Former Durham mayor Bill Bell remembers the legacy of Phail Wynn
Phail Wynn, a trailblazing educator who became North Carolina’s first black community college president, was remembered Monday as a passionate, visionary leader who pursued excellence over a 40 year-span as president of Durham Technical Community College and as Duke University’s first vice president of Durham and regional affairs.
Wynn died of a heart attack July 24, just weeks after he retired from Duke. He was 70.
“Phail Wynn’s impact on this community was and is both broad and deep,” said Bill Ingram, who succeeded Wynn as president of Durham Tech. “We can’t begin to estimate the number of students who passed through Durham Tech during his 27 years as president, but we know that he touched and changed the lives of countless thousands.”
Wynn’s funeral was held in Duke Chapel, his coffin draped with an American flag in honor of his military service that included a tour in Vietnam. The John Brown Quintet played his favorite jazz tunes during an upbeat ceremony where laughter at stories about Wynn competed with the muted sobs of mourners.
Hundreds of dignitaries paid their respect, including former Duke president Richard Brodhead who sought Wynn’s counsel during the Duke lacrosse scandal that divided the Durham community.
“In a chapter of history some here will remember, false charges produced real bad feelings between this university and the community, and in assembling a little group to advise me, I thought to ask Phail Wynn,” Brodhead said. “He was deeply wise in his counsels.”
Brodhead later persuaded Wynn to come out of retirement to work for the university as vice president of Durham and regional affairs.
“This man lived to serve, whether it was his nation, his city and community or his university, and he was never less than 100 percent invested in his service,” Brodhead said.
Wynn’s son, Master Gunnery Sgt. Rahsaan Phail Wynn, said his father was troubled by the divisions in the country that are tearing at the fabric of the nation. He said the two discussed the issues recently after Rahsaan Wynn returned to the U.S. after serving oversees.
“We have to come together as a community, as a people, as a state, a city and a county because if we do not, we will destroy ourselves,” Rahsaan Wynn said.
Later, Rahsaan Wynn talked about his father’s love for Harley Davidson motorcycles. He said his dad recently asked him to come home to help sneak a new bike into the garage. Wynn was trying to keep the bike a secret from his wife, Peggy Wynn.
“I came home and we got it into the garage,” he said. “She eventually came out and asked if he’d bought a new bike. My dad was acting like he didn’t hear her while sitting there revving it up.”
In the court yard in front of the chapel, shortly after the funeral service, local leaders gathered to share stories and to discuss the impact Wynn had on Durham.
“There wasn’t an issue or good cause he didn’t touch,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said. “But the thing that was so special about him was that if he came into a room, he knew everyone in the room and he knew something human about them.”
In local education circles, Wynn’s death hit especially hard.
“Through his work leading the Duke University Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, he strengthened the bonds between a great city and a great university, and the partnerships he built demonstrated his steadfast friendship to Durham Public Schools,” said Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga. “His office sponsored the annual Duke University Regional Spelling Bee, and his enthusiasm and support for the competitors was contagious. “
N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye said Wynn’s leadership in Durham and North Carolina will be sorely missed.
“He’s had a great impact educationally and economic-wise and just by the sheer number of people he’s touched, the students and the businesses,” Akinleye said. “He was just a great man.”
Fredrick Davis, the pastor of First Calvary Baptist Church, said Wynn was a committed partner who kept his promise to help support the West End community and programs at his church.
State Sen. Mike Woodard said Wynn had a great vision for what Durham could be and how education was essential to the community being its best.
“Whether students were at Durham Tech or at Duke or the Durham’s public schools, he saw education as important because he saw how important education was to his life,” Woodard said. “He also saw how important it was for institutions of higher education to play a critical role in the community, that education and a better community went hand-in-hand.”
State Rep. MaryAnn Black also noted Wynn’s love for education, and noted how it drove Durham Tech’s expansion.
“By constructing new buildings on the main campus and extending Durham Tech’s reach to other parts of the county through the creation of the Northern Campus, Phail believed that more Durham residents would have greater access to education and job training,” Black said. “It was his vision, passion and commitment that made the school’s expansion become a reality.”
Former Mayor Bill Bell said he first met Wynn before he became president of Durham Tech and was immediately impressed.
“He stood out as being intelligent, personable and a leader,” Bell said.
Those qualities also stood out for Wynn’s younger brother Michael Wynn who said Mr. Wynn was his hero.
“He was very focused and personable,” Michael Wynn said. “He was mindful of always doing your best and he always tried to instill that in others and he believed that education was the way out.”
A native of Oklahoma, Wynn earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma. He served six years in the Army. He earned a master’s and doctorate from N.C. State University and an MBA from the Kenan-Flager School of Business at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Wynn is survived by his mother, Valree Fletcher Wynn, his wife Peggy Wynn, son Rahsaan Wynn and brother Michael Wynn.