At the memorial service for Debra Saunders-White Friday, speaker after speaker after speaker ascended the dais and shared the impact she had on them during decades-long acquaintances or frequent conferences.
George Hamilton, chairman of the NCCU board of trustees, said conversations between him and Chancellor Saunders-White evolved from “an as needed” basis to weekly, and evolved from strictly university business to include friendly talks about their respective families.
Judging by the importance each speaker said Saunders-White placed on education, I’m betting none of those conversations were as important to her as the one conversation she had with Sheena Peterson.
“I only spoke with her once” as a freshman, Peterson, an NCCU sophomore from Whiteville, told me near the end of the memorial service. “I was having financial problems and was getting ready to drop out of school. She convinced me to keep looking for money and to come back.”
She kept looking, she found some, and she came back. That’s not surprising, since under Saunders-White, both NCCU’s student population and retention rates grew.
When Peterson becomes an epidemiologist, which is her career goal, her single conversation with the late chancellor won’t be far from her mind.
Saunders-White, the first permanent female chancellor at NCCU, died last week. She was 59.
Hundreds of dignitaries gathered to pay tribute to her inside McDougald-McLendon Arena. The usually festive site where Saunders-White had cheered on her beloved Eagles basketball teams, often joining the students in celebratory dances after victories, was now draped in funereal black. A cellist played a mournful dirge as the ceremony began. The NCCU choir sang a version of “Soon I Will Be Done” that would’ve made Mahalia proud.
Speakers recalled Saunders-White’s work ethic, her style and grace – “She’d push up her expensive St. John sleeves” and get to work on making the university the best it could be, one alumnus said – and her passion for excellence.
“She didn’t talk about about ‘Eagle adequacy’ or ‘Eagle expediency,’ ” said Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina. “She talked about Eagle excellence.”
Elmira Mangum, former president of Florida A&M University, said Saunders-White’s “passion for excellence was uncompromising.”
Other dignitaries who addressed the audience included Durham Mayor Bill Bell, Congressman G.K. Butterfield and state Rep. Mickey Michaux.
After each spoke of her in subdued, measured tones, you knew Saunders-White was someone you were glad to have – or wished you had – known.
Then the Rev. William Barber II, president of the N.C. NAACP, got up and preached, and the audience – presidents, elected officials, Ph.D.’s and no D’s – were catapulted to their feet.
“Even the Deborah of the Old Testament was a diva,” Barber said, comparing the late chancellor to the Old Testament prophetess. “Our Deborah was a prophetess, too” although “not the kind you see spouting all of that foolish stuff on television.”
Barber said his daughter, who’ll graduate from NCCU next week, could have finished last May but was persuaded by Saunders-White’s presence to stay and get a second degree.
“She lived,” Barber said near the end of the ceremony, “in strength and wisdom and courage. She even died in strength and wisdom and courage.”