The late Western Carolina University Chancellor Emeritus Myron Lee Coulter was remembered Wednesday, Oct. 12, as a man with a true love for education, a deep devotion to family and friends, a genuine sense of grace and civility, and an enduring passion for excellence in teaching.
Those were the themes heard from speaker after speaker during a campus service to celebrate the life of a man known to most people by his nickname of “Barney.” Friends and colleagues from as close as Cullowhee and as far away as California attended the service held in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.
Coulter, who died Oct. 4 at the age of 82 after an extended battle with cancer, guided WCU from 1984 until 1994, a decade characterized by a renewed emphasis on excellence in teaching, strategic planning and goal-setting, service to Western North Carolina and outreach to the world.
The Rev. Kathy Wilson opened the service by reminding the several hundred mourners in attendance that death takes the worst and the best of people. “Today, we come together to honor and to celebrate Dr. Myron Lee Coulter, the best of us,” said Wilson, wife of Kenneth Wilson, former member and chair of WCU’s Board of Trustees. “Barney was the best of us – and more.”
Although Coulter officially retired in 1994, he remained an active member of the WCU community, commuting daily from his home in Waynesville to his chancellor emeritus office in Cullowhee until failing health made it difficult to do so, the Rev. Sandy Giles said. “Retirement? I guess that is the word for it, but we all know that Barney didn’t retire,” Giles said.
James Nichols, a close friend of Coulter for more than 50 years, confessed to feeling guilt at not staying in touch in recent months and postponing telephone calls because he knew something was “terribly wrong.” “Yes, his professional contributions were monumental and international in scope, but what I remember most about Barney was his great humor, his concern for others, and his love for his work, his church and his family,” said Nichols, retired dean of the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech.
Luke Hyde, a WCU graduate who worked with Coulter as fellow board members of Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told of Coulter’s work in community organizations, including helping create the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which has dispersed more than $54 million in grants supporting education, employment, environment and culture for the Cherokee people. In remarks delivered by his wife Leila Tvedt, retired associate vice chancellor for public relations at WCU, because he was suffering from laryngitis, Hyde called those projects “a living legacy for Barney.”
Hyde also described the impact that Coulter had in other regions of the nation where he worked in higher education settings, including Idaho State University, where he was president before coming to WCU in 1984. “He had an audacious idea. He believed that the sons and daughters of farmers in Indiana, and the children of steelworkers in Pennsylvania, and the offspring of autoworkers in Michigan, and youngsters on tenant farms in Idaho could, with good teachers, learn to love learning and could gradually but surely change their world for the better,” Hyde said. “He brought that same strong conviction to Western. And he made it work for the sons and daughters of mountain people here.”
Judy Dowell, Coulter’s longtime assistant, described her former boss as the quintessential university chancellor, with “…that beautiful head of gray hair, a robust physique no doubt honed during his time in Idaho where he built his cabin at the ranch, rode horses, split wood and who knows what else, and always impeccably groomed.”
“For 10 years, Dr. Coulter served us with absolute integrity, thoughtful intelligence and a love for the institution and its people,” Dowell said. “Barney believed in the dignity and worth of each individual. Civility became the cornerstone for his method of operation and the expectation that others with whom he worked would follow, as well. Courtesy, politeness and consideration of others were the hallmarks of his administration.”
Larry Travis, who was WCU’s director of athletics during much of Coulter’s tenure, called him a “father figure” who helped fill a void in his life created by a distant relationship with his own father. “He always, always gave me an example of what I should be like. When I became a parent, he always, always gave me examples of what I want to be like,” Travis said.
“We have lost a giant of a man. There is just no way to put into words what he gave to those of us who loved him and what he meant to this university and this state,” he said. “He was a man’s man, a man that other men could look up to and say, ‘I want to be just like him.’”
Stephen Woody, who served as chairman of the WCU Board of Trustees during Coulter’s first years in Cullowhee, called him the physical embodiment of the word “appropriate,” praising him for his ability to match perfectly his manner, demeanor and speech to the occasion, whether it was speaking at a formal dinner of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, teaching a class or fishing in a mountain stream.
“He was a people person with the ability to communicate easily, a gifted writer, speaker and leader who viewed every problem as an opportunity. For Barney, the glass was always half full, not half empty,” Woody said. “When in the presence of Barney Coulter, one knew that here was a mountain of a man who deserved your full attention. Yes, he taught us all, and we and the university are the better and the wiser because he was here.”
Robert Failing, a 1951 graduate of Western Carolina, told of Coulter’s football-watching tradition of eating a hot dog for every Catamount touchdown. In one game, with the score 35-0 and WCU knocking on the goal line again, Failing quoted Coulter as shouting, “For God’s sake, please kick a field goal!” The final score of that game, Failing said, was 53-0. “There will be hot dogs in heaven,” he said.
“I’ve known few people as engaging and as personable as Barney, a human magnet who draws everyone close, who seldom forgets a face or a name,” Failing said.
Clifford Trump, who served as interim president of Idaho State University after Coulter left to become chancellor at WCU, called Coulter a mentor who opened the door to his own career as a college president. “He taught me many things, very important things, one of which is treating the spouse as a true partner in this enterprise of higher education,” said Trump, chancellor emeritus of the State College System of West Virginia, pointing to Coulter’s wife of 60 years, Barbara.
“Clearly, Dr. Coulter has left his mark on American higher education and on the institutions he served and the community service activities he engaged in well past his official retirement,” he said. “Ironically, his death has caused me to evaluate how I want to live the remainder of my own life.”
Kyle Carter, former WCU provost and current chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, was out of the country at the time of the service, and delivered his message via a recorded video projected onto a large screen, calling Coulter a “patient mentor” and a man who “never stopped working for the university, but who just stopped getting paid.”
“As you all know, Barney’s favorite color was purple, his favorite animal was the Catamount, and his most cherished institution was Western Carolina University,” Carter said. “Although I switched colors and mascots to black and gold and to the red-tailed hawk, today, in respect for Barney, I am once again a Catamount. I have donned my purple tie and my WCU lapel pin.”
David O. Belcher, who became WCU chancellor on July 1, said that he sees Coulter’s fingerprints “all over this campus,” noting his establishment of the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence, later renamed the Coulter Faculty Commons for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.
“The commons in fact bears the Coulter name because he and Barbara believed in its purpose and potential to such an extent that they made a significant philanthropic gift in its support. This is just one way in which Barney’s legacy will live on in tangible ways at Western, touching faculty, quite directly, and through them the students who will take up the mantle of leadership in our communities, our region and our state,” Belcher said.
Belcher described a letter he received from Coulter just a few days before he and wife Susan left Arkansas in late June to come to Cullowhee, “…a three-page letter brimming with encouragement, excitement, commitment, information, passion, insight – not to mention empathy with the trials of our transition. Barney just embraced us. He wanted every good thing for us as we joined the Western family. I found in Barney, in a brief period of time, a kindred spirit, and he became, in a few short months, my mentor,” he said. “As Western’s 11th chancellor, I know that I stand on his shoulders. We all do.”
Daughter Nan Coulter said she was “dumbfounded” to be reminded that her father was a very prominent and public person as she contemplated his life. “He was a tireless champion of education and service to others, because he has always benefited greatly from them,” Nan Coulter said.
Coulter also stressed the importance of the three A’s – ability, application and attitude – for success in life, with attitude being the most important element, she said, before thanking the speakers, singers, musicians and mourners who had come together to honor her father. “He would be so gratified to know that he’s had a positive effect on many of you, and would charge you to take your gifts and talents to others, and share your education and experience to enrich society and improve the human condition.”
Son Ben Coulter said his father had the uncanny ability to make people feel that their individual priorities, needs and interests matched his. “This multifaceted man had something distinctive to offer each of us. Through this exceptional gift, he could fit all of us into his scheme of life, and give each of us time and attention, whether it was a matter of family, work or fun,” Ben Coulter said.
“My father was a success, who lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent persons and the love of children; whose greatest accomplishment, among all others, was family; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it; who looked for the very best in others, and gave the very best he had,” he said.
Ben Coulter’s daughters, Mary and Abby, read passages from their grandfather’s favorite book, “A River Runs through It.”
Coulter came to WCU from Idaho State University, where he was president from 1976 to 1984. He previously served Western Michigan University in a number of administrative positions, including vice president for administration from 1974 to 1976; interim president in 1974; vice president for institutional services from 1968 to 1974; and associate dean and professor of education for the university’s College of Education from 1966 to 1968.
He previously was associate professor of education at the Pennsylvania State University from 1964 to 1966, director of Penn State’s Latin American Education Project from 1962 to 1963; and instructor of education at Indiana University from 1958 to 1959. He also was an elementary school teacher in the Bloomington, Ind., Metropolitan Schools from 1954 to 1956, and an English teacher and athletics coach at Reading, Mich., Community High School from 1951 to 1952. He served in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954.
Coulter earned a master’s degree in elementary education in 1956 and doctorate in education in 1959, both from Indiana University. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Indiana State University, where he majored in English, physical education and science in secondary education. He received an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 1982 from the College of Idaho.
Memorials may be made to the Coulter Faculty Commons at Western Carolina University, c/o WCU Office of Development, 201 H.F. Robinson Building, Cullowhee, NC 28723; First United Methodist Church of Waynesville, P.O. Box 838, Waynesville, NC 28786; Christ United Methodist Church of Gastonia, 3415 Union Road, Gastonia, NC 28056; or Haywood Regional Medical Center Hospice, 560 Leroy George Drive, Clyde, NC 28786.
By Bill Studenc