A Lasting Legacy: Part 3, Building the University

When Hearn took office, the University was just completing the Sesquicentennial Campaign, which raised a then-phenomenal $20 million. Most of that was raised locally, and Hearn stressed the need to build a national development program. The $150 million Heritage and Promise capital campaign concluded in 1995 with $173 million raised. The Honoring the Promise campaign exceeded its $600 million goal shortly before he left office. The University’s endowment increased from $124 million in 1983 to $812 million in 2004.

In the late 1980s, after R.J. Reynolds donated its former world headquarters building (now the University Corporate Center) to Wake Forest, Hearn initiated the largest building program on the Reynolda Campus since it was constructed. His tenure saw the construction of Olin Physical Laboratory, the Worrell Professional Center for Law and Management, the Benson University Center, Kirby Hall, Greene Hall, the Information Systems Building, and Martin and Polo residence halls; additions to the Z. Smith Reynolds Library and Winston Hall; and an addition to Wingate Hall for the Divinity School, which opened in 1999.

New athletic facilities included the Miller Center, Kentner Stadium, Spry Stadium, and Bridger Field House; Hearn also pushed the city of Winston-Salem to construct a new coliseum, which opened in 1989. The medical school campus was transformed with new research, clinical, and patient-care towers. Reynolda House Museum of American Art became affiliated with Wake Forest in 2002.

In the mid-1990s, Wake Forest implemented the “Plan for the Class of 2000” to enhance the undergraduate experience by offering more and smaller classes and first-year seminars, a development that Hearn at the time called the “most important” of his tenure. Wake Forest became one of the first universities to offer laptop computers to every student and became a leader in information technology. The number of faculty members was increased, and research became more central, even as Hearn affirmed the University’s commitment to the teacher-scholar ideal. The number of students studying abroad increased significantly, and the University’s third study-abroad house, Flow House in Vienna, opened in 1999.

Wake Forest hosted the first Presidential Debate sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1988 and a second debate in 2000, which brought additional national exposure. As Wake Forest became better known and as its academic reputation grew, applications for undergraduate admissions doubled from 1983 to 2005, and undergraduate enrollment grew from 3,100 to 4,100. The student body, which in 1985 was 96 percent white, 60 percent male, and 44 percent North Carolinians, became more diverse. By 2005, females slightly outnumbered males, minority enrollment had grown to 14 percent, and only 28 percent of undergraduates were from in-state. He started the Presidential Scholarship to attract students with talents in the arts and other areas, and the Gordon Scholarship for minority students.

Off campus, Hearn emerged as a force in Winston-Salem at a time when the city was reeling from the loss of traditional industries and leadership. He served as the first chair of Leadership Winston-Salem and Winston-Salem Business, Inc., an economic development group. Late in his presidency, he supported the expansion of the Piedmont Triad Research Park โ€” with the School of Medicine as a major anchor โ€” in downtown Winston-Salem. He also chaired the board of governors for the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was an early advocate of reform and accountability in college athletics and was an original member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics when it was created in 1989.

Amid the tremendous changes that he undertook, Hearn was careful to embrace the University’s past โ€” speaking often of the University’s “removal” from the Old Campus; its “goodly and godly heritage” and of building a “future from our past.” “We should aim to be a greater Wake Forest; we should not seek to imitate some other academic model,” he said often. “What we have to offer to higher education is an academic culture uniquely our own.” He forced Wake Forest to ponder fundamental questions as the University grew: was Wake Forest a Southern university or a national one? A religious school or a secular school? A new school in a new place (Winston-Salem) or the old school in a new place?

Edwin G. Wilson (’43), who served as provost and later senior vice president for much of Hearn’s tenure, said that Hearn’s understanding of the traditions of Wake Forest grew each year. “He came at a time when Wake Forest was changing. We had been in Winston-Salem for almost thirty years, and when Tom Hearn came he wanted to take those traditions and build upon them. He wanted Wake Forest to be a better and stronger Wake Forest. And in the years he was president we saw an unfolding of that ambition.”

Hearn had one final lesson for the class of 1997 in his Commencement speech, as he encouraged them to live lives of Pro Humanitate, to honor those who had been lost that year. “We leave here bearing lives, not just our own, whose promises, aspirations, and ambitions must become ours, lives which live on in us and through us. This is what it means to live, as your diploma says, Pro Humanitate.”


Hearn is survived by his wife, Laura; three children: Thomas, Lindsay, and Will; stepchildren Brys, Hampton, and Forrest; and nine grandchildren. Memorials may be made to the Brain Tumor Center for Excellence at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Office of Development, Medical Center Boulevard, Winston-Salem, NC 27157-1021.

Go to part:

1. A Lasting Legacy
2. The Early Years
3. Building the University


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. Additional stories, photo gallery, and guestbook ยป