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Terry Bryant: The Path from Farm Girl to Executive Director

Story By Jo Ann Mathews
Photography By Wendy Hunt

Terry Bryant, the new executive director of the Ocean Isle Museum Foundation, Inc., developed her work ethic growing up on a farm in Sampson County.

She recalls growing up in Clinton, North Carolina, and rising at 3 am to take cured tobacco from the barns so it could go to market. Then she was in the fields by 8 am.

Farm work, along with her wide-ranging skills, helped Bryant land her new job overseeing operations at the Museum of Coastal Carolina in Ocean Isle Beach and Ingram Planetarium in Sunset Beach.

Chosen from about three dozen applicants, Bryant brings, as she says, “a passion to make somebody’s life a little better,” to the job.

Jerry Thrift, chair of the Ocean Isle Museum Foundation, Inc. Board of Trustees, says Bryant rose to the top of the list of qualified applicants.

“We saw someone who has local knowledge, is personable and has experience,” Thrift says.

Bryant’s experience covers a host of professional fields. She left her nearly seven-year position as special events coordinator at North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher in Kure Beach to come to Ocean Isle. If she had waited another six months, she could have retired with 30 years as a state employee.

“I’m not ready to retire,” the 52-year old says. “I had always planned on working past 30 years.”

The Ocean Isle Museum Foundation thought Bryant’s aquarium experience was a good fit.

“[The museum] relies on tourism as the aquarium does,” Thrift says. “We thought that experience was important. Terry has many years in the educational field, and her associate degree in accounting is definitely a plus.”

At the aquarium, Bryant expanded programs and grew the revenue, goals she plans to achieve at her new job. The museum and planetarium, she says, are “two precious gemstones that need polishing so everyone can see them.”

Among the ways she plans to do this is by promoting the value of the museum and planetarium. The museum features the natural history of North Carolina and is the only one of its kind on a North Carolina barrier island. The 85-seat SciDome Theater at the planetarium has state-of-the-art high definition digital projection and a surround-sound system.

“The touch tank is amazing,” Bryant says of a museum attraction. “The high-def of the planetarium and the clarity of it is a phenomenal asset to the community.”

Believing her assets are in leadership, management and team building, Bryant is not daunted by lofty goals and has always been an achiever. At Hobbton High School in Newton Grove she was a “sports fanatic” and excelled in basketball and softball, earning numerous awards for her athletic ability. Her senior year she was named Athlete of the Year and was all-county in both sports. She also graduated with high honors. She had wanted to be a veterinarian and after graduation in 1977 worked as a veterinarian’s assistant.

Instead of pursuing that career, however, she married and worked as a secretary at Sampson Community College (SCC) in Clinton. That’s when she decided to further her education. She said being around the faculty and seeing other people’s successes inspired her to take courses.

“Go to one graduation, and you see the pride people have in what they’ve accomplished,” she says.

Bryant has worn multiple hats throughout her career. She began a family, earned her associate degree in accounting from SCC in 1989 and maintained her secretarial duties. In 1998 she earned a bachelor’s degree in recreation and leisure studies from Mount Olive College. She received her master’s degree in educational media-instructional computer technology from Appalachian State University in 2006.

During these years she continued to work, and when the job of student activities coordinator opened at SCC, she went to the dean of students and said, “Give me a shot at it.” He did.

The position included duties of athletic director, student government advisor and student support services secretary. But she didn’t pursue teaching as a career for a reason.

“My love is going with students outside of the classroom,” Bryant says. “I like the holistic approach.”

While at Sampson Community College, Bryant earned the prestigious Excel Award. This honor is conferred on an employee who has achieved outstanding accomplishments as decided and voted on by peers. Twice she received the Top Campus Award as student government advisor.

After 18 years at the college, Bryant’s life took a turn. She had ended her 21-year marriage and in 2002 married Ronnie Bryant and moved to Mount Airy. She donned a new hat at Surry Community College, adding the title of educational opportunity center coordinator to her resume. In this capacity she worked with residents in Davie and Rockingham counties by providing workshops in job skills, assistance in employment, assistance with general equivalency diploma requirements and college placement for low-income, first-generation college students.

After three years, Ronnie accepted a job at Brunswick Community College, where he is currently director of information technology. Bryant was hired at the Fort Fisher Aquarium, and the couple moved to Wilmington.

Bryant says she had not been to Ocean Isle Beach before she came for her interview at the museum. Her reaction was typical of a newcomer.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” she says of the island. “The first time I came over the bridge, it was breathtaking.”

The Bryants will become Ocean Isle Beach residents in September. Their family ties, however, remain primarily in Clinton, and Bryant says she enjoys going there and playing with her six grandchildren. Her daughter, Rhonda Matthews, 33, and her husband, Dave, have five children. Ronnie’s son, Nicholas, 32, and his wife, Liz, have one son. Ronnie’s daughter, Hannah, 22,
is a nursing student at Sampson Community College.

Bryant’s other daughter, Danielle Norris, 29, is a Delta Airlines flight attendant and is gone too often to care for Dozer, her 80-pound pit bull. Bryant has stepped in to care for the six-year-old dog.

She is also helping Norris plan her August 10, 2013, wedding. It happens that Bryant’s job at the aquarium included renting the facility for events, 85 percent of which were weddings. She plans to promote renting the museum and planetarium for special occasions.

Bryant is excited about the prospects of her new job.

“I felt I could step into the role and do a good job,” she says. “Having worked at the aquarium, I feel I have insight about exhibits, operations and customer service.”

On Bryant’s agenda is bringing interactive technology to the facilities. Instead of simply having static signage explaining the exhibits, she hopes to have web links to give further details. Marketing, outreach, rentals, interactive exhibits and fund-raising are high on her list of topics to expand at the museum and planetarium.

Bryant hopes to reach as many people as possible. Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, are on her agenda to use at their maximum levels. Smartphones and other technologies are available to students, teachers, parents and the community at large and are means to reach even more residents.

Membership in professional organizations such as International Special Events Society is also important to her.

Tom Deacon, a member of the Museum Foundation executive committee, says he’s satisfied the board made the right choice by hiring Bryant.

“Terry has the best credentials, best demeanor and best experience,” he says. “She will take time to get to know us, the staff and the volunteers. I think she will do a wonderful job.”

For now, Bryant is pacing herself and getting familiar with the area and the people.

“My legacy is making people happy, and I feel that’s the ultimate accounting,” she says.

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