president of Meredith College retires after 28
as a trailblazer and innovator widely
respected in his field
roles must a college president embody to survive
and flourish for nearly 28 years?
futurist, leader, manager, thinker those
are all words that have been used to describe
John Edgar Weems, 67, who officially retired two
months ago as president of Raleigh's Meredith
College, the largest women's college in the
Renaissance Man also would also be an
accurate title for Weems. Not only did he excel
as a college administrator for 38 years at Middle
Tennessee State and Meredith, but he also is a
superb photographer, an inventor, a tour guide
extraordinaire, a lover of music, an accomplished
author and a pretty fair golfer.
even that remarkable list is Weems' reputation
and experience as a technology guru even before
most people were using computers. As early as
1965 he originated the computer registration and
admissions systems at Middle Tennessee State,
where he supervised the installation of a larger
scale computer system. He also initiated the use
of minicomputers at Meredith in 1975 and a
computer-based institutional research system the
Weems' watchful eye, microcomputers were
installed campus-wide at Meredith in 1982. During
the next several years, he developed, designed
and authored three presentation graphics software
packages for the microcomputer and installed a
data-based management system. All this activity
placed Meredith ahead of most other colleges and
universities in the technology field.
has been interested in technology for a long time
is an understatement. The president at Middle
Tennessee State put the budding technology whiz
in charge of the computer center before had ever
seen one. He wasn't deterred, though. I
always loved to figure out how to do
things, Weems explains. At the young age of
29 he was in charge of the college's admissions,
records and finances, and he wanted to put all
these activities on a computer
Meredith, Weems was a constant advocate for
technology in the administration of the college
and as a learning tool in the classroom.
Every year we see more and more effective
uses of computer technology in the learning
experience, he says.
Born on Feb. 23, 1932, to
Nathaniel Weems, a railroad engineer, and Ellen,
a homemaker, Weems and his family which
includes a sister who now lives in Georgia, and a
brother in Florida resided near the
Vanderbilt University campus in Nashville. He
eventually went on to earn three degrees from
George Peabody College, now a part of Vanderbilt.
While in school, he unloaded boxcars at a
warehouse that supplied farmers and retailers.
While working the world's largest ramp laundry,
The White Way Laundry near famous Music Row in
Nashville, Weems developed an interest and love
in music which he retains to this day.
like Raleigh is known for state government,
Nashville is known for country music, Weems
explains. We grew up in the midst of it and
people expected me to know country music since I
was from Nashville. Indeed, he was a
regular visitor to the Grand Old Opry on Saturday
didn't always intend to become an educator. After
graduating with a bachelor of science from
Peabody, he entered the executive training
program with Proctor and Gamble and worked in
Louisville, Ky., and Jackson, Miss.
then I decided I wanted to teach, Weems
recalls, and he returned to Peabody to earn a
master of arts in administration of public
education. His first teaching job was at Atlantic
Christian (now Barton College) in Wilson where he
taught business and economics and also served as
dean of students. This move began a career that
would find him on a college campus for 48 of the
last 50 years until his retirement June 30 after
a year-long sabbatical. His next step, in 1959,
was the academic dean's position at Kentucky
Wesleyan College. In 1961, he returned to his
home state to take a similar position at Middle
Tennessee State. He also returned to Peabody,
where he completed a doctor of education degree
recalls that he planned to stay in Tennessee the
rest of his life when a call came from the
chairman of the search committee at Meredith in
1971. He had not even applied for the job, but he
so impressed the trustees that he was almost
immediately offered the presidency.
his family wife Frankie, who died of
cancer 10 years ago, and their three children
to the Meredith campus where the kids did
most of their growing up.
three children, only Nancy Weems Baker sought a
career in education; she teaches fourth grade at
Penny Road Elementary School in Raleigh. As for
his sons, John is now a partner with the Morrison
Entertainment Group in Los Angeles, and David is
general sales manager for WRIC-TV in Richmond.
There are two grandchildren Madison Baker
and Jonathan Weems.
only planned to stay at Meredith for five
years, he says. I planned to go back
to Tennessee for a college presidency.
Why did he
stay for nearly 28 years?
liked it here. We survived because we were
successful. We liked Raleigh, the people, and the
mountains. We became so involved in living here,
and life was so good at Meredith and in
leaves a powerful legacy at Meredith, and no
debt. What a change from the $2 million deficit
he inherited in the days when Meredith's budget
was only slightly more than that. His goal to
eliminate Meredith's debt as soon as possible
worked. In fact, his administration never added
to the original debt. Several factors led to
Meredith's strong financial stability good
management, no big Division I athletic program,
no debt service, few unfunded scholarships or
discounted programs and strong financial support
from Baptists, businesses, community leaders, and
arrived as Meredith's sixth president, there were
1,362 students. When he announced his retirement,
there were 2,552. He has presented more than
10,000 of the 15,000 diplomas awarded since
Meredith opened in 1902. The faculty also nearly
doubled in numbers 57 full-time in 1972 to
107 some 25 years later. And the number holding a
doctoral or terminal degree almost doubled from
40 percent to 78 percent.
call Weems' successful management style
laid back. He himself says, I
never in my mind struggled with my job. Things
just don't bug me. I hired good people. I
supported them and let them do their job and they
Add a few
doses of realism, common sense, and a sense of
humor and you have a summary of Weems' management
had people tell me to write a book in management
styles, but I have not done so because it would
be just one page, he jokes.
always been goal-oriented and focused.
you want to have the best college, the best
faculty, the best physical facilities, the best
library, and the best endowment, every decision
you make should be based on whether or not it
will help you to become the best, he said.
Selecting strong, capable personnel and then
letting them do their work is also a Weems'
Jackson, vice president for student development,
says, Dr. Weems has confidence in those
people around him to do their job usually
in exemplary fashions. He gives us plenty of
freedom to establish goals and work to achieve
them. He asks insightful questions and offers
helpful suggestions, but does not seek to
is a good school and a wonderful place,
Weems proclaims. Every year it gets better
and better and it will continue to do so.
proud of the college's ties with the public
schools, especially the fact that it is one of
the only two private colleges that participates
in the prestigious and effective Teaching Fellows
The face of Meredith
has changed extensively during Weems' tenure.
Although he says the college didn't experience
the sort of turmoil typical on many other
campuses in the 60s, other societal factors have
influenced the student body. More students, for
instance, are working and often taking longer
than four years to get a degree. There are more
single parents enrolled, in addition to older
women who have completed or nearly completed
raising families. An example of change at
Meredith is the 23 Plus program, which is
attracting older and more serious students to
necessary for survival. Weems recalls when there
were 300 all-women institutions of higher
learning in the U.S. Now there are only 80.
that has not changed at Meredith is its
philosophy that the campus is open to the
community. We want to serve the community.
We have gorgeous facilities and they should be
shared. A school can never be stronger than it is
in its own community.
education programs and many public events, such
as the annual Labor Day concert and the recent
Special Olympics World Games, have brought tens
of thousands of people to the beautiful campus.
venture a guess that Meredith's enrollment has
remained high and its finances stable because so
many young women and their families are on campus
so often and at such a young age that going to
school there is a natural. Weems does not deny
that as being one of the reasons for the
Meredith has not always been easy, but Weems has
survived and maintained an excellent reputation
in education circles around the nation.
Fred Young, recently retired president of Elon
College, calls him the most influential
independent college president in North
Carolina for the past 20 years. John
has been a key participant in practically every
decision affecting independent college policy
over these years, at the state, regional, and
challenges of being a college president include
knowing where higher education is going,
Weems said. Initiating changes and how to
do that are important.
Friday, president emeritus of the UNC System,
extols Weems' leadership. Strong colleges
require strong leaders. John Weems has provided
Meredith College that quality of leadership. He
is a man of uncommon dedication, intelligence,
integrity and good will.
Hockaday, current chairman of the board of
trustees at Meredith, described Weems this way in
comments delivered at a golf outing for Meredith
John Weems has many fine leadership traits that
gave him about 28 successful years as president
of Meredith College. Among those traits are three
that I think shape his legacy at the college.
First, Dr. Weems is a visionary. He sees the
future in a clear and rational manner and can
articulate what he sees. Second, he knows how to
employ good people and how to let them do their
jobs, and third, he believes that colleges should
operate within their fiscal means. These and
other fine traits made John Weems an outstanding
president whose influence will live long into the
activities and leadership positions within the
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
(SACs) over a period of 38 years have placed him
on many campuses and in contact with a plethora
of educational leaders and innovative thinkers.
allowed me to see many changes in higher
education and how they were being handled at
different places, he says. I got a
great sense of where things were going and what
Weems' life underwent a big but
pleasant change three years ago when he met his
current wife at a Thanksgiving dance at Blowing
Rock Country Club. Ruth Ellen and I danced
every dance, he recalls fondly. Both owned
homes in Blowing Rock which they have now sold
and purchased a new one where they'll spend about
six months a year.
Ellen's home is in Venice, Fla. Her father was in
the citrus business in New York City some 60
years ago and became a citrus baron
during the World War II era. He moved to Florida
where he became the largest independent citrus
producer in the state.
three adult sons and six grandchildren to go with
John's three children and two grandchildren. John
and Ruth Ellen now reside on a huge ranch in
Sarasota County. Development on sections of the
land is taking place in this fast-growing area.
retirement, Weems remains active, but he will
control more of his time. Not only is he serving
as president of the Blowing Rock Country Club,
but, always the teacher, he also periodically
conducts computer sessions for area residents.
Golf is a
passion for Weems, and it's a sport he shares
with his wife. A 16-handicapper, Weems has
courted many Meredith financial contributors on
the golf course.
another love of the Weemses. Conducting tour
groups is an integral part of John's background.
He has traveled extensively in England, Scotland,
and Western Europe. He has also lead tours in
Southern Europe, Near East, Africa, the former
Soviet Union, and nearly every other major
country. He's been to Japan and Korea with Gov.
Jim Hunt and a group of business people and
educators. In March, the Weemses were in the
South China Sea area.
photography, art, stock car racing, and music are
a few of Weems' hobbies. He's even written a
couple of high tech novels that he will put on
the Internet. He also plans to develop web sites.
always been able to amuse myself, Weems
says. There are not enough hours in a
day. No one who knows him would doubt the
validity of that statement.
himself as a positive, upbeat person who is
interested in the future. He also prides
himself on not letting issues trouble him very
much. Additionally, he constantly wants whatever
he's involved in to be the best.
philosophy has marked his career. Most would
agree that he's been extremely successful in his
first 67 years with more success to follow.
Phil Kirk can be reached
This story first appeared in the September 1999
issue of North Carolina magazine.
Previous NCCBI member
Stephen Miller of
The Biltmore Company in Asheville
Ralph Shelton of
Southeast Fuels in Greensboro
Ed McMahan of
Little & Associates in Charlotte
Ed Weisiger Jr. of Carolina
Tractor & Equipment Co. in Charlotte
Barry Eveland of IBM
in Research Triangle Park