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WNC celebrates life of David Belcher

Philip Belcher, brother to the late Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher, prepares to read David Belcher’s last personal statement during a June 23 memorial service. WCU photo Philip Belcher, brother to the late Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher, prepares to read David Belcher’s last personal statement during a June 23 memorial service. WCU photo

For the son of a small-town Baptist preacher who studied to become a classically trained pianist — only to find his professional career take an unexpected change of tempo into academia — the Saturday, June 23, memorial service for Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher hit all the right notes.

Billed as “a celebration of a life well-lived,” the memorial service was equal parts church, musical performance, remembrances of a beloved university leader and, perhaps most fittingly, an opportunity for Belcher to deliver one last altar call on behalf of higher education.

Belcher died Sunday, June 17, after battling brain cancer for more than two years. More than 800 people filled the performance hall of WCU’s John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center for the service, with hundreds more watching online via a live video stream. 

Before his death, Belcher asked his brother Philip Belcher to read his final personal statement during the service, recounting his early years in South Carolina, his post-high school educational opportunities and his early years in academia. 

“I learned that, while my parents grounded me in critical principles, values and knowledge of what brings people together, experience, knowledge and values are essentially useless without doing something,” Belcher wrote. “I had to ask myself, ‘Will I just think about serving, or will I actually serve? Am I going to be a noun or a verb?’”  

Belcher said he came to recognize the uncomfortable divide between those who are doing well and those who are not, and the role of higher education in bridging that gap. While WCU has seen “substantive, important changes” that will “significantly improve the lives of the people and communities in our region,” there is still much work to do, Belcher wrote. 

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“This is urgent business. I don’t have time to wait; neither do you,” Belcher wrote. 

The memorial service began with a montage of photos from Belcher’s life, followed by a performance of Cherokee flute music by Matthew Tooni, a WCU alumnus and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and a welcome from WCU Acting Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar. 

Tom Belt, coordinator of WCU’s Cherokee Language Program, delivered an opening prayer in both Cherokee and English, Rev. David Reeves of Cullowhee United Methodist Church read Belcher’s obituary, and his sister Elizabeth Belcher Mixon gave the first of several remembrances, also performing one of the Belcher family’s favorite hymns, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

“I have no doubt that David — a mere mortal but a tireless servant leader, nonetheless — was placed in the Western North Carolina region for his God-given skills to be used in exactly the right place at just the right time and in precisely the right ways,” said Mixon. “He was a man of purpose and integrity, loving people well and doing what was right for honorable reasons. 

Speaking of Belcher’s endearing laugh and boundless energy, WCU Chief of Staff Melissa C. Wargo called her late boss “someone worth working for” and “a giant of man, not in stature, but in everything else – a giant personality, a giant heart, a giant vision and a giant commitment to those for whom he never stopped advocating, our students.” 

Christina S. Drale, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, shared memories of working with Belcher at two universities before he became WCU chancellor in 2011, saying that Belcher learned the community-building skills that were so important to his time at WCU while at Missouri State.  

“David learned that, as a leader, it was his job to build relationships and to invite people to be a part of that community and also to reinforce the benefits of membership,” Drale said. “As you all know, no one did that better than David.” 

Belcher’s youngest sibling, Miriam Ponder, described her first-grade recollections of her college-aged brother’s visits home.

“There was special music in our home when David was visiting. He obviously practiced a great deal to become the consummate pianist that he was. To me, as a child, it often seemed endless,” said Ponder. “That’s only part of what I mean. His laughter was the music that I enjoyed most during his visits.” 

In his homily, Reeves compared Belcher to Moses of the Bible, a great leader of people who died before accomplishing all he had intended but left behind others who were equipped to carry on. Rev. Kelly Belcher, Belcher’s sister-in-law, delivered the benediction, while friend Fred Childers and Milton Laufer, director of WCU’s School of Music, performed piano selections.

The N.C House of Representatives honored Belcher in its own way last week, on Wednesday, June 20, approving a resolution to honor his life and memory.  

N.C. Reps. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, and Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, introduced the resolution, which the House unanimously adopted. The Senate concurred.  

“David Belcher was not only a great chancellor, he was a great human being. I’m proud to call David my friend and enjoyed, many times, ball games and events with him, and just enjoyed his friendship,” said Corbin, asking his fellow House members to vote in favor the resolution. 

Not only did they support it, but several legislators rose in a bipartisan show of support for the resolution, noting Belcher’s impact not just on the university where he served, but on the entire University of North Carolina System and higher education in general.  

The chancellor’s obituary, a video recording of the service and the text of his personal statement are available online at belcher.wcu.edu.

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