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MAKING A MARK: Hampton University President Dr. William Harvey to Retire After 44 Years

Dr. Harvey is the longest-serving president in Hampton University's history and holds one of the longest tenures of any sitting university president in the country.

HAMPTON, Va. — The year was 1978. Jimmy Carter was president. "Shadow Dancing" by Andy Gibb topped the charts. A gallon of gas was as low as 65 cents. 

And Dr. William R. Harvey took the reins of Hampton University, then-named Hampton Institute.

"I'm originally from Alabama, and I wanted to return to the South to work at a predominantly Black school," said Harvey.

"Got my doctorate from Harvard... I was offered a minor administrative position," Harvey said. "All of mentors at Harvard said that I was making a mistake. But I have to follow my North Star, not somebody else's North Star."

That star briefly took him to Fisk and Tuskegee universities before he found his "Home by the Sea."

"If you look at this campus, I think it's the prettiest in the world," said Harvey. "Surrounded by water on three sides... I used to jog along the waterfront, and that was always very, very pleasant."

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"Hampton had such a storied history," he said.

That history started with the vision of the university's founder, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, whose words from 1878 resonate with Harvey.

"He said, 'I want my institution to emphasize two things. One is high academics' -- today that would be called workforce development -- and he said, 'and two, character development,'" Harvey said. "And he said, 'Of the two, character development is more important.'" 

"My parents taught me that meant honesty, respect for oneself, respect for others, trust, and integrity, and responsible personal behavior," said Harvey.

Those values helped define his career and shape his legacy.

"We got four satellites flying as you and I are talking right now," said Harvey. "We got the world's largest proton beam cancer treatment center. We've got a giant antenna that can detect storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, up to 2,000 miles away."

The university itself has grown a lot, too.

"We've been able to build 30 new buildings. We've been able to introduce some 92 new degree-granting programs, including 12 doctorates," said Harvey. "I saw the potential because of the past."

And Harvey was committed to securing a brighter future, overseeing the university's endowment growth from $29 million to $400 million and meeting with every sitting U.S. president over the last four-plus decades. 

The latter move drew criticism over the years.

"I am a political independent. I'm not a Democrat and I'm not a Republican," Harvey said.

"When I was nine years old, my daddy said to me that on the two major parties, he said there are some good people and there are some scoundrels. He said, always support the person that supports your interest," said Harvey. "My interest, outside of my family, is Hampton University."

"And, you know, it really doesn't make me any difference if people don't like it," he said. "A leader is going to be attacked. A leader is going to have people who will rumor on him, gossip on him, and lie on him. So, the thing to do to combat that is do what you think is right and best. And then, let the chips fall where they may."

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Despite his decisive moves and commitment to the university, Harvey said Hampton's success doesn't fall on him alone.

"It's the team that's the dream," said Harvey. "And that's why we've done so well... Collective competence is better than individual competence any day."

A major player on Harvey's team is his wife of 55 years, Norma.

"This is not hyperbole -- she's the very best first lady in the entire world," said Harvey. "She's beautiful. She's gracious. She's just terrific in every, single regard. She has just enhanced Hampton, its reputation, and me." 

He described Norma as his partner in life and in business.

"I am listed as the sole owner of a Pepsi Cola Bottling Company in Michigan," Harvey said. "But the fact is, we went in it together."

And together, said Harvey, they are starting a new chapter.

"I'm building a home for my wife and me right across the river... I want to spend time with my wife and my children and grandchildren," he said. "I'm going to still be here. The board has given me a nice, little suite of offices."

And with his retirement plans, Harvey said he'll still be plenty busy.

"What I've said that I wanted to do was to write," said Harvey. "To get that other book out, to get the book on the inspiration of African American art, to get my memoir, to get my couple of novels that I think I've got in me." 

What he will not do, he said, is retire with any regret.

"I clearly am not perfect," said Harvey. "Some of the decisions I've made probably I could've done differently."

"But I don't think about those things, you know, because what I try to do before I make a decision is I try to look at it," said Harvey. "I try to get input where possible, and then I try to make an informed decision. And once that's done, I don't worry about the consequences."

During his career, Harvey has received more than a dozen honorary doctorates and countless awards, as well as served on numerous boards.

Hampton University reports more than 36,000 students have graduated during his tenure.

His last day in office is June 30.

Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General and Hampton University alumnus Darrell K. Williams will succeed Dr. Harvey as the 13th president.

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