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Vaughn Bryson ‘60 – My Carolina story

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings. As our Carolina family seeks ways to stay connected during these challenging times, board members are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.


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“My parents appreciated the importance of education, because I never heard ‘IF you go to college,’ but ‘WHEN you go to college.’ ”

June 12, 2010

Vaughn D. Bryson ’60.

Thank you for this opportunity.  It is very intimidating, especially after some of the articulate and entertaining presentations by other board members. While this is my story, more importantly, it is also representative of what Carolina offers to first-in-family college students.

I grew up in Gastonia in a blue-collar textile neighborhood. Very few of the people that I attended grade school with went to college. I am especially grateful to my parents who made incredible sacrifices for me to come to UNC. My mother grew up on a farm during the Depression and was a high school graduate; after beautician school, she operated a beauty shop in our home. One example of the sacrifice is that my father, who was considerably older than my mother, had a stroke during the summer before I enrolled at Carolina. To make ends meet, my mother took a job on the first shift of a textile mill and then would work in her beauty shop until 7 at night.

My father, after his dad died, had to quit school at age 10 to go to work to help his family. He also lied about his age and joined the Army, serving in WWI.

But somehow, my parents appreciated the importance of education, because I never heard “IF you go to college,” but “WHEN you go to college.” Another example of their appreciation of education occurred after my mother died at an early age and my father enrolled in a community college at age 70 to get his GED.

I have always been interested in sports and Carolina sports. When I was a boy, I would take a radio into our backyard and pretend that I was “Choo Choo” Justice while listening to the broadcast of Carolina football games. And I would listen to the basketball games when the team was called the White Phantoms.

A family friend, who happened to be a pharmacist, took an interest in me and brought me to Chapel Hill for a football game and a visit to the pharmacy school. At the school, they gave me an impromptu test and upon completion, said that if I enrolled, I would be accepted and would likely qualify for a tuition scholarship. I was elated, without thinking much about whether I wanted to be a pharmacist.

So I came to Carolina in the fall of 1956. It was a pretty exciting time, especially for a sports fan. Jim Tatum, before his untimely death, was building the football program, and the basketball team went undefeated and won the national championship.  I went out for the freshman baseball team and felt fortunate to make the team, since I was the only player who had not participated in fall practice, and I was lucky to be a starter.

After my freshman year, I assumed that my baseball career was over, since no one had attended pharmacy school and played varsity sports in more than 20 years. But in the fall of my sophomore year, one of my roommates (who was on the baseball team) told me that Coach Rabb said that I was going to be the starting first baseman. So I went to the dean of the pharmacy school to ask if it was doable. Dean Brecht was very supportive and helped me adjust my schedule since the pharmacy curriculum was very rigid. One change was to move a chemistry class from the spring of the junior year to the fall of the senior year. Because of her extracurricular activities (like the University concert band), Nancy Faison made the same switch. We were the only two seniors in a junior class and got to know each other in the process. Nancy was also Rho Chi (the pharmacy school equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa), and I could use her help. We had our first date during our final semester at Carolina; ironically, it occurred the night before the pharmacy school senior class made a trip to visit Eli Lilly in Indianapolis.

At that time, you enrolled in pharmacy school as a freshman. You had two electives in four years. In order to play baseball, I took my first elective by correspondence. In my final semester at Carolina, I took the second, a N.C. history course taught by Dr. Lefler. He made it so exciting by assuming that you had read his textbook about N.C. history and therefore devoted his lectures to what was happening in the rest of the world at the same time. I loved it, but it was a real awakening about what I had missed at Carolina.

My Carolina life was focused on pharmacy school, which I wasn’t fond of — e.g., Saturday labs from 8 a.m. to noon — but I couldn’t afford to start over in general college. My other focus was baseball, and I was fortunate to start all three years on the varsity. We had very good teams during that period, tying for the ACC championship my sophomore and junior years and winning the ACC and NCAA regionals my senior year to become the first Carolina team to play in the College World Series. The NCAA regionals happened to be played in Gastonia. I had a good series, and the owner of the local professional team asked if I wanted to play there. I said yes, after the CWS in Omaha.

I had already accepted a pharmacy apprenticeship job in Gastonia. After passing the state board exam, I quit the drugstore to go to work for Eli Lilly. Since the drugstore had let me work and play baseball, I gave them a two weeks notice; otherwise I would have quit the same day — more on that later.

Nancy and I also got engaged the night before I left to join Lilly and were married later that year.

When I joined Lilly in 1961, it was the second-largest pharmaceutical company in the U.S.; the revenues were less than $200 million.  The revenues in 2009 were almost $22 billion, so I was very fortunate to join a growth company in a growth industry.

After a few years in sales (Lilly only hired pharmacists as sales reps), I was selected out of 1,000 sales reps as the guinea pig for a new program in the home office. I found myself surrounded by MBAs who had a much wider range of business skills. So after a year, I applied to the Harvard Business School, was accepted and enrolled.

But when I was awarded a fellowship by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to attend the Sloan Program at either MIT or Stanford, I opted for Stanford because of the liberal arts component and for the opportunities that Stanford provided for Nancy. It was also financially attractive, since the sponsoring company had to pay all of the educational expenses and your salary.

After Stanford, I was fortunate to have an exciting career at Lilly. I worked in every part of the world and in every line of business. I was even parachuted in as chairman of Elizabeth Arden. Many pharmaceutical companies had bought cosmetic companies in the early ’70s. Lilly believed that it could bring pharmaceutical R&D capabilities to skin care; there were also manufacturing synergies. One was that lipsticks are made by the exact same process as suppositories! We also had the opportunity to live in London, which was a wonderful experience for all our family, but especially for our two kids.

When I was named the president and CEO, the press release said that I was the first pharmacist to become CEO since Eli Lilly, a grandson of the founder. That was humorous, since as I described earlier, I was only a pharmacist for two weeks.

In the end, the education at Carolina, along with Stanford, was extremely helpful in my career. In addition to my 32 years at Lilly, I have served on the board of directors of 16 companies, most in the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device industries.

But the most important aspect of my Carolina time is that I met Nancy — my wife, confidant and best friend for 49 years. She has also been a wonderful mother to our two kids, both of whom graduated from UNC. Our daughter now works in the School of Social Work at Carolina. For us, it is always a pleasure to come to these meetings, especially since our only grandchild is here.

Our involvement with Carolina in the past 15 years, after I no longer had a day job, has given us a much greater appreciation for the passion of the faculty and staff to provide educational opportunities for students and to make the world a better place. We feel fortunate to be part of the Carolina family. Thank you.