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PCC Mourning the Passing of Former President Charles E. Russell

Dr. Charles Russell in the Charles Coburn Center.

PHOTO GALLERY

WINTERVILLE—In Pitt Community College’s 63-year history, only five people have served as its president. One of them was Dr. Charles E. Russell — and he was truly one of a kind.

Russell – better known to friends and colleagues as “Charlie” – passed away Wednesday at age 85, leaving behind a wife, Lorraine, and a legacy of leadership, vision and passion that helped turn PCC into one of the state’s largest and most comprehensive community colleges.

Not bad for a man who grew up on a farm in the tiny Martin County town of Jamesville, which is probably best known for its “Herring Festival” on Easter Mondays. The house of his youth had no running water or indoor plumbing, and throughout his first several years of grade school, he studied by kerosene lantern.

Noted for his down-home humor and quick wit, Russell would kid about the role his upbringing played on his eventual success by saying, “I’ve told folks a tobacco field in July is bound to motivate you to find a better way to make a living.” Indeed, it did.

“Calling upon the work ethic he developed on the farm as a youngster and guided by his Christian faith and dedication to seeing others improve their life circumstances, Dr. Charles Russell poured his heart and soul into helping Pitt Community College become a leader within the North Carolina Community College System,” PCC President Lawrence Rouse said. “I am grateful for his friendship, support and dedicated service to PCC and higher education, in general. Pitt Community College and Pitt County were blessed to have a man of Charles Russell’s integrity in their corner for more than five decades.”

Russell began working at PCC in 1971 as director of Adult Basic Education and Public Relations before becoming then-President William Fulford’s assistant four years later. He was appointed acting-president in November 1982 — after Fulford took a leave of absence due to declining health — and officially became president in February 1984.

Under Russell’s guidance, PCC added 32 curricula and seven new buildings to its main campus in Winterville. He helped start Pitt’s intercollegiate baseball program and led the charge for three major bond referenda that provided funding for construction of classroom and lab facilities.

Perhaps his greatest achievement, though, was the decision he made in 1991 to encourage PCC trustees to spend $2 million in bond revenue to purchase 105 acres from H.L. Bowen’s heirs. That choice proved to be the foundation for much of the growth that is still taking place at the college.

“In the 1980s, we gave up [construction of] a new building to get land,” Russell recalled while reflecting upon his PCC career. “… We’d done a study on projected enrollment and knew we needed land. That was a smart decision back in those days.”

Dr. G. Dennis Massey, who became Pitt’s president when Russell retired in 2003, appreciated the forethought his predecessor demonstrated, as well as his devotion and service to the college throughout his retirement years.

“It’s no surprise that at the groundbreaking ceremony in December 2010 for three new buildings on the Bowen Farm, Dr. Charles E. Russell was right there with shovel in hand — he has been right there for much of the history of Pitt Community College,” Massey once said.

In September 2012, PCC dedicated the Charles E. Russell Building, which was built on the former Bowen Farm property. The 54,000-square-foot academic facility features 24 classrooms, computer labs, study areas, conference rooms, and faculty/staff offices.

While touring the construction site for the building that would soon bear his name, Russell was overwhelmed by the enormity of the structure. It was clear he never assumed his many contributions to PCC would be recognized by means of a building named in his honor.

“You run out of words,” he said at the time. “A lot of young people will be helped in this building by getting an education that will ultimately help them go to work.”

During the Russell Building dedication ceremony, Russell stepped to the podium and laughed as he recalled the good times he had as PCC president, when ‘land surveying’ meant golfing and building relationships with key members of the community. He nearly wept moments later, while speaking about his parents and family and the many blessings he said God had bestowed upon him throughout his life.

“When you think about what we’ve had [at PCC] and what we will have for educational training, it’s amazing,” he said.

On the Russell Building’s second floor hangs a painting of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, a gift to Russell from members of the Hugo Original Free Will Baptist Church he ministered after his PCC retirement. Russell thought it was a fitting tribute, saying: “PCC is a lot like a lighthouse, helping people avoid the rocks and sandbars of life.”

Russell was laid to rest during a graveside service March 10 in Kinston’s Pinelawn Memorial Park.

03/11/2024