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on the Goal

Phail Wynn's talents have built Durham 
Tech into a key player in RTP's rapid growth

By Phil Kirk

Like 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 changes.

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 thrived.

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 English professor.

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 Creek.

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 champions.

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 to both.

So he ended up at the University of Oklahoma, where he played football, serving as a backup wingback on offense and safety on defense.

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 country.

“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 training.

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 Durham community.

“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 years.

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 economic development.”

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 and adaptable.”

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.

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