love and a keen business sense
guide Michael Blackwell's work for the Lord
By Jerry Blackwelder
corporation headed by Dr. Michael Blackwell is Thomasville’s oldest
continuously operating business, but its products can’t be found on
any store shelves.
Since 1983, Blackwell has watched diligently over Baptist Children’s
Homes of North Carolina, the state’s largest child service
institution. From Franklin to Carteret County and 12 sites in between,
some 350 employees perform their tasks within an annual budget of $18
“It’s the Lord’s business, but it’s still a business,” says
Blackwell, 59. “And our product is changing lives.”
This year the institution is expecting to change a record 2,000 lives
as children from across the state leave behind troubled homes and come
to live at Baptist Children’s Homes’ residential facilities.
According to Blackwell, trust is the key to managing the myriad of
programs, locations, employees and even fund-raising to keep the
nonprofit corporation in business.
“In business the man or woman at the top has to engender trust among
employees in order to accomplish anything,” says Blackwell, a
Gastonia native and former Baptist pastor. “They will go to the wall
for you if they know that you’ll stand up for them, that you put
their highest good first, that you validate them and make them feel
like they are worthwhile.”
To help solidify such a sense of belonging, Blackwell organized a
Family Gathering last year, bringing together in Thomasville the
hundreds of employees from across the state. It had never been done in
the institution’s history, and was an “emotional highlight” of
Blackwell’s 18 years of service, he says.
To help oversee the cumbersome business operations, Blackwell has
assembled a five-member management team, he says, that “I would put
up against any business of any size. They’re pure gold.”
Jennie Counts is a member of that team as executive vice president for
administration. She serves along with the organization’s CFO and
executive vice presidents for development, programs and services, and
Counts calls Blackwell an “authentic visionary,” citing his
ability to “look into an individual and see not just the present,
but also the potential for the future.”
Those sentiments are shared by former furniture executive Paul
Broyhill of Lenoir, whose family has long been associated with the
Baptist Children’s Homes. Blackwell responded well, Broyhill says,
to the challenge of moving BCH into a new era where fewer children are
orphaned and more come from problem homes.
“He has the perfect combination of talents to fill a tough job,”
Broyhill says. “He’s brought professionalism to the management of
the institution, and the charisma necessary to raise the funds to make
The charisma showed itself at an early age. At 14, Blackwell landed
his first job as an announcer at a Gastonia radio station, riding his
bicycle to work every day after school to host “Mickey’s Record
Possessing not only the gift of gab but also to write, Blackwell set
his sights after high school on the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill, where he majored in journalism. A couple of newspapers
took notice of his talents while in school, and he became a Chapel
Hill reporter for the Charlotte Observer and the now-defunct Raleigh
He also worked for radio station WCHL in Chapel Hill, where he first
developed what’s become a lifelong friendship with former noted
Charlotte radio and TV personality Ty Boyd, who now heads the
Excellence in Speaking Institute.
“Mickey was an outstanding young man who was eager to learn,” Boyd
says, adding that little has changed in that regard. “Everything he
has ever touched he has made better. He has the heart of a clergyman,
but the quick mind and acumen of a business leader.”
Of his current work at the Baptist Children’s Homes, Boyd says,
“There’s a saying that no man stands taller than when he stoops to
help a child, and Mickey is the perfect example.”
Blackwell found himself at a crossroad after graduating from UNC, with
the beginnings of an impressive resume in journalism already under his
belt and many friends encouraging him to pursue national reporting
assignments with CBS or the Washington Post. But one aspect of his
life that predated even the love for the media was his faith in God.
He grew up in a Baptist church, and felt a yearning that God might
have plans for him other than a career in journalism.
Blackwell studied at the Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest,
earning his master of divinity, master of theology and doctor of
ministry degrees. He served pastorates in Raleigh and Carthage, and
was leading a Richmond, Va., Baptist church when the call came in 1983
to return to his home state and assume the leadership role of
president of Baptist Children’s Homes.
Since then his presence in the business community has been felt well
outside the confines of the Baptist Children’s Home campuses. He
serves on the boards of the Wachovia Bank in Thomasville and the
Leadership North Carolina program, chairs the board of directors of
the Institute of Political Leadership, and is an executive committee
member of Leadership North Carolina.
His work at Baptist Children’s Homes led to his election to head
state and national child care associations and accounted for his
ranking as one of the 30 most influential North Carolina Baptists of
the 20th Century by the Biblical Recorder.
Under Blackwell’s leadership, Baptist Children’s Homes initiated
the first teen mother/baby program in the Southeast, added infant care
to its programs, opened Lenoir County Family Services, established a
facility in Franklin for behaviorally troubled girls and relocated a
therapeutic boys camp in Cameron. The list, as the saying goes, indeed
goes on and on.
Blackwell “has a way with people,” says Evelyn Alexander of
Raleigh, the first female chair of the BCH board. “He’s never
satisfied with the status quo, and always pushing us to do more.”
Doing more, Alexander adds, meant taking the BCH budget from just
under $7 million when Blackwell assumed the mantle as president in
1983 to a staggering $18 million this year.
That’s no small achievement, considering that Baptist Children’s
Homes is a nonprofit corporation depending on contributions almost
solely for its funding. During his tenure Blackwell has led two major
statewide fund-raising campaigns, the most recent of which culminated
last November. During that effort funds were raised to construct new
buildings on every single BCH campus, and at the end of the campaign
enough money had been raised to pay for all the buildings and leave
the corporation free of any debt.
“I enjoy the friend-raising that leads to fund-raising, and I really
enjoy that part of my job,” Blackwell says. “I have no qualms
whatsoever about asking someone to give money to help a child.”
Helping children has been Baptist Children’s Homes’ main mission
since 9-year-old Mary Presson of Hertford County became the first
child admitted on Nov. 11, 1885, at what was then the Thomasville
In those days at least one parent had to be deceased for a child to be
taken in. Now most of the children come from troubled homes where they
may have been abused or where the stress of raising a child is simply
too great for the parents or custodians. Referrals may come from
county social services departments, parents, pastors, or other family
members. In a growing number of cases, Blackwell says, the child may
be in the care of a grandparent rather than in a traditional family
Regardless of the makeup, the family remains involved in the child’s
life once he or she enters Baptist Children’s Homes.
“Whenever we can, we require that the mother or father or custodian
come here for family conferences,” Blackwell says, adding, “if
possible, we want to try and reunite the family.” BCH even provides
a cottage on its grounds for family weekend visits.
If reconciliation cannot be achieved, the child is allowed to stay
until high school graduation, and even past that if he or she is
attending a local community college.
Jason Davis, now a second lieutenant in the Air Force and stationed in
Los Angeles, lived in 10 different foster homes before coming to
Baptist Children’s Homes. There, he said, he found “the home I had
never had before.”
Davis, who went on to graduate from The Citadel before entering the
military, said the caring attitude made the difference.
“Everybody cared about me and the person that exemplified that the
most was Dr. Blackwell,” he says. “He knows every kid and what’s
going on in their lives, and you feel you can really talk to him about
Davy Divine, also a former resident who just completed her masters
degree in education from the University of Hawaii, agrees. “I
remember Dr. Blackwell always smiling and looking happy to be
there,” she says, recalling the president donning a T-shirt to march
in a parade with the kids, playing ball with them, and being
accessible to talk anytime. “I had never known anybody like that
“It’s nice to know a man like him exists in the world,” she
Building self-esteem in a child and overcoming years of abuse is one
of Blackwell’s main goals.
“I feel verbal abuse may be the most pernicious abuse of all,” he
says. “You can get over a bruise, but it’s harder to overcome
having someone screaming at you that you are dumb or stupid and will
never amount to anything. A lot of kids come here from that
In addition to a caring, wholesome atmosphere, Blackwell feels
strongly that the road to dignity and self-worth includes education.
Thanks to the generosity of benefactors, he says that any BCH child
can attend the college of their choice tuition-free. Baptist
Children’s Homes, for example, paid the cost for Jason Davis to
attend The Citadel and Davy Divine to go to the University of Hawaii.
Blackwell has even negotiated agreements with the public school
systems in areas where BCH has campuses for on-campus schools.
“It’s a great program because our kids get the attention they
need, and in many cases they may not be ready to go into a public
school setting,” he says.
In addition to his demanding work overseeing the Baptist Children’s
Homes and active involvement with Smart Start, Leadership North
Carolina and the Institute of Political Leadership, Blackwell is a
much-sought-after public speaker across the state for churches, civic
clubs and business groups. He is also publisher of Charity and
Children, a monthly newspaper with a circulation of more than 50,000.
Last year he published his first book, “New Millennium Families,”
after wanting to author a book for families for many years. His second
book, detailing the history of Baptist Children’s Homes, entitled
“A Place for Miracles,” is due to be released this month.
Despite all of his accomplishments at Baptist Children’s Homes,
Blackwell says his mission is far from complete. He is excited about a
new program focusing on adults with developmental disabilities now
moving “at warp speed,” he says. One residential facility is
already open in Winston-Salem, with two others due to be completed by
the end of the year. His management team has been working long and
hard on a strategic plan designed to take BCH through the next three
years. He wants to build on the institution’s endowment fund and
complete a third major capital campaign in 2003.
But most of all, he says, “I want Baptist Children’s Homes to be
viewed as the premier child and family service agency in North
Carolina to the point that when people think of excellence in child
and family services they think immediately of Baptist Children’s
Those who know Blackwell best have no doubt that he will succeed. They
also know that despite his many successes, the man retains a warm,
caring personality that comes across in all of his endeavors.
“If I can do something to help make a difference in somebody
else’s life, I want to use the gifts that God has given me to do
just that,” he says. “Everybody needs a good word. If I can do
even that it won’t be in vain.”
to magazine index