Dr. Dean Wallace Colvard has truly lived the American Dream. Born in 1913, high in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina, he was raised in a house with no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no running water. Yet this was the Progressive Era in America when the country was brimming with idealism. This philosophy, imprinted on Colvard at an early age, resulted in a lifelong commitment to equity and opportunity.

He became the first member of his family to go to college. He entered the work-study program at Berea College in Kentucky, with $100 in his pocket. Upon graduation, he was hired by Brevard College as work-study farm manager, instructor, and director of student work.

In the spring of 1937, Colvard was awarded a research assistantship at the University of Missouri. Later that year, he became superintendent of the 300-acre state agricultural research farm at Swannanoa, N.C. In 1946, he secured a fellowship at Purdue University where he studied agricultural economics, then joined the N.C. State faculty, receiving his doctorate in 1950. Three years later, Colvard was appointed dean of agriculture, becoming one of the youngest agriculture deans in the country.

In 1960, Colvard was offered the presidency of Mississippi State University. He knew that Mississippi was a racial powder keg, but liked the welcome he got in Mississippi, so he accepted. As the first non-Mississippian president in the University’s 82-year history, Colvard was asked to rejuvenate the school and give it pride, which he did by promoting initiative and accountability and instilling a new sense of mission.

During his tenure, Dr. Colvard made the courageous decision to allow the MSU basketball team to travel to Loyola of Chicago to compete in the 1963 NCAA tournament against a team with African-American players. Previously, MSU had won three straight Southeastern Conference Championships, but was always barred by Mississippi tradition from going on to the NCAA and competing against integrated teams. This unwritten rule had never been tested until Dr. Colvard took a stand and decided to send the players and face the consequences. Tensions were rife on campus and in the community, but Colvard, in a series of clever strategic moves, well documented in the March 10, 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated, defied a court injunction and spirited the players out of state, striking a bold move for integration.

Ready for a new challenge, he became chancellor of a new university to be created out of Charlotte College, then a junior college, the following year. Creating UNC Charlotte, Colvard secured regional and national accreditation for its programs, helped create a 3,200 acre University Research Park, launched graduate programs, promoted faculty research, built a basketball program that took the men’s team to the finals of the NIT and the NCAA tournaments in consecutive years, oversaw construction of residence halls that gave what had been a commuter school an on-campus community, and expanded enrollment from 1,700 to 8,705.

He retired in 1979, and helped build two other institutions; the School of Science and Mathematics at Durham, and Discovery Place, Charlotte’s popular hands-on science museum.