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Leading the Way: WCU celebrates $5 million gift; aims for $60 million by 2019

David and Susan Belcher (seated) watch the live broadcast launching Lead the Way in the A.K. Hinds University Center, surrounded by members of the Catamount Nation. Holly Kays photo David and Susan Belcher (seated) watch the live broadcast launching Lead the Way in the A.K. Hinds University Center, surrounded by members of the Catamount Nation. Holly Kays photo

Excitement and purple attire filled the second floor of A.K. Hinds University Center at Western Carolina University March 1 as students, administrators, faculty, staff and trustees alike gathered around a pop-up TV studio set to broadcast the good news — the launch of a massive scholarship fundraising effort, occurring simultaneously with announcement that WCU had received a $5 million scholarship gift, the largest ever in its 129-year history. 

Western Carolina University launched the “quiet phase” of its effort to raise money for endowed scholarships in 2014, aiming for $50 million by the end of fiscal year 2021. But, by the end of February gifts and pledges had surpassed $46 million — that total includes the $5 million — and as the March 1 public phase launch date drew nearer WCU decided to increase the fundraising goal and shorten the timeline. The university is now aiming to raise $60 million by spring 2019. 


A legacy that lasts

That goal leapt closer with the announcement of a $5 million estate gift from Mickey Charles Hughes, a Falls Church, Virginia, resident who made the pledge in honor of his mother, a WCU alumna named Velma “Leone” Hyde Hughes Ray. Born in 1919 on a farm in Graham County, Ray was the fourth of eight children and came of age during the height of the Great Depression. She wanted to go to college, and she was determined to realize that dream. 

Originally, said Hughes, his mother wanted to be a nurse — but at the time that would have required going to Knoxville, and Ray’s family told her she couldn’t go away from home without a chaperone. Her older brother Arnold was a Western student — he would later become a member of the Board of Trustees — so Ray moved to Cullowhee to enroll in Western’s teaching program. 

“I think she thought the place gave her an opportunity she wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Hughes, who was Ray’s only child. 

Ray paid her own way through school, becoming the first woman in her family to attend college. After graduating, she returned home to teach elementary school for six years in Robbinsville before moving to Maryville, Tennessee, where she taught for 34 more years. 

Hughes originally created the Leone Hyde Ray Endowed Scholarship Fund for aspiring teachers in 1998, following his mother’s death in 1996. The $5 million gift will substantially expand the fund’s ability to help future teachers hailing from Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. Once Hughes’ estate is settled, the university will rename its School of Teaching and Learning as the Hyde Hughes School of Teaching and Learning to honor Ray’s legacy and Hughes’ philanthropic support of future educators at WCU. 

The Hyde family has also previously established the Marshall A. Hyde Scholarship Fund in memory of Ray’s brother, who was killed in action during World War II in Italy. 

“Dozens of students have benefited from his (Hughes’) original gift,” said Lori Lewis, WCU vice chancellor for advancement. “This future gift will benefit thousands more. Any student in Western North Carolina or Eastern Tennessee will be eligible for scholarship funds through Mr. Hughes’ estate. It is a legacy that will last for decades to come.”


Inspired by the Belcher years

That word — “legacy” — is at the core of the endowed scholarship concept. When enough money is put together, the annual interest payments are enough to fuel scholarships, allowing the principal to remain untouched and generate scholarship dollars in perpetuity. 

“Dr. (David) Belcher’s goal was to raise $50 million for scholarships, but if you know Chancellor Belcher, his goal was far higher than $50 million,” Donna Winbon, a 1980 WCU graduate and chair of the Lead the Way campaign steering committee, said during the March 1 broadcast. “He has great expectations of all of us, the Catamount Nation. And he’s right.”

Though Belcher has stepped down as chancellor of WCU due to an ongoing battle with brain cancer, he and his wife Susan were both there March 1, and his vision was very much alive throughout the event — down to the purple banners hung throughout the University Center building, which said, in giant white letters, “Lead the Way: A Campaign Inspired By the Belcher Years.”

The subtitle was appropriate not only due to Belcher’s decision to make scholarship fundraising a top priority during his tenure, but also because of the example that he and Susan set the Catamount community. 

In October, the Belchers announced a $1.23 million scholarship gift to the university, a combination of cash and estate gifts that joined the two scholarships they’d already established to serve WCU students. When announcing that gift, Susan Belcher made it clear that it was not intended to be a standalone instance of generosity — she and David Belcher expected others in the Catamount community to step up and do the same. 

“We share this with you, not to put ourselves in the spotlight, but to lead by example,” she said at the time. “And, we are looking for partners to join us.”

That charge seems to be working. 

Just 16 days after the Belchers’ announcement, former WCU Trustees Chairman F. Edward Broadwell Jr. and his wife Donna Allsbrook Broadwell announced a scholarship gift of $1 million, which they said was inspired by the Belchers’ donation. In February, longtime WCU contributors Jack and Judy Brinson followed suit, announcing a $1 million commitment to fund scholarships for students in the WCU Honors College. 

And now, Hughes’ $5 million gift has joined the growing swell of scholarship donations. 


Building momentum

A snowballing number of other, smaller gifts has also contributed to Lead the Way’s impressive total. In fiscal year 2017, WCU processed more than 11,000 Lead the Way gifts. During the second annual “I Love WCU” February, Lead the Way secured 1,153 gifts, up from 593 in February 2017, and 42.5 percent participation from faculty and staff, compared to 23 percent in 2017. 

“I think it’s a great signal about the positive feelings people have about the place they live and where they work,” Lewis told trustees during a March 1 committee meeting. 

She believes that momentum will only continue building as 2018 moves forward. 

“I’m predicting that in fiscal year 2018 we’ll bring in gifts and pledges, the largest single amount we’ve ever done in one year for the university,” she said. 

For the Belchers, now watching from the sidelines but still very much part of the university’s life, that’s the best news possible. 

“David is fond of saying that higher education is the stuff of the American Dream,” Susan Belcher said to Claire Lemke, recipient of one of the Belchers’ existing scholarships, during pre-taped comments for the Lead the Way launch broadcast. “We believe — we know — that education can change lives. It can change your life, students’ lives and by extension education can change your family’s lives, your communities, even the world. So what we do here at Western, in educational institutions, matters. It matters because students matter.”

Not everybody can be directly involved in teaching and mentoring students, she said, but for those who have the means, financial gifts can yield real-world results for years to come — allowing students to concentrate on studying hard, pursuing internships, conducting research, traveling abroad and capitalizing on all the other educational opportunities available at Western, rather than worrying about earning a paycheck while going to school. 

“Even though we’re not going to be here, Western will be here. Students will be here. The American Dream will be here, and through our endowed scholarships and other endowed scholarships that other people can and will give to Western, we can all be a part of your dream, of the American Dream, of Western’s dream — and that is a great joy,” Susan Belcher said. 


Give to Western

To make a gift or learn more about the Lead the Way campaign, visit

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