tampabay.com

Saving grace for Eckerd dies at 72

As a young president, Billy O. Wireman turned a struggling institution into Eckerd College.

By TAMARA EL-KHOURY
Published July 18, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - Billy O. Wireman arrived at Florida Presbyterian College in 1961 as a founding faculty member, a physical education teacher and the school's first basketball coach.

He would become the youngest college president of his time and be remembered as the man who persuaded drugstore sultan Jack Eckerd to save the financially fledging institution with a $10-million gift. He would be instrumental in changing the name of Florida Presbyterian to Eckerd College.

Mr. Wireman died Saturday (July 16, 2005) in Charlotte, N.C., after a three-year battle with colon cancer. He was 72.

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Katie Wireman, their son, Gary Wireman, daughter, Emily Wireman-Smith, son-in-law, Stuart Smith and his aunt, Hettie Rhea Thomas.

Jim Harley, who was the college's director of athletics for 39 years, credited Mr. Wireman with saving the college with Eckerd's help.

"He had a relationship with Jack that was mutual respect," Harley said Sunday.

After a stint as the college's vice president for development, Mr. Wireman, a Kentucky native who served in the Marine Corps, was tapped to become the college's second president in 1968. He was 35 and the country's youngest college president at the time. He faced the college's heavy deficit and declining enrollment.

Mr. Wireman secured donations from Eckerd and then led the initiative to rename Florida Presbyterian College after him. The school was renamed Eckerd College on July 1, 1972.

Eckerd College president Donald R. Eastman III called Mr. Wireman "a man of great faith and vision."

"His belief in the power of a liberal arts education to develop young men and women into good citizens, and to prepare them for lives of high and noble purpose, continues to influence the character and programs of Eckerd College," Eastman said in a statement.

The desperate financial situation of the college pushed Mr. Wireman to announce his resignation in February 1977. He had brought about $30-million in loans and gifts.

"I left Eckerd because I found the fundraising becoming increasingly burdensome," he told the St. Petersburg Evening Independent in 1977. "Essentially what I did was take a bankrupt institution and give it nine years of life, stripped of all its rhetoric and emotional tone."

Mr. Wireman left one financially strapped college for another. North Carolina's Queens College, which became Queens University of Charlotte, also was facing declining enrollment and financial ruin when Mr. Wireman was hired in 1978.

When he left 24 years later, Queens had paid off its nearly $2-million debt and enrollment had tripled, according to the Charlotte Observer . The institution's endowment had risen from $3-million to $33-million.

A writer, history buff and globe-trotter, Mr. Wireman would open meetings with a quote from Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare and other historical figures.

He graduated from Kentucky's Georgetown College and earned a master's in educational administration from the University of Kentucky. He continued his education, earning a doctorate in education from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University.

Mr. Wireman had connections around the world and encouraged his students to study abroad, said Peter Meinke, who was director of Eckerd's writing workshop. "It was a little school running out of money," Meinke said. "He had big ideas. He wanted it to be not just a small religious school, but a school that brought some of the best students from all over the world."

Days before his death, Mr. Wireman sent an e-mail to his friends, thanking them for their concern. The last words of his e-mail, according to Meinke: "Do good."