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Since Jim Hemby’s death on Thursday, former students and colleagues at Barton College have remembered the man who went from student to professor and provost to become the first graduate of the school to become its president.
“He had a love for that place day in and day out,” said Russell Rawlings, himself a graduate of the college and an employee under Hemby.
Rawlings said his good friend drew energy from the college, and that energy was contagious.
“You weren’t going to outwork him, and you weren’t going to out-love the college, but he inspired you to try to do both of those things,” he said.
Hemby graduated from the former Atlantic Christian College in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in English, religion and philosophy. He earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt University and a master’s and doctorate from Texas Christian University.
Hemby came back to ACC to teach English in the mid-1960s. His specialty was the English writer John Milton.
“We came at the same time,” said Roger Bullard, retired Barton professor.
Bullard said he and Hemby had offices together and spent a lot of time talking.
“I admired him as a man, as a scholar, as a teacher,” he said.
“The students who were perceptive realized they were studying under a good teacher,” Bullard added.
Hemby’s legacy lies in the 20 years he served as president, taking the helm in 1984 after serving as interim president when Harold Doster resigned the post.
Bobby White, class of 1979, worked under Hemby at the college and will be officiating at today’s funeral.
He said their relationship was one of co-workers and friends.
“He believed in my abilities and gave me the chances I needed,” White said. “I didn’t want to disappoint him. He was the kind of person that you wanted to do your best for.”
White said Hemby charted the course for Barton during some difficult years.
“He was there for the end of the first 100 years and planted seeds for the next 100 years,” he said. “And, I think, probably that is his legacy.”
Hemby presided over the school’s centennial celebration, was the first president to live in the Barton-Graves House and was president when the school changed its national athletic affiliation from NAIA to NCAA.
It was also under his tenure that the school’s name changed from Atlantic Christian College to Barton College.
“He was, in a lot of ways, the transitional figure that could make that happen,” White said, and the one to help the school grow.
For the first 100 years, the college was focused on eastern North Carolina. “And that was fine,” White said.
“But for the college to branch out and become a stronger college, it had to broaden that focus.”
He said Hemby was committed to the church and academics and knew the school had to go to another level.
He laid the groundwork in a lot of ways, White said, to allow Barton to transition to a more regional school with a broader vision. “Never forsaking its roots but looking for a more expansive mission, I think.”
Douglas Searcy, current Barton president, recognizes that as well.
“Dr. Hemby represents so much to Barton and ACC,” he said. “His leadership came at a time of great transition for the college. And, it was his foresight, leadership and strength of character that helped to propel the college forward.
“The strength of Barton today is in large part due to Dr. Hemby’s guidance and vision,” Searcy said.
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Rawlings knew Hemby most of his life and considered him a close friend.
“We’re all going to miss him,” he said. “He was always there for us.”
Rawlings said Hemby had a father-like demeanor about him, and students identified him with the college. He also had a presence in the community and all aspects of the college.
“He really was a giant in all the differing communities the college operated in,” he said, from church to sports, alumni events and statewide organizations.
Rawlings said Hemby always worked to make each year better than the year before.
“He had a perception of the college that other people didn’t have,” Rawlings said. “And he brought that perception to life through the two decades he was president and left the school in such great shape and such a better position than it had been in.”
Hemby was not afraid to make tough decisions,” Rawlings said, and was very thorough throughout the process.
“He really was fearless when it came to what he believed was best for the school and best for the students.”
The funeral for Jim Hemby, 83, is Monday at 1 p.m. at First Christian Church in Wilson.