After nearly two decades as the president of Cape Fear Community College, Dr. Eric McKeithan will retire at the end of the week.
On June 25, over 350 college employees and retirees gathered for a retirement party to bid farewell to CFCC’s fourth president, described as a “transformational leader” who guided the institution out of stagnation to become one of the most dynamic colleges in the state.
McKeithan’s unconventional arrival at the event set the tone for the evening, which was highlighted by surprises, humor and sentiment. Instead of being picked up by a limo or taxi, he and his wife Bernetta got a surprise when one of CFCC’s 18-wheelers idled outside of their house to drive them to the party.
McKeithan said that although he’d been president of two community colleges with a truck driver training program (Caldwell and Cape Fear Community College), he’d never actually ridden in a big rig, and was thrilled to have finally had that experience.
Upon arrival, the couple was greeted by a crowd of guests made up of current and retired employees who gathered on the front lawn of the Emmart and Burnett buildings on Water St.
An evening of dinner and dancing took place under three tents behind the college’s buildings along the Cape Fear River.
After dinner, several speakers described their time working with Dr. McKeithan as a “rocket ride.” Throughout the 18 years under McKeithan, the college campus and academic offerings have dramatically expanded.
Former dean of technical education Bob Philpott remarked that in his first year as dean in 1995, he didn’t realize that starting eleven new academic programs in one year was something that no other community college had done before.
“I just figured that’s the way all community colleges worked,” Philpott joked.
As McKeithan took the microphone, he credited all the employees and other supporters who had helped make the college what it is today and said he looks forward to seeing the college continue to flourish.
After the formal remarks, the crowd danced to beach music, a favorite hobby that McKeithan and his wife are well known for around the college.
As the sunlight faded on the horizon over the Cape Fear River, McKeithan and his wife boarded one of the college’s small boats for a short river cruise before heading home.
Looking back on his initial decision to come to CFCC, McKeithan knew that it would be a challenge. When he arrived in 1994, the college was still reeling from the fallout of a scandal during the mid-1980s, suffered from poor employee morale, a challenging financial outlook and a general loss of confidence from the local community.
The struggles of those early days are now long gone. With the continued support of the local community, CFCC is thriving. Enrollment has grown to nearly 30,000 students a year, new classroom buildings are under construction and additional programs are on the horizon.
He considers the success of the 2008 $164-million bond referendum a strong indication of how far the college has come.
“The greatest sense of accomplishment I have is that Cape Fear is a very a strong institution. When voters went to the polls like they did in 2008 and approved a $164 million bond referendum when gasoline was $4 a gallon, the stock market had tanked and when companies were closing and laying off workers, that’s an indication that the college is doing what it’s here to do,” McKeithan said.
“The gratification for me is seeing graduates getting good jobs and moving on to four-year universities to change their lives,” McKeithan said.
When asked if he had any regrets, he stated only one.
“I wish I had come to Cape Fear sooner,” McKeithan said.
McKeithan says he knows that the new president, whoever that may be, will really enjoy working at Cape Fear Community College. “CFCC has unprecedented support from the community.” He spoke of the rapid growth of the college, and the construction of the new buildings. “This is an ideal environment.”
“I can’t wait to see what happens next,” McKeithan said.
McKeithan’s last day at work is Friday, June 29.