BUIES CREEK — A decade ago, Jerry Wallace sat under a tree awaiting Campbell University’s graduation ceremony, marveling at how much he had enjoyed his first year back in the classroom after more than 20 years as an administrator there.
He had no concern for the frantic preparations inside; his own plans included a monthlong beach vacation starting the next day. But that night, Campbell’s president paid him a visit. He was gravely ill and wanted Wallace to be the next leader of the private Baptist college.
“You’ve rested long enough,” Wallace recalls then-president Norman Wiggins telling him.
Indeed, Wallace, now 77, hasn’t rested much since. In 2003, he became the college’s fourth president, and in nine years he has overseen massive changes - including the addition of what will be the state’s second-largest medical school when it opens next year.
The school recently got the accreditation it needed to start recruiting its first class of students, and its 96,000-square-foot home is rising along U.S. 421 near Campbell’s main campus. It will be the first new medical school to open in North Carolina in 35 years and the first to train doctors of osteopathy, who tend to focus on primary care.
Wallace conceived the idea of a medical school only two years ago and championed it as a way to grow much-needed family doctors in the rural areas, where many of its students will train at area hospitals.
The $70 million project, funded with private donations, loans and cash reserves, will be the capstone of a tenure in which Wallace also revamped the university’s campus, moved its law school to downtown Raleigh, and added a series of new programs.
“None of this has been easy,” he says of the changes at Campbell. “We have had our work cut out for us, but the good Lord has provided.”
Campbell Trustee Bob Barker says the university has made tremendous progress under Wallace and credits Wallace with many of the strides the school made while he was provost under Wiggins.
“He is just an innovative person,” says Barker, a Campbell alumnus and owner of a Fuquay-Varina-based supply company. “He amazes me all the time with how he comes up with these ideas and carries them through.”
Schooled in divinity, education
Wallace has worked at Campbell for 41 years and boasts an unusual set of qualifications. The son of mill workers, he holds one doctorate degree in divinity from the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, and another in education from N.C. State University.
He grew up in tiny Rockingham, east of Charlotte on the South Carolina border, where his father managed the company store and his mother worked in the mill’s cloth room.
His youth was infused with his love of football, and he went to East Carolina University on a short-lived football scholarship.
“I didn’t last but two weeks,” he says. “I met three men who were bigger and better than I was, and I didn’t want to be hurt that much.”
He also saw how much the game infringed on players’ academic performance. So he left the team and paid his way through school by doing tax returns and earned his bachelor’s in English and government.
In Wake Forest, he was assigned as a student pastor during his studies, and he went on to be the pastor of an Elizabethtown Baptist Church for 15 years. There, he led the construction of a new church and several educational buildings.
When that project was done, he returned to school, commuting to N.C. State while still serving as pastor. He says his time at N.C. State, where he did much of his master’s work in sociology, complemented his years of religious study.
“It tempered me,” he says. “It made me a person who is less judgmental. When you’re looking at groups of people, you have to be objective enough to really see what is. I’d been dealing for years with what ought to be, and this tension between what is and what ought to be is what life is all about.”
For years, he struggled between ministry and teaching. The first time he was hired at Campbell, he signed a contract and put it in the mail, then drove out to Buies Creek to intercept it.
“I love people, and being a pastor has to be the most personal relationship that anybody would have with another person,” he says.
He agreed to teach a class as an adjunct instead and says he was hooked. He left his church when he was offered a job chairing the religion and philosophy department, and was soon named the university’s dean, then provost – a post that he held for nearly 20 years.
‘Full steam ahead’
Campbell had been on a growth trajectory before Wallace took over as president; since 1976, it has added professional programs in law, business, divinity and pharmacy, as well as a campus in Malaysia. But observers say Wallace has revved up the pace of change.
“We’ve been full steam ahead,” says Haven Hottel, Campbell’s communications director. “It’s been a great time here.”
Some of the changes Wallace had in mind from the beginning - such as adding a football team and building a convocation center. But he never envisioned a medical school at Campbell until he was asked by an accrediting group to visit a small Mississippi college that was considering adding one.
He started the trip believing that opening a medical school, with its $150 million price tag, was untenable at a small college. But he found that much of that cost came from opening a hospital, which wasn’t needed if students trained at existing hospitals.
The practice is common in osteopathic medical programs, where graduates earn a D.O. instead of the M.D. degree. Doctors of osteopathy complete a similar course of study but are trained in “whole person” care instead of focusing on illness and injury; the majority enter primary care fields such as internal medicine and pediatrics instead of specialties.
Wallace thought this model would work at Campbell, which had recently added a physician’s assistant and other health sciences programs. He pulled together statistics pointing to a dire statewide shortage of primary care doctors and presented his case to a small group of trustees.
They were understandably skeptical, but he sold them on the idea and has since forged relationships with nearly a dozen local hospitals where Campbell medical students will train, including WakeMed in Raleigh, but mostly in rural areas.
The school’s opening will mark another chapter in a growth story that is not without growing pains – moving the law school, for instance, rankled many alumni and faculty – but one Wallace is proud of.
“Campbell has sensed places where it could meet a need,” he says. “We’ve been entrepreneurial, and I like to think the world is better because of this little place in Buies Creek.”
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