Bruce Ezell Whitaker, 87, president emeritus of Chowan University died on May 5 in Raleigh.
Whitaker, who served 32 years as Chowan president, was preparing to go home after recovering from a fall April 27, but developed a breathing problem from which he did not recover.
Whitaker was honored, with his wife Esther, April 28 as the Chowan University representative for a Baptist Heritage Award, honoring persons making outstanding contributions to North Carolina Baptist life and institutions. He was not present for the award, having fallen the day before.
He spent over four decades as an educator and administrator before retiring in 1989 and had lived in Raleigh since 2002.
“Bruce was a dear friend and mentor to me in my own beginnings as a college president many years ago,” said current Chowan President Chris White.
“The campus as we know it was essentially built during his administration and when he retired in 1989, Chowan was financially solvent with no debt, had little or no deferred maintenance, and had a nationally recognized athletic program. What he and his staff were able to accomplish seems preposterous by today’s standards. He leaves behind a fantastic legacy that all of the Chowan University community can cherish.”
Roy Smith, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina during much of Whitaker’s tenure, said Whitaker was “one of the most conscientious and hardest working guys I ever worked with.” Whitaker had the habit of writing Smith a personal note every month, thanking Smith and North Carolina Baptists for the Cooperative Program check to Chowan.
“Bruce Whitaker championed the cause of Christian education,” Smith said. “He believed it was worth everything he had to give it.”
Oldest of the eight children of Fay Alvin and Oveda Ezell Whitaker, Bruce Garry Ezell Whitaker was born on a farm in western Cleveland County, June 27, 1921. He published an autobiography on his childhood remembrances in 2008, entitled “From Plough Boy to College President.”
He earned degrees from Wake Forest University (B.A., 1944) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (B.D., 1947; Th. M., 1948; and Ph. D., 1950). He pursued additional studies in college administration and sociology at George Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn. He received honorary degrees from Campbell University (D.D., 1975) and Wake Forest University (D.L., 1987).
Ordained to the gospel ministry by Sandy Plains Baptist Church in Cleveland County in 1944, Whitaker was pastor of Smithville (1945-1949) and Wise’s Landing (1945-1947) Baptist churches in Henry County, Ky.
As an educator he taught religion or sociology at Indiana University Extension, Jeffersonville, Ind., Cumberland University, Lebanon, Tenn., Belmont College (now University), Nashville, Tenn., and Shorter College, Rome, Ga.
Whitaker was named president emeritus upon his retirement from Chowan Aug. 2, 1989 and was provided an office on campus from which he compiled the archival materials he accumulated during his lengthy presidential tenure. Those materials are housed in a special collection in Whitaker Library at Chowan University.
During Whitaker’s tenure Chowan emerged from a struggling history with regional appeal to a nationally recognized two-year, church-related, liberal arts college. Student enrollment increased from less than 300 to over 1,500 at one point during his administration.
Total college assets increased from less than a million dollars to nearly $25 million. The number of students earning degrees from 1958 to 1989 far exceeded the total number of degrees conferred during the first 110 years of the college’s history.
The esteem in which he was held is reflected in a wide array of honors, recognitions, and responsibilities. Representative among these were memberships on the Advisory Executive Committee to the North Carolina Board of Higher Education, 1962-1966; Executive Committee, North Carolina Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, 1975-1978, 1982-1989; Board of Directors, American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, 1976-1982; Board of Directors, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, 1977-1978, 1981-1989; and North Carolina State Board of Mental Health, 1966-2000.
He was president of the North Carolina Conference for Social Service, 1965-1967; Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools, 1967-1968; Association of Eastern North Carolina Colleges, 1968-1969; North Carolina Foundation of Church-Related Colleges, 1972-1974; National Council of Independent Junior Colleges, 1975-1976; and North Carolina Association of Colleges and Universities, 1977-1978.
In 1985 a study funded by the Exxon Education Foundation named him as one of the nation’s 18 Most Effective College Presidents. In 1982 his service in promoting mental health was recognized by the renaming of the North Carolina Special Care Facility for Re-Education of Children in Butner as the Whitaker School.
Whitaker is survived by his wife of 62 years, Esther Adams Whitaker; two sons, Barry Eugene and wife, Becky, of Raleigh, and Garry Bruce and wife, Pam, of Winston-Salem; two granddaughters, Amy Lynn and husband, Steve Tamayo, of Buena Vista, Virginia, and Jean Ann Whitaker of Fayetteville; five sisters, Margaret Louise Wood, Myrtle Elaine Price, Betty Ruth Davis, Jean Ann Humphries, and Jessie Elizabeth Jones; one brother, John Bob Whitaker; and several nieces and nephews.
A celebration of Whitaker’s life will be conducted at 11 a.m., Saturday, May 9 at Wake Forest Baptist Church in Wake Forest, with pastor Bill Slater and current Chowan President Chris White officiating. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bruce and Esther Whitaker Scholarship, Chowan University, 1 University Place, Murfreesboro, North Carolina 27855.