Leading the Way at BCC
From baseball player to biology professor to the Brunswick Community College presidency, Gene Smith gives everything he’s got.
Gene Smith’s passions included baseball and biology as he grew up in Johnston County and earned three degrees at East Carolina University.
What he couldn’t have known was that those passions would open a path that led to the presidency of Brunswick Community College (BCC), where he’ll celebrate his first anniversary as the school’s leader in January 2020.
Baseball was a natural for the former catcher and sports fan who, as an educator, has seen how sports can transform lives of young athletes. He grows animated as he describes the pleasure he takes in talking to BCC’s young athletes about how to present yourself in public and instill pride in self, family, community and school.
As he walks through part of the BCC campus on a beautiful, late-summer day, he seems as much a head coach as a college president. He makes sure to stop and ask everyone he sees how they’re doing, from janitors to students to academic deans, and there’s nothing feigned or phony in his down-home manner.
Early on, Smith thought about a career in medicine. “I was in a program as a hospital volunteer,” he recalls. “But the pain and suffering hit me. That was hard for me to deal with.
“And then there was organic chemistry,” he adds with a slight smile – not his best subject but a critical topic for future physicians.
Biology intrigued him as teachers stirred his interest. For his master’s thesis, he studied the impact of insects on rivers and streams. He jokes that it might seem obscure, but it’s important because insects are early warning signals of pollution. They need clean water to survive. “If they’re not there, the fish aren’t there either,” he says.
However, Smith still wasn’t sure where all this education pointed. Then one day he saw an ad in the Raleigh News & Observer for a biology instructor at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro.
“I applied on a Monday. They asked me to interview on Tuesday. In a week I was teaching at Seymour Air Force Base,” he recalls.
Smith enjoyed teaching, but the tug of becoming an educational leader pulled him from the classroom during his 25 years at Wayne. He was a department chair and eventually vice president of academic and student services while he earned a doctorate in educational leadership from East Carolina University (ECU).
In November 2018 the Brunswick Community College Board of Trustees unanimously selected Smith as president. He was among three finalists to replace Dr. Susanne Adams after she retired. Smith inherited a respected, growing institution of around 150 full-time employees, nearly 1,600 diploma and degree-seeking students and thousands of others who take workforce and community education programs. BCC also has around 3,000 users of its popular recreation center, performing arts center and athletic teams.
Smith appears at every BCC event he can possibly attend as he and his family become part of the Brunswick County community. He met his wife, Jessica, at ECU, where their two sons are now enrolled. Jessica is a senior vice president with BB&T Bank. The family has settled into a dockside home in Holden Beach, and Smith has joined the Rotary Club of the South Brunswick Islands and Holden Beach Chapel, but he quickly points out that he wants to be careful about outside commitments after less than a year in his presidency. Brunswick Community College comes first.
“I’m very blessed to be part of BCC and thankful,” he says. “We have a great team on campus, with our board, with the county and in the community.”
BCC’s level of community engagement greatly impresses Smith. He’s building on traditions of strong volunteerism, philanthropy and the financial support of county commissioners to supplement and enhance state funding. He notes that the “Brunswick County Guarantee,” which ensures a BCC education for any qualified high school graduate in the county, is expanding opportunities and fueling growth. That includes workforce programs, certificate training, two-year degrees and smooth transfers of credits to four-year college degree programs at universities across the state.
“This is a smaller school than I worked at before, so we’re trying to make sure that our dollars go further here,” he says. “The equipment budget is about half of what I was used to. Everybody has been really good in trying to help me understand what they need.”
Immediate priorities include expansion and improvement of the spaces in the McLamb Professional and Technical Center and a major construction project to support the school’s growing health sciences program, which should be complete in 2020.
When asked what keeps him up at night, with zero hesitation Smith offers a one-word reply: “Security.”
In these times, his answer is no surprise. “There’s not a cabinet meeting where we don’t have a discussion about it,” he says, describing programs BCC conducts to keep the school safe in concert with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, which maintains a visible campus presence.
Smith explains why this subject is not only important because of national events, but also intensely personal.
On April 13, 2015, at Wayne Community College, Ron Lane, the popular manager of the school’s print shop and Smith’s friend, was in his shop when a welding student, Kenneth Morgan Stancil III, entered campus with a shotgun in his welding bag. He entered a bathroom, put the gun in his jacket and then killed Lane. Police captured Stancill the next morning on a Florida beach after he fled on a motorcycle. Nearly two years later, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Stancill had been fired from his part-time job in the print shop, but the shooting was about much more than anger over a firing, according to media reports. Lane was an openly gay man, and Stancill was a tattooed white supremacist who hated gays and had a personal dispute with Lane.
The school lockdown on the day of the shooting lasted six hours or more. “I first learned about it on CNN,” says Smith, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time. “I texted my associate and asked her what’s going on, and she says, ‘I’m hiding under my desk.’ There was really nothing I could have done, but you want to be with your people.”
In the glare of national media, school officials won praise for the response. The campus locked down quickly, and officials sent voice and text alerts to parents and students wherever they were. Smith agrees that the school responded well, but he brings the lessons of Wayne to Brunswick Community College.
“It changes you forever,” he says. “And there were people who were very close to the scene that it continues to impact. So, we’re focused on making sure that our faculty and staff know what to do and our students know what to do if that situation comes up.
“Hopefully, it never will.”
Quick Questions with Gene Smith
NBM: Name a movie and a musician who have to be on your desert island playlist.
GS: The movie: Rudy. The musicians: Tie between Kenny Chesney and Dwight Yoakam
NBM: Who are two people who made a huge difference in your life?
GS: My grandfather, who instilled a work ethic and a goal to always do the right thing, and the late Dr. Charles O’Rear, a biologist and mentor at East Carolina University.
NBM: What’s the best piece of advice you’d have for your 19-year-old self?
GS: Always try to do your best.
NBM: What’s something that people would be surprised to know about you?
GS: I was a high-school baseball player and worked four summers during college as the clubhouse manager for the Class A Kinston Indians and considered becoming an athletic trainer.