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Executive Profile

The president of Meredith College retires after 28 years
as a trailblazer and innovator widely respected in his field

By Phil Kirk                          

What roles must a college president embody to survive and flourish for nearly 28 years?

Visionary, 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 Southeast.

The term “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.

Topping 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 following year.

Under 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.

Saying he 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

At 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.

“Just 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 nights.

Weems 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.

“But 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 in 1965.

Weems 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.

He moved 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.

Of the 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.

“We 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?

“I 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 Raleigh.”

Weems 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 alumnae.

When Weems 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.

Some might 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 did well.”

Add a few doses of realism, common sense, and a sense of humor and you have a summary of Weems' management style.

“I've 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.

He has always been goal-oriented and focused.

“If 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' trademark.

Jean 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 micromanage.”

“Meredith is a good school and a wonderful place,” Weems proclaims. “Every year it gets better and better and it will continue to do so.”

His is 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 Program.

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 campus.

Change is necessary for survival. Weems recalls when there were 300 all-women institutions of higher learning in the U.S. Now there are only 80.

One thing 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.”

Continuing 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.

Some 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 “openness” policy.

Leading Meredith has not always been easy, but Weems has survived and maintained an excellent reputation in education circles around the nation.

In fact, 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 national levels.”

“The challenges of being a college president include knowing where higher education is going,” Weems said. “Initiating changes and how to do that are important.”

Bill 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.”

Dr. Jeff Hockaday, current chairman of the board of trustees at Meredith, described Weems this way in comments delivered at a golf outing for Meredith supporters:

“Dr. 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 future.”

Weems' many 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.

“This 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 was happening.”

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.

Ruth 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.

She has 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.

In 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.

Travel is 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.

Writing, 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.

“I've 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.

He views 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.

That 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 at pkirk@nccbi.org

Copyrighted material. This story first appeared in the September 1999 issue of North Carolina magazine.

Previous NCCBI member profiles:
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

 

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