By LICI BEVERIDGE, Hattiesburg American
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — William Carey University has been “home” to Tommy King for more than 50 years — beginning when he was a student there.
King announced his retirement in June, leaving a legacy of service that anyone would be proud of. But King says credit for the work doesn’t belong to him alone.
“No one person accomplishes much by himself,” King said. “That’s true for me. I’ve had a great team and they have all worked very hard. Any recognition or praise for what’s been accomplished goes to the whole team.”
Dr. Ben Burnett, the school’s executive vice president, was named in June to replace King and will officially become the school’s 10th president on Aug. 16.
King was named president of the university in 2007, not long after Hurricane Katrina caused more than $28 million in damage to Carey’s Gulfport campus in 2005.
Then-executive vice president King saw the damage to the Coast campus’ 16 buildings that had just been renovated and asked, “How will we recover?”
But the university not only recovered, it flourished in the days and years since King became president.
One of the first things King did was to decide to sell the university’s 20 acres of beachfront property and purchase land further north in Harrison County to build what is now the Tradition campus.
“It was a beautiful site, but we were determined that we were going to move inland to get a little away from the Gulf (of Mexico),” King said.
After the initial purchase of 15 acres, another 10 acres of land were added to the Tradition campus.
“And then we started building,” King said.
First one building, then another, and yet another sprung up at the Tradition site while the Gulfport campus continued operating out of portable buildings.
“The thing about a college or university when a tragedy strikes, you can’t wait around and mull your options,” King said. “If you do, you’ll lose all your students. We had to move quickly.”
Located on the Tradition campus is the university’s School of Pharmacy, whose building is named in honor of Joe and Kathy Sanderson, who in 2015 donated $1 million toward establishing the pharmacy school. The couple donated an additional $100,000 to help WCU kick off its doctor of physical therapy program, located in Hattiesburg.
In addition to the pharmacy school, the Tradition campus now boasts a 67,000-square-foot facility for the College of Health Sciences, where students can major in physical therapy, health information management, health administration and more. The college also offers a Ph.D. in nursing degree.
The Tradition campus grew quickly and this year enrollment is at a record 1,000-plus students.
This was during the Great Recession, when the nation’s economy collapsed, and the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which created further challenges for the university.
“One thing after another hindered us, but none of them stopped us,” King said.
Meanwhile, the Hattiesburg campus also experienced a lot of growth, including a new College of Osteopathic Medicine, which welcomed its first group of students in 2010.
“As I went and talked with businessmen, bankers, civic leaders, I had to plan on the first 10 minutes explaining what a DO is,” King said. “It’s a real doctor that can do anything that an MD can.”
A doctorate in osteopathic medicine places emphasis on preventive medicine and holistic patient care.
“When we opened here, there were only 100 practicing DOs in the state,” King said. “Now there is over 1,000.”
Until now, only 100 new students were accepted each year “because that’s all the money we could raise each year,” King said.
“Now that we are on a better financial footing, we decided to double the enrollment,” King said.
In four years, he said, around 800 students will be enrolled in the medical school at any given time.
“That makes us the largest medical school in the state of Mississippi,” King said.
Although Carey’s nursing school in New Orleans wasn’t damaged during Hurricane Katrina, enrollment continued to decline following the storm, which led to its closure in 2013.
“We tried to keep it going, but it was at a financial loss every year,” King said. “The reason for that was all the hospitals were down. There was no job market for our graduates.”
A new opportunity arose for Carey to expand its nursing program and reenter Louisiana, this time at Baton Rouge General Hospital in 2018. That program is doing well, King said.
Music, liberal arts, science and other degree programs continue to grow at Carey along with the health-related programs.
“We just continue strengthening all the programs we have and enhance recruiting and raising funds for scholarships,” King said.
The Carey athletics program also grew from seven athletic teams to 18, King said. Many of the teams have won national and conference championships and some of the athletics staff have been honored nationally.
The number of students at William Carey has more than doubled during King’s tenure, from around 2,500 students in 2007 to more than 5,300 in 2022.
Six additional dormitories were added to accommodate a quadruple increase in students living on campus.
After the 2017 EF3 tornado tore through Hattiesburg, King oversaw the construction of a new administration building, which sits close to the Hattiesburg campus’ main entrance. Tatum Court is the 21st-century version of the original administration building, which stood in the same place from 1914 to 2017.
In March 2021, the King Student Center opened. It is named in honor of Tommy King and his wife, Sandra.
The university also has invested in the community, purchasing 141 properties during King’s tenure. If the building is worth saving, the university will invest money into restoring it. If not, the building is demolished and a green space is introduced and maintained by the university.
The local chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity gave King the Bridge Builder Award during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. prayer breakfast, which he says is one of his favorite awards because it recognizes his contributions to Hattiesburg. Another favorite is the Hub Award, which also recognizes community enhancement.
“I’ve enjoyed becoming more involved in the community,” King said.
In addition to strengthening the programs and rebuilding campuses, King has focused on increasing the university’s endowment.
“When I became president, he was very low because no one had given any attention to him,” King said. “Keep in mind the financial collapse, the tornado, Katrina, yet we have still been able to quadruple our endowment.”
One of the things King is most proud of is the number of students attending chapel every week.
“When I became president, there were about 150 students that actually attended chapel,” he said. “Then we started emphasizing attendance and before COVID we were having around 800. This fall we expect to start back (with in-person chapel).”
What does King plan to do after retirement? For now, King said, he has one goal.
“I’m just going to sleep late,” King said. “For the last 51 years, I’ve gotten up when the alarm went off. It will be nice to turn off the alarm and sleep until I wake up.
“I will always be a supporter of Carey as an alumnus and I hope to see it continue to grow and expand.”
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