David Belcher, the popular and exuberant chancellor of Western Carolina University, died Sunday from brain cancer. He was 60.
He had led the university for six years when, in November, he announced he would go on medical leave. He had been diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor in April 2016, leading to surgery that was initially thought to be successful.
By last summer, the cancer had returned. When he stepped aside last fall, he said he did not expect to resume his duties. He and his wife wanted to concentrate on family and living life, he said.
"Western Carolina University has been a blessing for us both, and we love this place.," he said at the time. "I have been honored to lead this fine institution. The university has fed my soul and fulfilled me in immeasurable ways, and Susan has found a true home here amongst friends and avenues of service."
Belcher was a beloved figure at the university, where he was known to greet students by name and rile up the crowd at basketball games. After one such cheerleading session, Sports Illustrated's website posted a video of Belcher jumping, skipping and yelling along the sideline, arms raised, with the headline, "Western Carolina's Chancellor Has Gone Insane."
That kind of enthusiasm endeared him to the campus community. His passion and his laugh were infectious.
"He was the Eveready Energizer Bunny," Teresa Williams, former trustee chairwoman, said in a video about Belcher. "He never stopped. He was such a dynamo."
Belcher and his wife worked as a team — he an accomplished pianist, she a professional singer. When they performed, they had a way of enthralling an audience, and fans of Belcher's said he brought that same vibe to his leadership.
He had led the growing UNC system campus in Cullowhee since 2011. During his tenure, the university's enrollment climbed by 18 percent to 11,000 students. The campus is poised for another period of transformation this fall with the start of a reduced tuition program, NC Promise, funded by the legislature.
UNC President Margaret Spellings said Belcher was inspiring to her and many others. "David Belcher's passion, integrity and vision have forever shaped and strengthened the university that he loved so much," she said in a statement.
Before the tuition cut, Belcher was a proponent of making the university affordable for students. Since 2012, WCU has added 200 endowed scholarships, and last year, the Belchers announced their own pledge of $1.23 million for the university's fundraising campaign.
"When he says, 'We are in the business of changing lives,' it is not just lip service," Carol Burton, acting provost, said in the tribute video. "It is not just a tagline for him."
Faculty and students say Belcher instilled a sense of pride and spirit at the school that had been absent before. He took the wearing of the school color, purple, to a new level.
"This man changed Western for the better and no one can ever take his place," tweeted WCU student Briana Howell. "I am BEYOND grateful to have had the opportunity to have Belcher as my Chancellor for the majority of my time at WCU. He will be truly missed, but NEVER forgotten."
Belcher was a relentless advocate of Western, a campus that had sometimes been overlooked, getting the attention of lawmakers, donors and others.
Among Western Carolina's successes under Belcher were a freshman-to-sophomore retention rate that rose to 80 percent and a $110 million science building that was approved as part of a statewide bond referendum in 2016. It is expected to open in 2021.
Belcher was born in Barnwell, S.C., and earned degrees at Furman University, the University of Michigan and Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Before he arrived in Cullowhee, he was a music professor and dean at Missouri State University and then provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
At times during his illness, Belcher had trouble speaking due to aphasia from the tumor. But he continued to be a presence, walking the campus and greeting students with a wave and a smile. Late last summer, he was delighted when the campus hosted a huge viewing party for the total eclipse — not an easy feat on the first day of classes.
Susan Belcher would sometimes deliver remarks on his behalf at public events, including at two receptions late last year. There, he joined her at the podium, where he was able to say a few words from the heart: "It has been a joy."
The university will hold a memorial June 23 at 1 p.m. at WCU's Fine and Performing Arts Center. The family requested that memorial gifts be directed to foundation endowments of Western Carolina University, Furman University, University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Missouri State University.