The man who led a college to university status, who fielded the school’s first football team, who set the stage with academic programs and structures like the University Center for the Valdosta State University that South Georgia knows today, has passed.
Dr. Hugh C. Bailey died Friday night at South Georgia Medical Center. He had been hospitalized the past couple of weeks. During this past week’s groundbreaking for VSU’s Health Sciences and Business Administration building, participants were asked to applaud loud enough so Hugh Bailey could hear the cheers in his hospital room.
Bailey was 83 years old.
“Every president leaves his or her unique mark in a university’s history,” said VSU President Dr. William McKinney. “It is rare, however, to find a mark so transformative as President Bailey’s. Dr. Bailey’s legacy on our campus is apparent not only in its physical structure, but also in its spirit of strong community that we all value so highly. He set the high standard against which all future VSU presidents have been judged, and for his vision and leadership I will always be thankful.”
Serving as Valdosta State’s president from 1978-2001, it’s almost impossible to fathom Bailey’s accomplishments within the university and the community.
As state Sen. Tim Golden said Saturday morning, “a simple quote doesn’t do Dr. Bailey justice.”
Elected to the General Assembly in 1990, Golden worked closely with Bailey to move Valdosta State College to university status. The push became a brutal legislative battle as the then all-powerful state House Speaker Tom Murphy was opposed to making Valdosta State a university.
Golden spent so much time working with Bailey to achieve university status, he told the college president, “‘You must think I’m part of your staff.’ Dr. Bailey told me, ‘No, you’re not on my staff. You’re like family. I think of you like my son.’ So, I started calling him Dad.”
Valdosta State achieved university status, making the official change to Valdosta State University on July 1, 1993.
In 2001, Bailey told The Times that by becoming a regional university, Valdosta State could have a farther-reaching positive impact on more students and that made for a stronger community.
“Education more than any other factor is key to economic and social development,” Bailey said. “More than any other institution, we are responsible for seeing that this region of the state receives the education it needs. We have to be the prime moving force for economic and cultural development in our region of the state, and if we fulfill that mission, then this institution should continue to grow and increase in stature.”
Former interim VSU President Dr. Louis Levy worked many years with Bailey. Levy said Saturday that Bailey was key in developing the programs and infrastructure to ensure this philosophy. Bailey set the stage for instituting doctoral programs, developing the buildings and infrastructure to house new and growing programs and an ever-increasing student body.
“Dr. Bailey made us into a modern university,” Levy said. “... He was an unusual man who had an unusual career. He spent over two decades leading Valdosta State as a college and as a university. That type of tenure is unusual for a college or university president these days.”
Bailey oversaw the creation of the Valdosta State football team. He initiated numerous building, renovation, and addition projects on campus. Levy said Bailey was most proud of acquiring and developing a former North Patterson Street shopping center into the University Center.
“The University Center is vintage Hugh Bailey,” Levy said. “... He would set his mind to a goal and he was very persistent.”
Some might say indomitable.
Bailey looked frail for many years. He once told The Times he suffered a sickly childhood, battling polio. But his appearance was deceiving. He was a man of will and energy. As university president and into retirement, he began his days with an exercise regimen to keep in shape, to make his body limber, so he could perform the many tasks which his day demanded.
As president, during graduation ceremonies, handing out diploma after diploma, shaking hand after hand, standing, Bailey would be in agony, people close to him often said, but no graduating student would know he was in pain, not from the affirmation of his handshake or the congratulatory smile on his face.
Hugh Coleman Bailey was born July 2, 1929, in Berry, Ala., a small town of less than 400 people then. He came of age in the Great Depression and World War II. He grew up across the street from the town’s two physicians, witnessing their on-call, 24-hour-a-day work ethic. He recalls the town’s main street finally being paved though few if any families had a car. The trains ran east to west. His father worked the railroad. His mother worked at home.
Though isolated from the world, his family was close. Though he was sick and times were tough, his family ensured young Hugh Bailey received the special care he needed.
In this environment, he excelled. At the age of 16, Bailey entered Samford University in 1946. He had plans for accounting or law, but became enthralled by history. In 1950, he graduated with a history degree. He earned his master’s in 1951 from the University of Alabama. In 1954, he had earned his doctorate in history from UA. Bailey was 24.
He took a job as an assistant professor of history and political science from1954-56. In ’56, he became associate professor. In 1959, he became a full professor, at the age of 29.
Being younger than many of his students gave him a novel perspective into teaching and later administrating.
“I was younger than most of my students throughout much of my teaching career,” Bailey once told The Times. “Of course, I truly believe that the young do lead the young. I related well to the students and I had good people with whom to work.”
One former student caught his eye. Ahledia Joan Seever. In March 1962, he asked this former student on a date. In May 1962, he proposed. She accepted. They married Nov. 17, 1962, and the former student became Joan Bailey.
By the late ’60s, Bailey rose to Samford University’s chairman and department head of the Division of Social Sciences. He was promoted in 1970 to dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
In 1975, the Baileys, which included daughters Debbie and Laura, moved to Florence, S.C., where he became Francis Marion College’s vice president of academic affairs.
On July 1, 1978, Hugh C. Bailey became the sixth Valdosta State president.
His accomplishments as Valdosta State president changed the course of the university and the South Georgia community, according to area leaders.
“We wouldn’t be a world-class university today without his stamp,” Golden said.
Yet, it wasn’t just Bailey’s perseverance and vision, it was his patience, kindness and graciousness that made him such a remarkable man.
“He was like a father to a whole bunch of us,” Levy said. “He was like a father to us.”
With wife Joan, the Baileys were like parents then grandparents to thousands of students, faculty, staff and other members of the community. Yet, humility accompanied his graciousness and generosity.
As he told The Times in 2001, “Much of the work that has been accomplished during my watch as president would have happened regardless. The only thing I did was not hinder it. The president is here to support the initiatives. It is the committees and other groups that work to get things changed.”
Yet, as so many people reflected on his passing Saturday and will likely note in the coming days, many of the good things about Valdosta State and Valdosta itself would not be possible but for Dr. Hugh C. Bailey.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, at Christ Episcopal Church. The family will receive friends on Monday, October 8, 2012 at the Carson McLane Funeral Home. In lieu of flowers, memorials to the Hugh C. Bailey Scholarship Fund at the Valdosta State University Foundation. Condolences to the family may be conveyed online at www.mclanecares.com.