Before she retired from Catawba College after 29 years service, Linda Hamilton traded tears and memories with Mark Wurster, son of the late college president, Dr. Stephen Wurster, who had hired her in 1982. Linda had given Mark the gift of his late father's academic regalia before her last day at Catawba, October 28.
The long-time assistant to the president, who served five different Catawba presidents during her career, still holds the man who brought her to the college in high esteem. "Dr. Wurster was so intelligent that I overlooked the fact of how handsome he was — the intelligence was so much bigger than his beauty. He had good gut instincts. I was really blown away by his intellect, his plans, the energy level and what he wanted to do. He made you a part of it — three sentences and you would be hooked. He looked the part, acted the part and sounded the part of president."
Under Dr. Wurster's tutelage for almost 10 years, Linda grew acclimated to Catawba which she perceived as having a "feel and fit that were rich in tradition and history."
"Raising money and raising the enrollment were themes of the office and continue to be until this day. Trying to fix up the campus was another issue," she explains.
Two years after she was hired by Dr. Wurster, in 1984, her responsibilities grew to include service as assistant secretary to the Board of Trustees. She was elected to this position by trustees and her involvement with the business of the board gave her more insights and knowledge of the college and more individuals to respect and cherish.
"I just had to jump right in on the trustees' meetings," she remembers. "The board was smaller then — we only had 20 members, but that number was changed to 40 in my early years as assistant secretary. Some of the people I first worked with on the board still serve on it right now — Patsy [Proctor Rendleman '47], Jimmy [James Hurley, III], Hamp [Wade Hampton Shuford, Jr. '50], Ralph [Ketner] — but others have passed — Adrian Shuford, Claude Abernethy, Enoch Goodman, Clifford Peeler, Roy Leinbach and Theodore Leonard. It makes you want to cry to think about it, they were such an integral part — they cared so deeply. For some of them, it was their fathers before them who had served on the board."
Tears well up in Linda's blue eyes as she recalls these individuals and tears are among the many things for which she has become known. Often at trustee meetings, campusEvents, even sitting at her desk, her colleagues have witnessed the tears as she recalls to them individuals,Events, the college's triumphs and trials.
"One of the things I'm really proud of is the Ketner School of Business — finally, finally, we had a beautiful building to house a wonderful program — that to me was one of the finest, most beautiful buildings on campus. I can still see Stephen Wurster laying his plans to convince Ralph [Ketner, for whom the building is named] to fund the building during a cruise. He asked for $3 million dollars and Ralph gave it to us. I was proud of Ralph, proud of Dr. Wurster and so proud of the building," she says, using a tissue to wipe away the ever-present tears.
"Crying — I get that from my dad. He used to cry at soap operas and he would say, 'Close the window, something's getting in my eye.' Steve Wurster used to reach in his drawer and hand me a Kleenex and say, 'Don't you get it? I wouldn't like you if you didn't cry.' "
When you ask her about Catawba's most positive attribute, she is quick to answer, "The faculty."
"Maintaining an excellent faculty has sustained us – not the buildings, not the money. None of the buildings or the money would matter if we didn't have excellence in our faculty. [The late] Martha Morehead [professor of English] and Dan Kirk [professor of Biology] were very, very, very special, and [the late] Charles Turney [professor of English] — he sat at the feet of Martin Luther King, Jr. — and Andy Vance [professor of French] and Sandy Silverburg [professor of Political Science] were here, but had been here 20 years when I got here."
Ask her what makes her saddest about Catawba and she is candid: "I'm saddest that we can't quite reach our potential as a college. It's the saddest and most heart-breaking thing and an absolute mystery to others outside the college."
Linda has been known at Catawba as always making time to speak with whomever comes into the President's Office, especially the students. "One time, a person said to me: ‘The success of every student depends on the amount of adult time they have while they're here. They needed me, even if it was only for five minutes. Some of them just needed bragging rights — to say they had been in the President's Office. Some needed reassurance that somebody was there that they could talk to."
Thinking of the students she has talked with and mentored makes her remember her mentor, Dr. Wurster. "The big overall thing is to remember the dream.
He always told me, 'You know what to do, little girl, you'll do what's right.' We have a mission here. We've raised a lot of good people, regardless of what field they go into – we've been a part of that. No matter where they go after here, their foundation — their good — that was formed here. You can't be selfish and work here. Well, I guess you can, but you won't get the same feeling when you leave if you are. It's like being part of something bigger than you."
In the time that Linda has spent at Catawba, she has lost both of her parents, saw her daughter, Leigh, graduate with a nursing degree from Lenoir-Rhyne, then get married in Catawba's Chapel. Her husband, Harold, has retired, and her two granddaughters, Mackenzie and Keira, have been born.
Although the Kannapolis native admits she is excited about the prospect of retirement, she tears up as she speaks about her final days in the office. "I just absolutely feel like it's the best time for me to retire, even though I really hate to leave [President] Joe Oxendine. He has been wonderful, but if I don't leave him, he's going to leave me, and when a new one comes, I won't feel like I can leave.
"I want to spend time with my family — be with Harold and my grandkids — travel, and do what I want to do. I think this is the best time for me to go. I want people to know what the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis is about and I even see me helping organize folks to help tell the story and do tours for them. I want to do some volunteering and do something for older people, especially since I am one. But you know, you've got to get your house and yard in order first," she laughs.
"Catawba has been so much a part of my daily life that I'll probably be lost for a while, but as my friend, Eloise Peeler, says, ‘You'll get over it when you don't have to hear an alarm clock in the morning and you can turn over in bed when it is snowing outside.' But, I must admit, it has been a good ride."
PHOTOS: Linda Hamilton Retires after 29 Years
POEM: "On Linda's Leaving" by Janice Fuller
Catawba President Announces Hiring of Assistant