Longtime leader at Duke University and Durham Tech dies suddenly of natural causes

Phail Wynn Jr. was president of Durham Technical Community College and then Duke University’s vice president for Durham and Regional Affairs.
Phail Wynn Jr. was president of Durham Technical Community College and then Duke University’s vice president for Durham and Regional Affairs. N&O file

Phail Wynn Jr., a longtime Durham educator whose career included leading roles at Duke University and Durham Technical Community College, has died.

Wynn, who was 70, died unexpectedly of natural causes at his Durham home Tuesday.

Wynn served as president of Durham Tech for 27 years. When he became president in 1980, he was the first African American to be named a community college president in North Carolina and at 33, the youngest in state history, according to the college.

During his time there, Durham Tech moved into more high-tech fields and created customized training for companies in nearby Research Triangle Park, according to the school.

He later moved to Duke, where he was the university’s first vice president for Durham and Regional Affairs. Wynn retired from Duke just last month, the school said. Duke and Durham Tech lowered its flags to half-staff Wednesday in his memory.

In his role at Duke, Wynn represented the campus in its work with the city, Durham neighbors and community organizations.

Duke President Vincent Price, in a statement, praised Wynn’s contributions to Duke and Durham and said his legacy would be lasting.

“Phail was a remarkable, generous and wise soul, whose energy made us all feel like he would live forever,” Price’s statement said.

School, business and community leaders said Wynn’s passing was a huge loss to the Durham community.

Bill Ingram, president of Durham Tech, said in a statement: “I am shocked and deeply saddened by the news of the unexpected passing of my mentor, colleague, and friend. ... Dr. Wynn’s contributions to this community and state are broad and deep.”

SunTrust Chairman and CEO Bill Rogers said Wynn was one of the longest-serving members of the bank’s board.

“He had a tremendous impact on our company and all the people he touched. Phail was a pioneer in the fields of education and civic transformation,” Rogers said in a statement. “His leadership changed lives.”

Wynn was a key supporter of Duke’s programs of tutoring, mentoring and outreach to students in Durham, school officials said Wednesday.

“Through his work leading the Duke University Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, he strengthened the bonds between a great city and a great university, and the partnerships he built demonstrated his steadfast friendship to Durham Public Schools,” said a statement from Pascal Mubenga, Durham Public Schools superintendent. “His office sponsored the annual Duke University Regional Spelling Bee, and his enthusiasm and support for the competitors was contagious.”

Wynn was born in Oklahoma and received an undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma. He spent six years in the U.S. Army, serving during the Vietnam War. He came to North Carolina for graduate studies, where he received master’s and doctoral degrees from N.C. State University, and a master’s in business administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson, tweeted: “Leader, mentor, advocate, and friend are a few words that come to mind to describe what Phail meant to me. Durham, and the entire state of North Carolina, has lost a giant.”

Wynn’s survivors include his mother, Valree Fletcher Wynn, his wife, Peggy, and his son, Rahsaan.

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