Harold J. McGee, the 10th president of the university (1986-99), died Saturday at UAB Hospital in Birmingham. He was 74. Funeral services will be Tuesday at 11 a.m. at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville.
“His legacy is the academics, the accreditations,” said Donald Thacker, who was vice president for administrative and business affairs under McGee. “He really worked on trying to get the various disciplines accredited, and bringing the campus into the computer age.”
McGee’s tenure began with great hopes.
“It was the first time we had ever gone outside and had an open search,” for a president, recalled Bob Kennamer, a former member of the JSU Board of Trustees and chairman of the search committee. Kennamer said that before it was even time for a formal vote, all 14 members of the committee had already picked the tall, quiet Virginian as their man.
But virtually as soon as he took the job in the summer of 1986, McGee had to grapple with proration and a reduced state appropriation.
He took the developments stoically — “Economic downturns are cyclical. We’ll come through this,” he said at the time — and deferred some of his own plans for developing the university.
Kennamer said he handled it well.
“I thought he did an admirable job … he knew how to squeeze the budget,” Kennamer said.
He elaborated: “At the time he served, he was exactly what the university needed. He had a very firm grasp of the fiscal aspects of the institution. That’s the thing I remember about him the most.”
A hiring freeze and cutback on travel and deferrable maintenance were some of McGee’s reactive measures to proration and cutbacks. But another way he managed funding problems was to learn all about the funding process. It was a hallmark of his style — he accumulated all the facts he could about a given situation before making a decision.
“He knew an awful lot. He read constantly,” said Thacker.
Doug Ghee, state senator from Calhoun County from 1990-98, worked with McGee consistently to help JSU.
“He was very dedicated to the university and very quickly developed an understanding of Alabama politics.”
And even though McGee found those politics “distasteful,” said Ghee, the new president jumped in and did what he needed to do to help the school.
“He was very honest, very dedicated and very focused and cared dearly about the university,” the former senator said.
Many seemingly mundane features of university life are traceable to McGee’s vision for how the school should serve its students and the community at large.
“He was really strong on improving student services,” Thacker said.
The former vice president said lighted pedestrian walkways, reroofed buildings, safe electrical transformers (old ones contained PCBs), a computerized card catalog and fiber optic cable conduits were just some of the improvements McGee brought about, through either his own ideas or those he sought from others.
In fact, technological improvements became a major theme of accomplishment. The use of compressed video technology to deliver distance learning to sites across the state began with McGee — as did the general use of office computers themselves. When he arrived, typewriters were the norm.
“We’ve invested in a lot of PCs,” the president remarked in July 1998 interview.
But McGee valued knowledge for its own sake.
“He was a scholar and very idealistic when it came to higher education,” said Ghee.
Pete Conroy, director of Jacksonville State University’s Environmental Policy and Information Center, recalled that even just a month ago, McGee was making plans to attend one of the shows at the university planetarium.
“He was a student of the sciences himself,” Conroy remarked, an observation bolstered by anthropology professor Harry Holstein.
“He was supportive of archaeology. I was real excited about that, naturally,” Holstein said.
The JSU Field School program, which has exposed thousands of primary, secondary and college students to northeast Alabama’s natural environment, is also part of McGee’s legacy, Conroy said.
Although the first impression many had of McGee was as a dry academic sort, those who worked with him closely knew he cared deeply about individuals.
“He was not the charismatic person, but one on one he was a caring person,” said Linda Love, McGee’s executive secretary from October ’94 until he retired.
Love said he always told her, “‘You know your family is first.’ For an employer to say that, I admired him. Not all employers look at it that way.”
She said she also remembered that every Halloween, McGee would make it a point to supply his own candy in the office for youngsters visiting from the JSU Child Development Center.
“He always wanted them to come by the president’s office so he could see their costumes,” Love said. “For a man of that stature to stop and make time for those children made an impression on me.
“Sometimes the quieter ones are the ones that feel the most.”