WINGATE – When Jerry McGee took over as the president of what is now Wingate University in 1992, the school had just under 1,000 students and was known as Wingate College.
When McGee retired in 2015, Wingate had grown to university status and had 3,200 students and the Rockingham native had given degrees to almost 8,000 students during that 23-year span in Union County.
Along the way, McGee helped the university complete over $200 million in capital projects and established several health sciences programs. That is why the Union County Chamber of Commerce will honor McGee with the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award at the group’s annual gala on Dec. 6.
“Obviously, it was a big surprise,” McGee said when he learned he would be receiving the award. “I loved my years in Union County. It really touches my heart because I am so grateful for what the chamber does for Union County. After seeing the list of people that have won it before, it was very humbling when I found out.”
McGee, who set a goal of getting the school to 2,500 students and building much needed new facilities when he took over, said the first few years at the helm at Wingate were not easy ones.
“When I first came to Wingate, they were in a bit of a struggle financially,” McGee said. “They had gone through the name change attempt that didn’t go well and people were angry and upset. They needed somebody to come in and calm everybody down. I brought a nice team of people with me and I think we did that. We put in place not just a program to stabilize the school, but we put in a plan to build a great school. I think people were slow to accept that we were going to be able to put those programs in place. After six or seven years when we started to get the revenue streams to come in, we knew we could do a lot.”
The crowning achievement of McGee’s tenure at the school, and a decision that helped Wingate achieve tremendous growth, was starting a pharmacy program at the school. Wingate also has campuses in Ballantyne and Hendersonville.
“We knew that we needed a niche market to make us different from all the other private schools in North Carolina,” McGee said. “We asked, ‘what can we do that no one else is doing?’ We looked at law, but it wasn’t the right thing to do at the time. So, we looked at health care and we realized that there wasn’t another pharmacy school at that time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee.
“It was a real challenge because we didn’t have the strongest financials at the time and we were recruiting a type of student that we hadn’t recruited before. It took a lot of faith and courage, and it was a bolder move than most people realized. But we knew if we could pull this off, and we were confident that we could, it would change our school forever.”
Once the pharmacy school was established, Wingate then started academic programs for physician assistants and physical therapists in what is now the College of Health Sciences.
“This has put Wingate in a position for families around North Carolina when students say they want to go into health care, people then say you need to go to Wingate because that is a health care school,” McGee said. “It has enhanced the quality of our students and the quality of our undergraduate and graduate programs.”
McGee was also a strong advocate of collegiate athletics. During his tenure as Wingate he constructed eight major athletic facilities and added six varsity sports.
“I was an athlete growing up and I understand the benefits of being part of a team,” McGee said. “I was a little disappointed when I got to Wingate that the athletic facilities had not been updated in a long, long time. Our goal was to give our students the very best facilities to participate in. We wanted a student that looked at Wingate and decided to go somewhere else and when they came to Wingate, we wanted them and their parents to say, ‘We should have come here.’ It has added so much to the life of the university because there are so many events out there. It’s an exciting part of university life right now, and I think it will bring Wingate to another level.”