In the pantheon of Wake Forest presidents, Hearn was more like a Harold W. Tribble with a single-minded focus — making Wake Forest a national university (Tribble’s focus was moving Wake Forest to Winston-Salem) — than his own personal favorite Wake Forest president, William Louis Poteat (1877), a biologist who established Wake Forest’s tradition of academic independence in the 1920s and whom Hearn frequently quoted. Hearn’s twenty-two-year tenure matched Poteat’s tenure as the longest-serving president in Wake Forest history.
Most alumni and students saw only the public side of Hearn, but those who got to know him knew him as a man who was introspective and humble, a visionary and a gentleman, with strong moral values and a robust sense of humor. He was a philosopher who often quoted the poetry of Robert Frost and Wake Forest’s Archie Ammons (’49).
Once a year, at Commencement, he shared his innermost thoughts in his Commencement addresses. The speeches grew increasingly personal in his later years as president as he spoke movingly of the lives of his mother, father, and a favorite uncle, and of his health scares following heart surgery in 1995 and the brain surgery in 2003. Two months before his death, he completed a book of his Commencement speeches, which he titled On this day of endings and beginnings.
“I discovered that the more I was able to convey my heart — as well as my head — the better able I was to connect with my audience,” Hearn wrote in the preface to the book. It was “a good opportunity for me to reflect a more personal glimpse of who I was, what I was most interested in, and what was important to me as a person.”
A native of Alabama, Hearn graduated from Birmingham-Southern College with a degree in English and philosophy and earned a divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University. He taught philosophy at William and Mary for ten years before joining the faculty at the University of Alabama-Birmingham in 1974 to start the philosophy department. There he quickly rose up the administrative ranks, to dean of the School of Humanities, vice president, and finally senior vice president for non-medical affairs.
He was just 45-years-old when he was named Wake Forest’s twelfth president, to succeed the retiring James Ralph Scales. His selection was a reflection of how Wake Forest was already changing; although he had graduated from a Baptist seminary, he attended a Presbyterian church at the time, making him the first non-Baptist selected as president. He would later say that he saw Wake Forest as an embodiment of his own values and belief in Pro Humanitate.
“Tom wrapped himself in Wake Forest,” said Life Trustee Weston P. Hatfield (’41, LL.D. ’96), who was on the trustee committee that selected Hearn as president. “He’d only been on campus once (before he was named president), but from the time he got here Wake Forest was the alpha and omega.”
Just three years into his presidency, Hearn negotiated what was a monumental achievement for that time — securing the University’s governing independence from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Friends told him he should retire then, with his legacy secure. “It was the most difficult decision I faced,” Hearn said in a 2005 interview. “We needed to make this change for the development of the institution. It was a down payment on whether or not we would become a national institution.”
Wake Forest ranked first among regional schools for seven straight years in the late 1980s in U.S. News & World Report‘s annual college guide before being moved to the national universities category in 1994. Since then, Wake Forest has ranked among the top 30 universities in the country every year and was ranked as high as 25th in 1996.
“I don’t think there has been another case of a university that has so quickly burst through the regional ceiling and become a player on a national stage in so short a time,” Hatfield said. “He saw the potential and saw that it could be done. He was a man who set goals, who was a planner, who ignited passion in other people that it could be done.”
The School of Law and the Babcock Graduate School of Management, both struggling in the 1980s, also began earning national recognition. The Calloway School of Business and Accountancy emerged as one of the top undergraduate business schools in the country. Hearn brought the Bowman Gray School of Medicine closer to the University fold, believing that the medical school and the rest of the University would be stronger together rather than separate; the school’s name was changed to the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in 1997. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences added doctoral programs in the biomedical sciences and a master of arts in liberal studies.
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Thomas K. Hearn, Jr., who died on Aug. 18, led Wake Forest to national prominence during his 22 years as president, from 1983 to 2005
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