on the Goal
Wynn's talents have built Durham
Tech into a key player in RTP's rapid growth
many top executives, Phail Wynn knows that good leadership takes on
various forms. The president of Durham Technical Community College
used vision and savvy, for example, to help build the school into one
of the most respected of its kind in the state.
Along the way, Wynn had to shake many a hand and stroke many an ego,
but such a song and dance wasn’t anything like what the avowed music
lover had encountered decades earlier while in the U.S. Army.
The place was Vietnam, specifically, a hole in Vietnam. Wynn was the
commander of an all-white unit, many of whom were from the South.
Their trust didn’t come easily.
“It took time for me to win them over,” Wynn says. “One night we
were in our defensive position. We were playing country and western
tapes and I went over to the guys and began singing. All of a sudden,
I had won them over. Those Mississippi guys couldn’t believe I could
sing country and western.”
He still can, but he’s glad that he doesn’t have to. Wynn played
the saxophone and baritone horn in high school and is now trying to
teach himself how to excel on the piano. When he’s not making music,
he’s listening to it — 600 to 700 mostly classical and jazz CDs
adorn his office, and there is a matching number at home.
And oh-by-the-way, there’s a college to run.
Our state’s community colleges exist for many reasons, the prime one
being to train and retrain employees for six to 10 different career
If the system were forced to depend on people like Wynn, its workload
and student enrollment would drop dramatically.
The 54-year-old educator has spent his entire working career at the
Durham institution, which he has headed for the past 21 years.
That’s an amazing feat given that education administrators generally
don’t survive that long. Wynn has not only survived, but he has
Under his steady hand, Durham Tech has become a key player in the
Research Triangle’s dramatic growth and success.
Born in Wewoka, Okla., Wynn’s father, Phail Wynn Sr., who is
deceased, was a Tuskegee airman and later a civil servant. His mother,
Valeria Fletcher Wynn, is still living in Oklahoma. Wynn is proud of the
fact that she attained her doctorate at age 54 and is a retired
He inherited his passion for military service and his patriotism from
his father and his interest in education from his mother. Wewoka is
part of the old Creek Indian territory and his great-grandmother was
Wynn received his elementary and secondary education in Wichita Falls,
Texas, and Lawton, Okla. In 1969, he received his bachelor of science
degree from the University of Oklahoma.
He takes some teasing about his Oklahoma roots — of which he is very
proud — especially during football season. He has the last laugh at
the moment, however, as the Sooners are the reigning national
Tom White, president of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, where Wynn was
the first educator to
serve as chairman of the chamber and now as its treasurer, says,
“Phail is rightfully proud of his native Oklahoma roots. While far
be it from me to contest his professed allegiance to the Oklahoma
football team, where he played back in the late ’60s, I have to
believe that with his exemplary career as the president of Durham
Tech, his coveted masters and doctoral degrees from N.C. State
University, his Carolina MBA, and his unabashed allegiance to another
Triangle university, the NCAA basketball national champion Duke Blue
Devils, that Phail would certainly qualify as a bona fide Tar Heel.
“And while he earns his living as a talented and dedicated educator,
he is the consummate community leader, readily lending his leadership
skills to innumerable local and state associations and causes.”
Wynn has been married to Peggy Lynch Wynn for 28 years. They met in
June 1972 when her roommate at St. Augustine’s in Raleigh introduced
them on a blind date, which Wynn — understandably nervous about a
chance meeting — reluctantly accepted. Peggy teaches third grade at
Parkwood Elementary School in Durham and also taught in Wake County
and at Fort Bragg.
The couple has a 23-year-old son, Rahsaan Phail Wynn, who is stationed
at New River Marine Base in Jacksonville.
In a strange twist of
fate, Wynn’s poor eyesight caused him not to be able to
accept an appointment to either the Air Force Academy or the
U.S. Naval Academy. Both required their trainees to be able to fly
planes and his poor eyesight prevented his accepting either
appointment. He was the first black man from Oklahoma to be appointed
So he ended up at the University of Oklahoma, where he played
football, serving as a backup wingback on offense and safety on
Two weeks after his graduation from college, he found himself on the
ground in combat in Vietnam. Much of Wynn’s philosophy and work
habits were formed during his six years in the Army. He served with
the 82nd Airborne Division and U.S. Army Special Forces, known as
the Green Berets.
He calls his voluntary service in Vietnam a “life-defining
moment.” After leaving Vietnam, he remembers being constantly
concerned about the destruction and bombing in that southeast Asian
“When I returned to Fort Bragg,” he says, “I decided I wanted to
spend my life in a helping role, not a destructive role.”
Wynn was aware of the work Fayetteville Tech was doing in helping the
G.I.’s transition back into society. He was working on his
master’s in psychology at N.C. State and became a participant in the
community college intern program, which emphasized leadership
Dr. Reid Parrott, the retired president of Nash Community College,
recruited Wynn for work in the community college system. At the same
time he had orders to report to Intelligence School in Huachuca, Ariz.
“My wife had never been out of North Carolina so she lobbied me to
stay here,” Wynn recalls. Needless to say, Peggy won, as did the
“I saw my role early — and I continue to do so — of helping
people through economic development and good jobs,” Wynn says.
Becoming the first African-American in the community college intern
program gave Wynn some extra attention, but certainly no favors.
He worked as an intern at community colleges in Goldsboro,
Fayetteville, Smithfield, Southern Pines and Durham, where he was
exposed to practically every aspect of community colleges.
In July 1977, Wynn accepted the position of assistant to the president
at Durham Tech. A year-and-a-half later, he was promoted to vice
president of support services.
“Because I had been in a command position in the military, I wanted
to break that career path when I came to Durham,” he says. “I
developed a portfolio of different responsibilities, and I wasn’t
sure I wanted to get back into administration.”
However, Wynn was thrust into the role of interim president in May
1980. Then in November he quite unexpectedly became the first African
American to head a community college in North Carolina.
No one argues about the effectiveness of Wynn in making the Durham
institution one of the best in the state.
Wynn credits, in addition to the staff, a strong board of trustees and
good contacts he has made in the community over a long number of
Active in the Durham chamber for 20 years, he became the first
educator to serve as the top volunteer officer, in addition to serving
as vice-chair and now as treasurer for three years.
When people think of Durham Tech, they think of Wynn. “We’re the
people’s college and when people see me in the community, they
immediately think of the college,” he says. “We’re the catalyst
for positive change. The bottom line is we are in the business of
The school’s location near Research Triangle Park has resulted in a
high level of technical expertise among staff not found in most
community colleges. Instructors have often been sent overseas to learn
ways to more effectively help improve their training of workers for
top manufacturing jobs.
Another benefit of the college’s location is the caliber of people
to serve as advisory committees for curriculum and other purposes.
“In addition, we have a ready job market for our students,” Wynn
says proudly. “We have worked with both Cisco and Nortel and their
job training programs in area high schools.”
The Durham college has not always been so wired into meeting community
and training needs.
“When I became president, I had the sense that the community did not
feel the college was as accessible, responsive, or flexible as we
needed or should be,” Wynn says.
So he used his considerable persuasive skills back in 1981 when he
convinced Gov. Jim Hunt to speak to area CEOs about economic
development and job training.
“I knew if I could put his name on the invitation, the CEOs would
come and they did,” Wynn says. From that day forward, Durham
Tech’s customized training programs grew in number and quality.
Accordingly, the college’s enrollment has more than tripled.
Services have been expanded into every sector of the community. For
example, the college provides all the training for area police,
sheriff’s deputies, and firefighters. Efforts to train women in
electronics and to get more people off welfare and into the productive
workforce permanently have won plaudits for the college.
“We’re going to continue to be the primary providers for life-long
learners,” Wynn says. “However, we must continue to be flexible
Wynn is dedicated to providing opportunities especially for those who
have often not had them in the past.
In 1992, he talked to Howard Clements, a longtime Durham City Council
member, and others about the need for a scholarship program for young
black males. They were troubled that no African-American male who
lived in a local housing project had graduated from high school in at
least five years.
The program was instituted and continues to provide all tuition, fees,
bus passes, books, tutoring and mentoring, but Wynn is saddened by the
number of unused scholarships most years.
Wynn has led his staff
and faculty to do volunteer work in Durham schools. Leading by example
is one of Wynn’s core beliefs, and while a popular administrator, he
believes his staff would label him as a “benevolent autocrat.”
“I’m sort of a person that
coaches to win,” he says. “I hire the best people. I trust them,
believe in them, and support them.”
He said he develops a game plan and then articulates it to his
staff before focusing on the execution. “I continue to coach, to
forge collaboration, and to focus on teamwork,” he says. “We
reward, we recognize, and we stay focused on the goal.”
Wynn admits he’s not a good delegater, but believes part of that
comes from his military experience. Yet his leadership skills,
effectiveness and accomplishments have been recognized in many ways.
He has served as the head of the N.C. Community College President’s
Association — the highest honor one can receive from his peers. A
study by the University of Texas named him as one of the 50 top
college presidents in the country.
N.C. State named him its Outstanding Young Alumnus in 1981 and 10
years later presented him with the I.E. Ready Distinguished Graduate
Award for Leadership Excellence in Community College Education. Last
year, he received the Meritorious Service Award from the Commission on
Colleges of Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and The
Order of the Long Leaf Pine from Gov. Hunt last year.
He also earns praise from Triangle leaders with whom he’s worked for
the past couple of decades.
“Phail’s quick wit and good humor never mask his ability to cut to
the chase,” says Jim Roberson, president of the Research Triangle
Foundation. “Time and again he is able to get others to focus on
what truly matters. He has touched virtually every major civic
enterprise in the Triangle in a very positive way.”
Bob Ingram, a GlaxoSmithKline executive, agrees. “Phail is a
consummate leader. He has done an outstanding job of both building the
quality of Durham Tech faculty and programs while at the same time
also building a strong partnership with the business communities in
both Durham and RTP.”
There has been
speculation about Wynn’s retirement. He admits that he had begun
some preliminary thinking about it, but then he cites the unmet
challenges facing the college.
“With the $15.4 million from the bond issue, we have quite a bit of
work to do,” he says.
That expansion will include a $4 million new satellite campus in
Orange County. The college already operates a Skills Development
Center in Chapel Hill, which includes four classrooms and two labs.
When retirement does come, expect to see Wynn go to work on his golf
game and devote more time to his music. As for past hobbies like
hunting, sky diving and scuba diving, well, there’s just not time.
That’s a ways away, however. Wynn refuses to put a timetable on
retirement because there are more students to reach and more economic
development needs to be met.
In short, there is work to be done.
COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the
june 2001 issue of the North Carolina magazine.
Return to magazine index