The Valdosta Daily Times
Dr. Hugh C. Bailey was remembered Friday as a visionary who could maneuver through the highest echelons of state leaders while caring enough about his Valdosta State students to open his family home to them.
Faculty, friends, and community leaders gathered in VSU’s Whitehead Auditorium for the university’s memorial service to the man who served as president from 1978-2001, ushering in the change from small-town college to regional university status, developing Blazer football and other sports programs, forging $60 million in campus building projects, developing a doctoral program, and increasing student enrollment by the thousands.
Bailey passed away last Friday night.
In his opening remarks, Dr. William J. McKinney noted his three and a half months as VSU’s president compared to Bailey’s 23 years. McKinney mentioned seeing a comment that VSU has a new president, but can he fill Bailey’s shoes?
“Of course, I’m the new president, and I like a challenge,” McKinney said. “But filling Dr. Bailey’s shoes ... that’s a high bar” to reach. “He built the modern Valdosta State University. He had an impassioned sense of community.”
State Sen. Tim Golden recalled Bailey’s strength in meeting with state leaders who opposed granting Valdosta State university status. How the man who woke each day to exercise against the lingering effects of childhood polio and sickness could be gracious but he was tenacious in making his goals into realities.
People who believed Bailey’s frail appearance was a reflection of his will made this wrong assumption “at their own peril,” Golden said.
“I speak today with joy and trepidation,” Golden said. “... Joy to tell the stories. Trepidation because I’m afraid Dr. Bailey’s looking down on me and saying I’m getting it wrong.”
The afternoon provided several fond memories and several laughs. Dr. David Lee Johnson, former VSU Music department head, sang the National Anthem. His wife, Susan B. Johnson, accompanied him on piano as Dr. Johnson sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” David Springfield, a pianist and VSU Music faculty member, played “Moon River,” a song with special sentiment to Dr. Bailey and his wife, Joan, who was joined by their daughters, Debbie and Laura, at the memorial service.
Dr. Louis Levy, former VSU president, shared the unique aspects of Bailey’s career. He emphasized how Bailey was a full professor by 29 years old, an age when many academics are still struggling with their dissertations. A full professorship before the age of 30 is a rare accomplishment.
But Bailey had an unusual career, Levy said. He served 23 years as a college/university president, a position that normally runs an average of six to seven years.
“We saw Dr. Bailey as a mentor,” Levy said. “We tried to learn from him. Some of us, including myself, would never measure up to what he accomplished.”
Levy noted the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools “respected him as a president, as a historian, and as a true gentleman of the South.”
Bailey approached life with great humility, and compassion for everyone, from his students, to his faculty, to his community neighbors, even truckers whom he would contact on CB radio to find a good place to eat during Valdosta State-related travels.
“Dr. Bailey could speak to everyone. He had a sensitivity to people of all walks of life,” Levy said. “He was truly interested in them ... and he did so with a twinkle in his eye and a great sense of humor and that sense of humor got us through some difficult times.”
James Black recalled Bailey’s first day arriving as Valdosta State president. Black began working at Valdosta State in 1969. He helped Bailey unpack his car and arrange his presidential office. Black would work with Bailey until 1999.
Black said he believed Bailey’s professional composure, his character and integrity were developed during his childhood in the small town of Berry, Ala.
“That humble background shaped him,” Black said.
What people saw in the public Hugh Bailey is the same thing they witnessed in the private Hugh Bailey, Black said. Bailey was authentic.
Each Christmas, the Baileys hosted a party for 4,000 people, Black said. As soon as the party ended, Bailey grabbed a broom and swept, cleaning up with everyone else.
Dr. Mary Margaret Richardson spoke of Bailey’s devotion to his mother. She spoke of his lifelong struggles to overcome the effects of devastating childhood illnesses.
“He made every effort to rise above adversity,” Richardson said. “He believed that determination and time would overcome all adversity. ... He commanded a presence of poise more than anyone I’ve ever known. ... He had respect for everyone.”
Richardson served on the presidential search committee that brought the Baileys to Valdosta State.
She said Bailey once said that he did not come to Valdosta State for a personal win. He wanted everyone to win. Relating Bailey’s words, Richardson said, “I believe we can win and we can do it together as a team.”
The service also paid tribute to former VSU First Lady Joan Bailey.
Current VSU First Lady Dr. Dacia Charlesworth admitted some trepidation several months ago when her husband, Bill McKinney, accepted the VSU presidency. She noted the university president candidates receive packets of information of what’s expected from them if they are named. She discovered there is no such information for potential university first ladies. She learned that a spouse will never assure a candidate of a university presidency but a spouse can assure that a candidate will not be named to the post.
Arriving in Valdosta, Charlesworth looked to VSU’s past first ladies for guidance. Former VSU First Lady Nancy Zaccari hosted a “coming out party” for Charlesworth. In a more intimate reception prior to this party, Charlesworth met Joan Bailey.
She said meeting Joan Bailey was like catching up with someone she’s known for years.
Meeting Mrs. Bailey helped Charlesworth understand the characteristics essential to being a successful first lady. She also commiserated with Mrs. Bailey and the Baileys’ daughters, for sharing their husband and father with Valdosta State and the community.
“You did this for 23 years,” Charlesworth said to Mrs. Bailey. “I’ve only been doing this three and a half months and I miss my husband.”
She repeated the well-known line. “Behind every great man is a great woman.”
Earnest Duncan, Valdosta State’s long-serving chef, also paid tribute to Joan Bailey. He recalled preparing the Baileys’ parties, dinners and other functions, under the direction of Mrs. Bailey. He said Mrs. Bailey was challenging, but she made it exciting to participate in great events.
“You had to listen to what she said because she would remember what she said so it was in your interest to remember what she said,” Duncan said.
Joan Bailey supported Valdosta State, its students, its faculty, the community and she stood behind Dr. Bailey.
“She understood that her husband was on a roll,” Duncan said. “He was doing things. ... He saw the impossible possible.”
Duncan recalled the many important functions hosted by the Baileys. He recalled how Dr. Bailey would always come speak to him before dinner was served.
“Dr. Bailey would come back to the kitchen and say, ‘Earnest, do your best. I have to ask them for $10 million.’”
A comment that seems to emphasize what so many have been saying the past week since Bailey’s passing. He was a man who knew what he wanted for Valdosta State, knew how to get it, took the time to speak with everyone, include everyone in the process of achievement, and he did all of these things with a sparkle of humor.