Students and employees of St. Augustine’s University laid roses in front of President Irving McPhail’s residence Friday morning after learning he had died the night before as a result of COVID-19.
The university community was surprised to learn of McPhail’s passing. After taking over as president on July 15, he quickly became a familiar face on campus until mid-September, when he learned he had been exposed to someone with COVID-19. and quietly went into quarantine, according to James Perry, a retired Florida Supreme Court justice and chair of St. Augustine’s Board of Trustees.
A letter went out via university email on Oct. 12 under the board’s letterhead that said McPhail was “recovering from COVID-19. He is receiving expert care and treatment at a local hospital.
“It is important to note that he did not contract the virus in the SAU community. We continue to take all precautions to ensure that our SAU community remains safe,” the letter said.
It went on to say, “President McPhail has been a strong proponent of face coverings and social distancing. He has regularly communicated with the campus community about SAU’s COVID-19 protocols and expectations, through both formal and informal channels.”
The letter asked that all in the university community adhere to the practices intended to prevent the spread of illness. It said the university was working with Wake County health officials and adhering to protocols on cleaning and contact tracing.
Remote convocation speech
McPhail was the keynote speaker at St. Aug’s annual fall convocation held on Sept. 17. But instead of attending in person at the university chapel, he pre-recorded his address, which was played during the event. A handful of people attended in person, but most watched it online.
Perry said McPhail decided to give the speech remotely because he knew then he had been exposed to someone with the virus. At the time, however, McPhail did not know whether he had COVID-19 himself, Perry said.
After he tested positive and began to show symptoms, McPhail stayed home and took over-the-counter medicines, Perry said. But the weekend of Oct. 3, he had trouble breathing and was taken by ambulance to WakeMed. While there, Perry said, McPhail improved some and then got worse. He was never able to return home, Perry said, and died at the hospital.
Irving Pressley McPhail was named the university’s 12th leader after a national search, with officials highlighting his experience in higher education, urban public school administration and work in the non-profit sector. He also was known for highlighting contributions made by minorities in the STEM field. McPhail, a New York City native, also was founder and chief strategy officer at the McPhail Group LLC.
He was a professor of practice at the Dr. John E. Roueche Community College Leadership Center at Kansas State University. His work focused on connecting “practice, policy, and research in language, literacy, and culture; postsecondary student success; underrepresented minorities in STEM education and careers; and community college leadership,” according to SAU.
He was married to Dr. Christine Johnson McPhail, with whom he had a son and daughter and several grandchildren.
Before coming to SAU, McPhail was the sixth president and CEO at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc., which was awarded the 2012 Claire Felbinger Award for Diversity from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology under his leadership.
At St. Augustine’s, he replaced Everett Ward, who retired in March 2019. Two interim presidents filled the position until McPhail was hired.
‘A safe haven’
In August, McPhail told The News & Observer that the coronavirus pandemic is showing that HBCUs are more important than ever. He spoke with The N&O as students were returning to school.
“Our campus represents for many of our students a safe haven,” McPhail said.
While wealthier students at other universities may be able to afford to take a year off, he said, “My kids want to come back to school.”
He had big goals as the new president. He said he hoped St. Aug’s would hit a milestone enrollment of 1,000 students. He had hopes of launching an institute on the study of racial disparities to be based at the university, which was founded in 1867 and later launched North Carolina’s first nursing school for African American students.
And he said the pandemic and the recent emphasis on racial and social justice issues in America would be incorporated into coursework.
At the end of each workday, McPhail told The N&O, he drove around campus to see whether students were wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from one another. If they were not, he said, he rolled down the window of his car and gently reminded them.
McPhail said he believed science-based guidance would lead the country, and his students, out of the pandemic. But he said he hadn’t forgotten that St. Aug’s was founded by a pastor and a bishop of the Episcopal church.
“I’m happy that St. Augustine’s was founded on religious traditions and prayer,” McPhail told The N&O, “because I’m praying every day.”
Events to honor McPhail have not been announced. Dr. Maria A. Lumpkin, the school’s vice president and chief of staff, will serve as interim president, effective immediately.
On campus Friday morning, about 100 people gathered in the rain, most wearing face masks and dressed in black. They met at the chapel on campus for prayers and to pick up long-stemmed red or white roses, which they carried as they walked to the president’s home nearby.
‘We are a small family’
Rev. Hershey Mallette Stephens and Rev. Sallie Simpson led students and university employees in a single-file procession down the street. They all placed the roses on top of a brick wall in front of the house.
“Here at St. Augustine’s University, we are a small family,” senior Heave Nahra said. “We love and support any Falcon, past present or future.
“We take and we grasp them to the best of our ability, and so it is very important that we’re here to support not only him as our late president but his family as well,” said Nahra, who is also Miss Saint Augustine’s University.
McPhail’s wife stood inside the doorway of the house wearing a face mask with her arms crossed gently over her chest, looking out at those who gathered to pay their respects.
Stephens, the university chaplain, prayed and read scripture to the group outside, and they recited the Lord’s Prayer together before dispersing.
Student leaders said it was important to gather and celebrate President McPhail’s life despite the pandemic.
“Even though he was here a very short time, he still exhibited great leadership, and I think that everyone is going to still strive to be just as good as him, if not even better,” said Aaliyah Williams, president of the Student Government Association.
“We love his wife and we love him and he’ll be a Falcon forever,” she said.
‘We don’t want anyone to feel that they are in danger’
The students said losing such an important leader in the middle of the semester during the pandemic will be a challenge.
“This is a very unfortunate situation,” Nahra said. “However, the university is behind us as students to make sure that we can finish out the year the way it needs to be finished.”
She said students will continue getting their education in “the safest way possible” and build on the steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing and wearing face masks on campus.
“We are going to take the extra precautions,” Nahra said, “however, we don’t want anyone to feel that they are in danger.”
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