BAR Awards Profile – Phail Wynn Jr. ’89 (MBA)

2010 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
Phail Wynn Jr. ’89 (MBA)

You have to think that Phail Wynn’s parents had a sense of humor when they named him. Of all the names to pair with a surname of Wynn … And yet, when you look at the accomplishments of Phail Wynn ’89 (MBA), you realize the guy doesn’t know the meaning of the word “fail.”

He went to college at the University of Oklahoma and upon graduation was commissioned a distinguished military graduate. He joined the Army and became a Green Beret. He served a year of active combat in Vietnam when the war was at its most deadly, and he came back alive. But he didn’t spend much time celebrating. After seeing the destruction in Vietnam, he was determined to do something constructive, he said.

The many programs Fayetteville Community College offered at Fort Bragg to help GIs transition back to civilian life fueled his interest in what he calls “the noblest form of recycling” — working with folks to update their skills and prepare for opportunities that would enable them to fulfill their potential. He recognized the field of community college education would allow him to make a difference and help change lives for the better.

A month after he completed his PhD at N.C. State’s College of Education and Psychology in 1977, he accepted the position of assistant to the president of Durham Tech, when it was still an institute and not yet a community college. He was named president three years later. At the time, Durham Tech’s annual enrollment was about 3,500. By the time Phail retired 30 years later, the school was an accredited community college with enrollment of about 25,000 annually.

During his tenure at Durham Tech, he worked proactively with the tobacco companies as they closed down in the early 1980s. He set up programs at Durham Tech to retrain the 3,000 employees who were losing their manufacturing jobs. He took a similar proactive approach with technology companies in ResearchTrianglePark to make sure that Durham Tech offered the courses that would prepare local residents to fill the jobs the RTP companies needed filled. He courted global corporations to encourage them to open branches in Durham and RTP, and made sure Durham Tech had the continuing education courses and corporate development programs to serve the needs of those new businesses.

Phail realized that Durham Tech could serve as a point of entry to the four-year colleges and universities in the Triangle. He worked toward accreditation of Durham Tech as a community college, a goal he achieved in 1986. Then he had time to work on his MBA from UNC Kenan-Flagler, accomplishing that goal in 1989.

Over the years, Phail has received numerous awards, including the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the Meritorious Service Award from the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, N.C.State’s Outstanding Young Alumnus and Kenan-Flagler’s MBA Alumni Merit Award.

Those who have worked with Phail, either at Durham Tech or on one of the many boards he has served on or chairs, marvel at the way he conducts meetings. Wanda Maggart, senior vice president at Durham Tech, envied the way he was able to take care of business at a meeting without referring to notes. She asked him whether he had a photographic memory. “No,” he replied. “It’s called preparation.”

Phail is unfailingly prepared. Whatever he takes on, he studies, he absorbs, and when he addresses the group, he expresses himself eloquently, said Victoria Haynes, CEO of RTI International, who has seen him in action at board meetings. “He’s a natural leader, an influencer and a consensus builder,” she said.

He’s also a jazz aficionado, said Andrea Bazan, president of Triangle Community Foundation whose board Phail chairs. “He always ends any speech or meeting with a quote from a jazz musician,” she said. It’s always sophisticated, on point and often funny.

Everyone who mentions Phail Wynn’s name follows it with a string of superlatives. Except when it comes to his golf game. The best one golfer could come up with to describe Phail’s game was “OK.”

But just as he retired as president of Durham Tech, intent on improving his reputation on the golf course, Richard Brodhead, new to the presidency of Duke University and reeling from the lacrosse incident, asked for help strengthening the ties between Duke and the Durham community. It was another chance to make things better, and Phail couldn’t say no. He had barely finished slicing the cake at his retirement party from Durham Tech when he agreed to take on the role of vice president for Durham and regional affairs at Duke.

The position shows his magnanimous spirit — not only is he still working to make the world a better place, he’s doing it from an office at Duke.