson: I came here as a freshman in 1960, finished in three years and graduated in 1963. I just loaded up and took extra courses. I was a fairly bright student, but I didn’t perceive myself that way. And then I went to seminary for three years and in 1966 I became a Presbyterian minister. It was while I was there I began working at a local junior college, that is what got me interested in education. While I was there the then chairman of what was the then Department o Christian Education Department called me in 1968 and asked if I would like to teach with him in Christian Education. So I thought about it and Becky and I discussed it. So I went back and got my MRE, Masters of Religious Education, to get prepared for my teaching assignment here in the fall of 1969 and low and behold he called me in the summer and said, “Well I’m glad you’re teaching because I’m not going to be here.” So I came in as a freshman teacher in the fall of 1969, wet behind the ears as acting chairman of the department.
Those were some of my most enjoyable times because it game me direct contact with students. And I would say the one thing I probably have regretted most about this job is the demands on the schedule which keep me from being involved in the students. There have been evening events that I’ve wanted to go and sit and listen, and I do go to as many as I can, and athletic events. But I was here until 1973, teaching full time. I was then attending classes at Southern Mississippi and commuting two days a week to teach while getting my doctorate, which I finished in 1975. Then I came up here and from 1976 to 1978 I was dean of students, and that of course put me in direct contact with the students. Then I interviewed for a job at Montreat-Anderson College and Becky and I lived there for two years. At that time the then president here, my immediate predecessor, invited me to come back. And though it was a lot of fun there, my heart was still with Belhaven.
And from that time till I took this job in 1986, I had just about every job on campus. I started as Director of Christian Ministries, then I became the interim Vice President for Academic Affairs, I was even an interim business manager for about six months. The job I had before this presidency was the Executive Vice President of Administration. So Belhaven has been my life. I was Mr. Belhaven, it’s hard to believe that was me, if you’ve seen the picture.
QT: Did you ever dream about this back in 1960 when you entered as a freshman?
Wilson: You know, I hesitate to tell you this, Brian, because it was done with tongue in cheek. But there were three of us who were students my senior year and we decided I would come back one day and be the president, one of the students would be the editor of The Presbyterian Journal and the other would be the moderator of the Presbyterian Church and two of the three of us actually ended up in those jobs.
QT: What are your best memories from your life at Belhaven?
Wilson: Well, I’m going to share something I probably shouldn’t be sharing, but the best memory I had as a student was the year that I was the student body president. At that time we still did what was known as hazing. I think you probably know what that is. And so I had led a group of men, taking all of our freshmen men out to beyond Brandon, in the middle of the country. We had them blindfolded and dropped them off, they had to get back the best way they could. But on the way back, one of the students fell into a drainage ditch and broke his leg. Well, the Dean of Students was on the phone to me the next morning and he was horrified. He said that ‘somebody had done this and that you’re the student body president and you need to find out who did this!’ I assured him that we would start the search and see what we could come up with. [Laughing] And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
And there’s another one, too. I met my wife here. The way I got my first date wither-this was my freshman year-is a friend of mine whose sons attend Belhaven right now, I won’t identify or implicate him. But he and I made a bet and said that whoever could get a date first, the other one would pay for the date. So we flipped a coin to see who would call first and he won the coin toss and he called the girl he wanted to date and she was either not available or told him no. So that’s when I called my now wife, and so I asked her to walk to Primos – I didn’t have a car – to the Primos that burned. She was from St. Louis, Missouri and here was this south Mississippi country boy inviting this St. Louis woman out on a date. And she said wait a minute and let me go ask and see. And I thought, “Who in the world is she going to ask? Is she going to someone else’s phone to call her mother?” She apparently talked to her friends about me and they assured her I was an OK guy. And that was our first date.
As a faculty member, probably the relationship I had with students. I taught most of my classes in this big classroom in Preston. And sometimes when I’d get there early there were a bunch of guys, Christian education guys, and we would get ourselves together and we’d be singing close harmony. A lot of gospel songs, just waiting for class to start, and I really looked forward to that. They’ve been good friends. Of course many of them are in their forties now. But that time as a young faculty member, singing with them, is very precious to me.
Probably the finest memory of this job has been when I worked with the Board of Trustees back in 1987 in redefining Belhaven’s mission. I don’t think many will ever fully appreciate the total transformation and rebirth of this college. And I can say that because I don’t think I had much to do with it. I think what God has given to me is the willingness to make a tough decision. I don’t like to make difficult decisions, I put them off as long as I can if there’s another way around it, but if there is no other option, I will make that decision. And I don’t want to seem audacious; I think God has honored that. But just look around, we have a bright future ahead of us.
QT: Right, I’ve heard some about that decision since I came here and there seemed to have been some resentment and some upset people over that decision.
Wilson: It was needed; it was not pleasant; it was not easy. And there were some very difficult times and I understand. I honor a lot of people who disagree with the decisions. I understand. But when you look at where we are now as a college as to where we were. Maybe you see it as a student, but I want to talk about the faculty, I think as a small liberal arts college, Belhaven has an outstanding faculty. If you have a faculty member who is committed to classroom teaching, then you will improve academically as a school.
QT: I think the spiritual life of the students reflect in that decision. In the yearbooks of the early eighties, you can look at dorm life and see beer cans and liquor bottles everywhere. Now at least students go off campus to do that sort of thing.
Wilson: Because it’s not done with the approval and acceptance of the majority of your peers. And I’m really pleased about that. You know, I want an environment where a student is free to make his choices, that’s obvious and critical in higher education. I want a faculty that is willing to share his or her views, but never impose those views on anyone. But hopefully, we have created an environment where the encouragement and positive influence of the peer will develop a life style that will suit students well. There is out in the business world now, a kind of return to men and women who have moral values, which in our case is driven by a strong Christian truth. And you know, we don’t require students, as some Christian colleges do, to sign a statement of faith. And I’m glad we don’t.
QT: What would you say your biggest disappointment has been during your presidency?
Wilson: Probably that Belhaven has not yet attracted the kind of financial support from some of the major foundations and some of the potentially major donors throughout the southeast, beyond the State of Mississippi. I think that is very critical and I believe that’s what Belhaven is right on the verge of doing. We’ve got some board members, take the Hood family and the Irby family, that have been tremendously generous, but these folks can only do so much. So I think what Belhaven’s opportunity now is to begin to attract some major regional, if not national, support. And I wish before that this had happened earlier on.
QT: What information to you have to release on new buildings, such as the planned student center?
Wilson: The board has committed now, that the capstone project of the campaign will be the construction of the new student center. That’s what I’m going to spend the rest of my time on between now and May 31. We need to close out the pledge amounts to be able to finally commit to that building. As soon as that’s done, I’m ready for the ground breaking. Now, I don’t know when that’s going to be. But I do know that project now is going to be that capstone. I would love for it to start this summer but that might be pressing, that might be a little too optimistic.
QT: Were you here when the original Bailey Building was built?
Wilson: It was not while I was attending but during my first year as Dean of Students. And I think it would be fitting to get this beautiful rendition, which would serve both our commuter and our resident population and bring them together in a more collegian environment for student life.
QT: I think it could increase enrollment, also.
Wilson: I think so, too. I think it’s a good investment. I agree
QT: If you had one piece of advice for the next president, what would it be?
Wilson: Success in any organization is based on the people you hire. If you get good people give them the authority and responsibility they need to do their job. Encourage them in that, get out of the way and let them do their job, and you’ll have your best shot of success.
QT: Do you think in retirement you might decide to teach a course or two?
Wilson: I certainly believe that is a possibility. I would have to wait on such a decision.