Longtime Catawba trustees retire hoping to make room for fresh ideas

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Catawba College’s Board of Trustees will look a little different in 2015, as three long-standing trustees have stepped down over the last calendar year.

Between the three of them, Dr. Shirley Ritchie, Tom Smith and Paul Fisher spent roughly 100 years serving on Catawba’s Board of Trustees.

“We hated to lose each of them,” said Catawba President Brien Lewis, but added that they each expressed they felt they were leaving the college at a good time and a good place.


Dr. Shirley Ritchie

Ritchie, a graduate of Catawba, dedicated her life to education.

She earned her degrees in religion and philosophy and sociology in 1952, and began teaching after two years as a social worker.

Later on, she became a professor in Catawba’s education department.

“My children looked at the college campus as their playground,” she said.

She retired in 1993, and became a trustee about three years later.

“Becoming a trustee was just a way to extend my relationship with the college,” she said.

Ritchie said she’s most proud of the last strategic plan the board developed.

“This last strategic plan is going to take us forward,” she said, adding that she believes it will bring in new students.

She said it’s difficult, however, when they have to rely on donors in order to make things happen.

“We’re always strapped for money,” she said, adding that she hates having to make decisions between what they want and what they can afford.

Ritchie said she decided to retire in February, because she felt she needed to be at home with her husband who is ill.

“I felt like the college was in really good hands,” Ritchie said. “A lot was happening that I thought was good.”

Ritchie isn’t the first member of her family to serve as a trustee – her father was on the board for roughly 50 years.

Lewis described Ritchie as a “delightful lady,” who brought expertise as a former faculty member and vital institutional knowledge gleaned over her long-time affiliation with the college.


Tom Smith

According to Lewis, Smith has “such a deep level of understanding of the college’s workings,” and his broad business and philanthropic involvement in the community added to the board.

Like Ritchie, Smith is a Catawba alum. He graduated with a business degree in 1964, and became a trustee in the 70s.

Smith, who served as president and CEO of Food Lion for 13 years, said his education at Catawba prepared him for the work force.

“I went to Catawba and I got a good education. I found out after I got in the workforce how well Catawba had prepared me,” he said.

Smith, who served as chairman of the board at one point in time, said he feels that Catawba is still providing a valuable experience for each of its students.

“Catawba does an excellent job of working with each individual student,” he said, adding that he also appreciates the college’s focus on teaching the charitable part of living – a precept he’s tried to live out himself.

“If you want people to give to Catawba, you have to give yourself,” he said. “I felt that because of what I’ve gotten, I need to give to be an example.”

Smith said he’s watched Catawba to continue to improve over the years.

“I enjoyed working with the other trustees and seeing Catawba continue to advance,” he said. “I think Catawba is probably is at its peak right now.”

Smith said that the college’s younger trustees and his desire to travel convinced him to step down from the board.

“I saw the new members coming on and saw what talent they were bringing to the board,” he said. “They’ll be here much longer than I will be.”

He added that stepping off the board frees up some of his time so he and his wife can travel more often.

“I don’t want to be on a board and not be there for meetings,” he said.


Paul Fisher

Although Fisher isn’t a graduate of Catawba, he certainly isn’t a stranger to the institution – his mother, three sisters, “a ton of cousins” and several nieces and nephews are Catawba College graduates.

Fisher said his involvement with Catawba “started early,” when his older sister started attending the school and his family began attending activities at the school.

“I’ve seen it grow from the time I was a kid. I’ve been hanging around the college ever since then,” he said.

He remembers “back to the time when they had the May Day celebrations on the lawn” and when they used a “big open field” near where Omwake-Dearborn Chapel is currently located to train soldiers for World War II.

Fisher attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and graduated in 1960, when he moved back to work with his father at F&M Bank.

Fisher became a trustee in the 1970s, nearly 40 years ago, and has served as vice chair and chairman of the board.

Fisher said the hardest decisions to make were administrative personnel decisions, but that the most rewarding decisions were the “subtle things.”

“I think with all the change and turmoil in the country that Catawba stayed true to its mission and purpose,” he said. “With all the different winds blowing in different directions, we stayed our ground.”

“They educate the whole person, and then when that person gets out on the highway of life, they have a great global understanding of what it takes to be successful,” he said. “I think they are very well prepared to meet the challenges of the world.”

Fisher, who stepped down in January, said he wants to “allow younger, smarter folks” to take his seat.

“The people who need to be running the college need to be of the younger generation – people who can see this new world through a new set of eyes,” he said.

Lewis said Fisher’s “breadth of knowledge of the community” made him stand out as a trustee, as well as his longstanding involvement with the college.


The role of the trustees

“Generally, in higher education, the Board of Trustees is the governing authority of the institution,” Lewis said.

Catawba’s Board of Trustees can fluctuate between 20 and 40 members, and currently has 33 or 34 members, which is “relatively large for a Board of Trustees,” Lewis said.

Catawba’s board is self-perpetuated, meaning that the board nominates recruits to fill vacancies on the board.

Members meet three times a year, in October, February and June. Each committee meets at least once between each meeting, typically two to three weeks before so they can bring recommendations for action before the entire board.

The board is responsible for setting tuition and fees, authorizing tenure, appointing and evaluating the president and acting on various recommendations from the administration for high-level polices.

The board typically stays fully informed about what’s going on at the college, but delegates the day-to-day management of the institution to the president and his team.

Lewis said all of Catawba’s trustees are “incredibly generous.”

Although financial giving isn’t a requirement of a trustee, “every one of our trustees has been a strong and generous supporter of the college,” he said.

“This board is an incredibly committed board,” he said, adding that trustees invest in numerous meetings and often have to wade through between 3,000 to 4,000 pages of material before each meeting.

“They really are very generous with their time and their expertise,” he said.

Over the past few years, the board has restructured its bylaws to make sure trustees are rotated out to bring in “fresh ideas,” Lewis said. Board members can now serve a maximum of 12 years.