Digging Up Sweet Potatoes

Reinhardt Vice President JoEllen Wilson

Lit Up – oil on canvas, 11” x 14”

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Reinhardt Fundraiser and Vice President JoEllen Wilson Cultivates the Surprising Touches That Win Hearts for this University

JoEllen Wilson is Vice President for Advancement at Cherokee County’s Reinhardt University, where for the past twenty years she has served in positions of increasing responsibility, eventually becoming the school’s first female Vice President. Beginning in 1997, Wilson became Special Assistant to the President, serving as the “familiar face” for many alumni and donors in a critical time of transition, as a succession of four men rotated through the office, culminating with Dr. Isherwood arriving in 2002. Currently she oversees donor relations, marketing and fundraising for the university.

 This story is part of a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. When Ms. Wilson began working at Reinhardt, it was a two-year school which offered one Associate’s degree in Liberal Arts, serving 400 students. Reinhardt is now a post-graduate institution with 41 undergraduate degree programs and six Master’s degrees, with a student population of 1,200.

 Ms. Wilson is pictured here on the stage of the Falany Performing Arts Center. 

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“I told the President, ‘If I have to plan one more Homecoming, I will DIE.’ ”

I suspect it’s an unusual statement for JoEllen Wilson. A half an hour into our interview, I have already mentally designated her as one of those rare people with inexhaustible reserves of energy and good will toward their fellow man.

Wilson is referring to her first job at Reinhardt, a part-time position in Alumni Relations. “I’m a people person, so that job was perfect for me. My sons had started high school, and I was ready to get back into the workforce.

“Fundraising and alumni relations aren’t about what people think; it’s not about asking people for money. It’s about the relationships. My job in Alumni Relations eventually became full-time, and I loved it! But after five years, there was a point when I felt like I just couldn’t plan another Alumni Weekend or Homecoming. I was burned out.” At this point, she confesses about her threat to “die” if she has to plan one more Homecoming. “I knew that might be the end of me working here,” Wilson adds.

“But fortunately, the president had another job for me.

“Dr. Falany had just found out he would need to retire, for health reasons. To prepare for this change, he brought me on as Special Assistant to the President. I would be helping to transition him out of the office, and the next President transition in. I would make introductions, maintain relationships with donors and alumni, and staff. As it happened, two more presidents came through before Dr. Isherwood arrived in 2002. It was an amazing opportunity and growing time for me. I learned something new from every one of those men, almost every day.”

I ask Ms. Wilson how she first made the connection with Reinhardt.

“Since I was a girl!’ she exclaims. “My grandmother was a house mother and a nurse on campus. I used to visit Big Mama here, and I always thought I would come here so I could become a teacher. While I was earning my two-year degree, I met my husband John here, and we married. We had twin sons, and THEY both came here, and met THEIR wives here. That happens at a lot of schools. But there’s a saying we have at Reinhardt about our students and their spouses: We’re like a shoe factory – we put people out in pairs. ”

What part of your story do you think people relate to most? The smile disappears for a rare moment as she pauses thoughtfully. “I think it’s when people hear I finished my college degree and my masters’ while I went back to work here. People will tell me they were encouraged when they hear that, and they think, ‘Maybe I can do that, too.’

“This is a people-oriented place, and even though we’ve grown, we haven’t lost that. I’m so pleased that even after adding a football team, we still have a culture of caring and respect. Those young men have been trained by our excellent coach to be ambassadors for the university. We’re a people place.

“I’ll tell you something funny. Dr. Falany and I once visited a longtime supporter who was extremely wealthy – she probably could afford whatever she wanted, anything. But what she really wanted was sweet potatoes from Dr. Falany’s garden. So whenever we went to visit her, we first had to drive over to Dr. Falany’s garden and dig up those sweet potatoes, so she could have some!

“I think that the personal attention at Reinhardt can’t be contained in 600 acres. It goes out into the community.”

The same could be said for JoEllen Wilson.

 

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