Education

Coronavirus kills 'transformative' St. Aug's president

Posted October 15, 2020 11:35 p.m. EDT
Updated October 17, 2020 11:37 a.m. EDT

— St. Augustine's University said Friday that Irving Pressley McPhail, the school's 12th president, has died from complications from a coronavirus infection.

The school first announced McPhail's death on social media Thursday night.

James Perry, chairman of the university's Board of Trustees, said Friday that the 71-year-old McPhail contracted the virus off campus a few weeks ago, had serious swings in his health since then and died at WakeMed.

"We got reports he was getting better, getting better. Then, all of a sudden, a complete reversal," Perry said.

"Everyone he came into contact with was quarantined," he said. "One person he did come into contact with tested positive. That person has recovered and returned to work."

Flags on the Raleigh campus were lowered to half-staff, and faculty and students lined up in the rain Friday to leave flowers at the president's residence in tribute.

"It was just like losing a father," student body president Aaliyah Williams said. "[He was] one of the best leaders I've ever worked under. It was very heartbreaking."

McPhail took the virus seriously and advocated for strict safety protocols on campus, Perry said.

"Anyone can catch it, so you have to be very, very vigilant in terms of who you interact with, how you interact, and you must wear the mask," Perry said.

He described McPhail as a big man with a big presence, accomplished yet approachable.

"He had wisdom. He had gravitas. He was qualified educationally and emotionally," he said. "This guy was the complete package. He was everything we dreamed of."

McPhail had a long, distinguished career in higher education as a professor and administrator at schools in Baltimore, St. Louis and Memphis before arriving at St. Aug's in July. He also was a former president and chief executive of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering and was known for working to lift minority students into STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

"We viewed him as a transformative leader," Perry said. "He had all the qualities that you could immediately sense were incomparable. Once you were in his presence, you could feel it. He had the strength, humility, wisdom and intelligence and a huge vision with an action plan to steer us there, so that's a great loss."

On Twitter and Facebook, a statement read:

"In the short time he was the university’s chief executive officer, he made a memorable and positive impact in moving the University in the direction of being a 'learning centered' campus. The Saint Augustine’s University community deeply mourns the loss of President McPhail, and we wish to extend to his wife, Dr. Christine McPhail; his children Dr. Kamilah McKissick and Mr. Ralph Bessard; family and friends left to cherish his memory our deepest condolences and prayers."

Other area historically Black schools offered condolences to St. Aug's students and staff.

A message from North Carolina Central University sent "heartfelt thoughts and prayers" to the school community, while Shaw University's president issued a statement that said, "Our hearts are heavy for all HBCUs when we have a fallen leader."

St. Aug's is still working out details of a memorial service for McPhail.

Perry said the Board of Trustees will begin a search for McPhail's successor. Vice President Maria Lumpkin has been named interim president.

"We will build a springboard from whence [McPhail] had laid the groundwork, and we'll spring from that bigger, better and stronger," Perry said.


An earlier version of this story listed McPhail's age as 74. Originally, this was the age provided by school administrators. The school has corrected his age to be 71.  

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