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Massey Award winner profile: Homemade goodness

“OK brother,” Ronald Wesley Hyatt said as he swung open the door to his office in Woollen Gym and pointed at the donkey’s head hung above his desk. Then he gestured toward his chair. “The other half goes right there.”

He’s a country boy from Dillon County, S.C., sure enough, but don’t be fooled by his fooling. This man is no jackass.

What he has been for this University for more than three decades now is a workhorse who needs no lash.

John E. Billing, a professor and coordinator of Sports Administration with an adjoining office in Woollen, described Hyatt as a visionary who never runs out of ideas. Or the energy to make them happen.

“He loves this campus and he loves this University and he’ll do anything to make it a better place,” Billing said.

And this spring, the University recognized Hyatt and his mountain of achievements when it named him one of five C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award winners.

“I consider it one of the highest honors I have ever received if not the highest honor,” Hyatt said. “To be recognized for loving your University, man, that is like a double dipping of peach ice cream on a hot day. Homemade peach ice cream, son, homemade.”

Planting seeds

With his James Dickey drawl and Charles Kuralt folksiness, you can imagine him playing opposite Bert Reynolds in some vintage car-chase movie from the 1970s. You can imagine him, too, in a scene out of Mayberry, maybe swapping a joke or two with the boys down at Floyd’s barbershop.

What is harder to imagine is all that he has managed to accomplish in the three decades he has worked on behalf of this campus, this county and this state.

The award citation states that Hyatt’s record of service is a product of his “can-do-and-glad-to-do-it” willingness to take on whatever task asked of him.

He worked nine years on the Orange County Recreation Advisory Board and served as chair of the N.C. Parks and Recreation Legislative Committee, which worked to pass a $35 million bond issue for state parks and a State Trust Fund.

He has also served on the Governor’s Council on Fitness and Health and the Governor’s Task Force on Cardiac Health and Stroke Prevention.

In May, the N.C. High School Athletic Association named him among the group of citizens who had contributed the most to high school athletics over the past 50 years.

In June, he finished a one-year stint as president of the Chapel Hill Rotary Club.

And since 1992, he has become a familiar figure in academic processionals as the University’s faculty marshal.

No list could be written nor any award crafted to capture the full sweep of his contributions.

But if you want to see proof of Hyatt’s green thumb for service all you need do is drive out with him to Carolina’s Faculty and Staff Recreation Association — better known as “The Farm” — east of campus.

The office is still an old farmhouse. Inside it Hyatt greeted Nancy Campbell, the longtime accountant, and Ben Allred, the new manager.

“Dr. Hyatt was a very active member, and we’d love to have him rejoin,” Campbell quipped as she and Hyatt looked through old records.

More than three decades ago, organizers signed a lease that gave the association rights to use the land for 99 years for a dollar.

Given that, it would appear Hyatt was overpaid when he signed on as the organization’s first president for a whole dollar for a single year. Don’t fret it, Hyatt said, “They never paid me.”

As Campbell flipped through the pages of records, Hyatt mentioned the names of people such as Alice Ingram and Jack Simmons, whom he will tell you did far more than he.

Ingram was the one who got faculty members together to push for this, Hyatt said. Simmons was a young fellow Hyatt knew from the intramural program. He was supposed to stay on as director for three years while getting his master’s degree. “Twenty-five years later he left,” Hyatt said.

To Hyatt, it was one of the best examples of faculty and staff working together for a common cause. “There was little support from administration. The idea and the efforts came from faculty and faculty families,” he said.

They came out that first year with machetes and axes to attack the overgrowth of kudzu. “We cut, we said bad words, cut some more, then we had a picnic on the grounds,” Hyatt said.

And then it dawned on them, as they sat there sweating and eating and looking at all the work still left to do, that maybe what they needed was a bulldozer, Hyatt said.

In Hyatt’s personal dictionary, hard work and great fun seem to carry the same meaning.

“There were so many things that needed to be done, and I enjoyed working with people to get ’em done,” Hyatt said. “And they were fun. We were small in number and our salaries were not great but our camaraderie was.

“It was a different world. We knew each other, and we knew our administrators on a first-name basis. The campus was just filled with opportunities to help others, and we were glad to respond.”

The original goal was to get 100 families to join.

Today, the number of families is climbing up to 800.

The Farm was just one of the many seeds Hyatt planted, nurtured then stood aside to let others grow.

He planted the seed — or in this case the bug in the ear — to get state officials to open a State Employees Credit Union in Chapel Hill.

As Hyatt remembers it, “We went over and asked the people in Raleigh, `Will you come to Chapel Hill?’ and they laughed at us a little bit. I told the fellow in Raleigh, `If you will come to Chapel Hill, I’ll rent a pickup truck, and I’ll drive you and your equipment over here.'”

The director laughed a little bit, too, but it so happened that the director had gone to Carolina. The credit union opened in the basement of the Smith Building until it grew out of it and into the building on Pittsboro Street.

Poor but privileged

After all these years, Hyatt still has a soft heart for this place, not a big head about all that he has done for it. He still is mindful of how grateful he should be for just being here.

His father passed away when he was in fifth grade, and he grew up in a three-room “shotgun house” — so named because of the central hallway that cut through its length. Keep the doors open at both ends, and you could fire a shotgun through it.

Hard times had been a part of South Carolina living since the Civil War. In the 1920s, they got harder when cotton fell to 4 cents a pound and tobacco to 3 cents. They didn’t get any better for Hyatt growing up in the middle of the Depression.

They were poor, no doubt, Hyatt said, but rich in the things that counted.

“I was privileged,” Hyatt said of his upbringing. “Thanks to the good people of my hometown and my church and my high school, I was able to finish high school and go to college.”

For Hyatt, sports would prove to be a different kind of salvation. Name the game, and he played it. He would go on to make a career out of teaching and studying the science of it. And that career ultimately led him north of the border to that other Carolina.

As he tells it, he did his master’s here back in ’58 and ’59 and fell in love with the place, then got all married up and went off to the mountains around Asheville to teach and coach football. He came back east to teach at Atlantic Christian (now Barton College) in Wilson before landing at Campbell University — “the Harvard of Harnett County” — for two years. He ended up back at Carolina in 1966.

Even when he was off from work he was off working. As a deacon and Sunday School teacher at University Baptist Church. As a PTA president and Cub Scout leader. And as a member of one board after another — from the credit union to the UNC Dance Club to the Chapel Hill Museum.

He kept busy weekends, too, spending 41 years in the N.C. National Guard before retiring as a colonel. Part of that time was spent as commandant of the N.C. Military Academy, which trains and commissions officers for the National Guard. Among its notable graduates is Dick Baddour, the University’s athletics director.

The University is a liberal-leaning campus, Hyatt knows, but he does not feel in the least bit out of step with it or the many here who march to his left.

“I love them all, brother. Them’s my people,” Hyatt said. “I go from them who wave the flag to them who stomp on it. They’re all my people, brother. They all need to have a place to swim or hit a tennis ball or a place to go for a good loan on a house.”

Head of the herd

Perhaps no job better fits Hyatt or reveals more about him than the one he performs every year as faculty marshal, out front and leading processionals as if each one was another project that needs a little pushing to get started.

Hyatt found out about the assignment from former Chancellor Paul Hardin in 1992.

“He came down to Woollen Gym — I will never forget it — and said, `An advisory group has said they want you to consider being the faculty marshal.’ I was overwhelmed, and I said, `Chancellor Hardin, I’ll name you 15 people right now who deserve this honor more than I do and who have led and loved this University in a much higher manner than I have.’

“I started naming them and he said, `Whoa, whoa, they didn’t name them, they named you.'”

And so right before the Bicentennial celebration he became faculty marshal.

“I must tell you that was a very, very high honor,” Hyatt said. “I do it with love. I try to do it with bearing. I try to do it with a sense of obligation and duty, but sometimes we still have fun. Even in the rain. When it’s raining on you, why cry. You only add to the water.”

Longtime physics professor Larry Rowan said Hyatt tends to the job with just the right mixture of humility and aplomb. “It’s a monumental task to try to herd faculty colleagues into orderly columns so that they look reasonably well organized as they enter the stadium on Commencement Day,” Rowan said. “He has done it with humor and graciousness.”

Said Hyatt: “You have to recognize it’s the students’ graduation and yet you want some modicum of decorum,” Hyatt said. “It’s a regal occasion, and there should be a dignity and honor paid to it. I’m old fashioned. I love the rites and rituals of an institution. They connect us to the past, and we have a rich heritage that they connect us to.”

He knows it’s “a little bit different,” but every University Day he walks over to Memorial Hall and stands there reading the list of people who died in service of Carolina. He walks over to the Davie Poplar, too, to stand and “pay a little bit of homage.”

“It’s a bit sophomoric, but I do it every year,” Hyatt said.

Several years back, he wrote a letter to retired Provost Dick Richardson, insisting that the “high honor” of serving as faculty marshal needs to be shared.

Hyatt said Richardson wrote back, “`Of all the things that don’t need to be retrofitted, that do not need to be reorganized, that do not need to be changed at all is the faculty marshal. Ron, you came in with me and you are going out with me.’ I sat there and laughed at that letter and I said, `What an honor to be associated with a man like that.'”

He will turn 67 at the end of the month, old enough, he says, to think seriously about not buying green bananas. Just don’t expect him to talk seriously of retiring. Not now, not when there is so much left inside of him to get out and so much work left out there to do.

He wants to write the 60-year history of the University’s Exercise and Sport Science Department.

He is developing an online course on the Olympics, and prior to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, he will travel to Sydney to present papers and preside over a symposium of the Scientific Congress of the Olympics.

He has been working for years on a history of sports in the American South. He’d like to finish it. “I’ve had my good friends tell me there is no such thing as sports in the American South, but I think I can convince them there is.”

And there are still his classes, still the students he still loves to teach.

So why quit work you still love?

Why say goodbye to people you will miss?

Why leave a place that’s home?

“We’ve got a great University here, but we can’t rest on our laurels.”

And neither, rest assured, will he.

“We have a great role to fill in our state, and we do it by serving in a variety of ways. I’m grateful I was given the opportunity to do so, to say thank you. As James Brown said, `I feel good.'”


Originally published by University Gazette: Aug. 16,2000

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