Photograph by Kirk Smith
New Goldey-Beacom president Gary Wirt.
It was 1886. Grover Cleveland was president of the United States, Geronimo surrendered to the U.S. Army to end the Indian wars on the American frontier and the first Coca-Cola (made with cocaine) was sold in Atlanta. In Wilmington, H.S. Goldey opened the Wilmington Commercial College, with an enrollment of five students who signed on to learn the ABCs of the business world.
Now, 129 years later, the school that evolved into Goldey-Beacom College is headed in a new direction under a new leader. Dr. Gary Wirt was chosen as the 13th president of the school in Pike Creek Valley and has been charged with taking Goldey-Beacom into the 21st century by expanding its curricula and horizons.
“It’s the next logical step for us,’’ Wirt says. “Goldey-Beacom has always been about meeting the needs of our student population, and it’s clear to us that students today want more. And that’s what we are going to give them.’’ But Goldey-Beacom doesn’t want to forget its roots and primary mission—to give worthy students an affordable education. “We want to grow, but we have no plans to become a university,’’ Wirt says. “We don’t want to lose that small-school atmosphere where personal relationships are so important. That’s what Goldey-Beacom is all about, and we can never lose sight of that.’’
Goldey-Beacom now has an enrollment of about 1,600 students from 19 states and more than 60 nations. The school moved from its cramped Wilmington location to its 24-acre Pike Creek campus in 1974 and offers degrees in psychology, English and criminal justice along with various business degrees. There are plans to add more courses and degrees in the future. Wirt succeeds Dr. Mohammad Ilyas, who had been president for the last 18 years. Ilyas initiated many of the changes that Wirt is charged with continuing, including the school’s endowment, which was about $2 million when Ilyas took office and is about $100 million as he leaves it. “I’ve been grooming Gary for this position for a long time now,’’ Ilyas says. “I’ve always been impressed with Gary’s intelligence and personality and his positive outlook about everything. I had total confidence in him, and there was no question in my mind that when my time came to retire, he was the one I wanted to see in this office.’’
Wirt had to climb a long ladder to get there. A native of Old New Castle, Wirt earned a degree in psychology from North Carolina University and began work in the mental-health field. But he still had student loans to repay and, looking for part-time work, he became an adjunct instructor at Goldey-Beacom in 1973. He soon fell in love with academia in general and Goldey-Beacom in particular. “The school had such a family feel to it that I knew I wanted to be a part of it in some permanent fashion,’’ Wirt says. He eventually became a professor and finally joined the college on a full-time basis in 1988. After serving as dean of students and vice president for student affairs, Wirt was named vice president of external affairs in 1997, a title he held until he was named to succeed Ilyas.
John J. Patterson III, chairman of the board of trustees, is a college alumnus. As a graduate, he has been involved in Goldey-Beacom’s affairs over the years and was delighted when Wirt was elected as its new president. “It was important for us that the next president had an appreciation for the past and the traditions of the school, and was also able to lead us into the future, Patterson says. “Gary has the ideal background for that.” Patterson cites Wirt’s longtime connection to the school and his commitment to its growth. “He’s a bright and personable guy who has proven that he can work with people and get things done,” Patterson says. “When Dr. Ilyas announced that he was going to step down, it was obvious to everyone involved that Gary Wirt was the absolute perfect choice to succeed him.’’