Education

Eddie Dyer retiring from Coastal Carolina University after 39 years

When Eddie Dyer started working on campus there were four buildings. Thirty- nine years later there are more than 104 buildings at Coastal Carolina University. Dyer is retiring as the university’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. Dyer is at one of the original four buildings, the Edward M. Singleton Building, on June 25, 2015.
When Eddie Dyer started working on campus there were four buildings. Thirty- nine years later there are more than 104 buildings at Coastal Carolina University. Dyer is retiring as the university’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. Dyer is at one of the original four buildings, the Edward M. Singleton Building, on June 25, 2015. jblackmon@thesunnews.com

Athenaeum Hall’s tiny kitchen holds a coffee maker, a microwave and a refrigerator stocked with bottles of Pepsi and Mountain Dew.

There’s also a desk for Coastal Carolina University’s second in command, Eddie Dyer.

“Good thing I’m retiring next Monday,” the 67-year-old said, pointing out his easy access to sodas and snacks, “or soon I’d look like a blimp.”

The fat joke is typical Dyer: self-deprecating, funny and without any professorial aura. The setting also seems appropriate. He’s ending his career in one of the four buildings that was on the campus when he first arrived here — in 1976.

“Coastal mirrors Eddie,” said Tim Meacham, the university’s attorney and one of Dyer’s former students. “If you look where Eddie was in ‘76 [and] where Coastal was in ‘76 and you look at where Coastal is in 2015, it’s a mirror image of Eddie.”

Officially, Dyer is the university’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. Unofficially, he’s the school’s historian, manager and presidential sounding board.

A board member keeps his cell number on speed dial. A department chair defers to his guidance on policy questions. Media contact him because he picks up his own phone and can answer budget questions without needing approval from the university’s communications office.

“He’s going to be a very difficult person to replace,” said Coastal President David DeCenzo. “When you look at where Coastal is today, so much of where we are and what we’ve been able to accomplish, he’s been part of that.”

Dyer watched the school expand from a University of South Carolina satellite campus with three halls and a dinky gym to an independent institution with more than 100 buildings and 10,000 students.

Over 39 years, he has held more than a dozen titles, from political science professor to university counsel to women’s golf coach. His kitchen workspace — necessitated by renovations to the executive building — is the 14th office he’s worked from at Coastal.

“I just like it here,” he said last week, when asked why he’s stayed so long. “I feel like I’m supposed to be here.”

Working class roots

Dyer doesn’t have the same pedigree that many local leaders do. He’s not from Horry County, the proudly independent republic where outsiders are sometimes viewed with suspicion by area power brokers.

Yet finding a local official who doesn’t know Dyer is nearly impossible. Apart from his years at Coastal, he has served on the county planning commission, numerous nonprofit boards and he most recently chaired the RIDE III committee that’s planning for the county’s road needs.

Dyer believes he’s been able to immerse himself in so many projects because of his ties to Coastal. Where county and city governments might clash or waterway politics muddy the waters, he said Coastal is seen in a less partisan light.

“Coastal is sort of the Switzerland of Horry County,” he said. “It’s a place where people can come and be neutral and discuss things and try to make peace. So if you’re affiliated with Coastal, you’re kind of neutral.”

Those who have known Dyer for decades say he builds loyalty because he doesn’t present himself as a planning or legal expert, even though he has the right to.

“Most people just see him as, ‘That’s Eddie,’” said Solicitor Jimmy Richardson, one of Dyer’s former students. “They might not be able to say, ‘Mrs. Dyer’s boy,’ [but] he just feels like home.”

Another reason Dyer has blended in well is his background. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in High Point, N.C., during the furniture industry’s heyday. His parents didn’t allow him to look down on others and they lived on modest means themselves. His father was a foreman at a furniture factory and his mother worked as a librarian at an ad agency that designed layouts of furniture for magazines.

A talented athlete with an easygoing attitude, Dyer had no trouble making friends in high school, said his younger sister Donna. Her big brother rode around in a black 1955 Chevy, lip-synched to Motown records and on the dance floor could perform a James Brown-esque split.

“Our whole family is kind of like that,” Donna Dyer said. “Our whole family really is a group of people that don’t take themselves too seriously. So we’ve always had fun.”

Although their house had plenty of laughter, the Dyers did not tolerate mediocrity in the classroom.

Donna Dyer, who is now an assistant dean at Duke University, remembers her mother going to the library and grabbing a shelf of books, taking them home and returning a few weeks later for titles she hadn’t read. She also made her own crossword puzzle dictionary because she thought using the store-bought ones would be cheating.

“We did not get any slack from our parents,” she said.

Eddie Dyer’s early political education came after he’d finished high school, when his father won a seat on the local school board.

Public schools were being integrated during that time and tensions ran high. The Dyers’ phone rang frequently before board meetings.

“It was an emotional time,” Eddie Dyer said. “People vest themselves emotionally in their children’s education, much more so than they do in city council or county council or the state legislature.”

His father struggled with the issue.

“He was a product of his culture,” Donna Dyer said. “He was not the world’s most open-minded person. But I think that’s what we both learned from him. You have to transcend your own biases, beliefs, whatever. When you see this is the right thing to do, you have to do it.”

Coming to Coastal

Eddie Dyer didn’t set out to be a college professor.

He went to Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., on a basketball scholarship, and later earned a master’s in public policy and a law degree from the University of South Carolina.

But he never considered teaching until he started looking for work.

Dyer was studying to be a land use lawyer, but as a research assistant at USC’s government institute, he was asked to interview for a year-long position at a college in Augusta, Ga. The school wanted someone who could teach public administration and pre-law classes. The selling point, however, had nothing to do with academics. It was Dyer’s lifelong passion — golf. He’d grown up near a public course in High Point and spent many hours pacing the fairways and greens. The Georgia college had its own course and faculty automatically received memberships.

“You can go play golf between classes if you want to,” the university president told Dyer. “We don’t care. Just as long as you teach your classes.”

Dyer also learned the president was an honorary member at Augusta National — home of The Masters — and planned to take him to play the hallowed course at least once.

As Dyer drove back up Interstate 20, he had the Georgia job on his mind.

When he returned to Columbia, Dyer was asked to go on another interview. This one was at USC’s campus near Myrtle Beach. He told his supervisors he wanted the Augusta job, but they asked him to stop by Coastal as a courtesy. The school had only been a four-year institution for two years and the job paid less than the Georgia position.

Still, the college leaders’ plans for the place resonated with Dyer. Here was a place just starting out, a fledgling campus looking to build a legacy.

“The only thing I can tell you,” he said, “is that I liked the people here better.”

In the fall of 1976, Dyer started teaching government and pre-law classes at Coastal.

Honing his approach

Dyer soon found the position was more demanding than he’d imagined.

“I came here with all the bravado of youth, thinking I would just walk into the classroom and do my thing,” he said. “The way it turned out, I walked into my first class the day after Labor Day, in 1976, and told that group, an introductory class in political science, told them everything I knew about politics, about government, about constitutional law and about life generally. And I used about 20 minutes. ... All of a sudden it occurred to me that teaching is hard.”

It didn’t take Dyer long to improve his classroom presence.

In his early years, he earned a reputation as the hip young professor, the shaggy-haired guy with a mustache who showed up to class in raggedy bell bottom jeans and sandals.

“It was a hipster look,” said Martha Hunn, Coastal’s public affairs director who met Dyer as a freshman political science major in 1979. “He immediately disarmed the students.”

“It wasn’t like the professor with the tweed jacket and the pipe,” said Meacham, who transferred to Coastal in 1976. “All the students really related to him.”

Apart from his appearance, Dyer connected with students because he spoke about the way government affected them. In his signature course — constitutional law — he challenged them to argue U.S. Supreme Court cases in front of a panel of their peers.

“It helped me think as a young student about bigger issues that were going on in the country,” said Natasha Hanna, a local attorney and one of Coastal’s board members. “He made those cases and classes come to life.”

Dyer added an element to his constitutional law class in 1985. Just after Thanksgiving, he rented a charter bus and took 25 students to hear oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Students were fascinated by the experience. Those cases they’d rehashed in class seemed real. Dyer decided to make it an annual trip, one he’s still taken in recent years even after he stopped teaching.

“He’s never lived in an ivory tower,” Hanna said. “He’s always been down to earth, no matter what setting he’s in.”

Along with teaching, Dyer stepped into coaching in the late 1980s. He did so to bail out an athletics director who needed to start a women’s golf team with no budget, no athletes and no coach.

Coastal was required to add another women’s sport to maintain its Division I status. Since Dyer played golf and the school needed a coach, he agreed to help.

Dyer recruited women who’d played softball or volleyball. He bought five starter sets of clubs and found three tournaments that would allow them to play. The school maintained its status.

“We didn’t finish last every time,” he said. “That’s the most challenging job I’ve had at Coastal.”

A Coastal family

Along with his career, Dyer’s personal life is also intertwined with Coastal. It’s where he met his wife, Cynthia.

In early 1980, she was a one-woman theater department, directing plays as well as teaching acting and speech.

She had noticed the 6-foot-4 bachelor with dark hair, but the two traveled in different orbits, her in all things theater and him in political science, golf and recreational softball.

The reason they met is because she had planned to spend a Friday night hanging out with her roommate, who forgot their date and agreed to have dinner with a philosophy instructor. Cynthia Dyer insisted that the meal be a foursome and her guest would be Eddie Dyer.

There was one catch. No one had spoken to Eddie Dyer. Her roommate ultimately was the one who asked him to join them.

“I had the best time with him,” Cynthia Dyer said. “He was tall and handsome and athletic and all those things I like in a guy. But he was funny and sweet and he listened. He was interesting, a very intellectual and witty guy. Not an entertainer, per se, but loved to laugh. I loved that about that Eddie.”

Their first official date as a couple was at a high-end restaurant after Coastal’s graduation. The setting was so formal that she struggled to relax. Eddie Dyer sensed this, so when the maitre’ d wasn’t looking he got on his knees, dragged his knuckles and did his best impression of a baboon.

“That may be the moment I fell in love with him,” she said. “That changed everything between me and Eddie.”

They married in 1981.

The couple raised a son, Emerson, and a daughter, Hilary, in Quail Creek, a subdivision beside the campus.

The children grew up going to Chanticleer ballgames and university ceremonies, watching the campus transform.

“Coastal’s been a huge part of our lives,” Emerson Dyer, 32, said. “Looking back, I have a lot of memories in all those buildings, especially the old ones.”

“It’s become an extended family,” said 29-year-old Hilary Dyer Brannon. “Because all those people have watched me grow up, too.”

One vote away

While Eddie Dyer has mostly fond memories from Coastal, his tenure has not been without struggles.

The greatest of those came in 2006-2007 during his unsuccessful bid to become Coastal’s president. The board of trustees was bitterly split during that period, with one faction supporting outgoing president Ronald Ingle’s choice, DeCenzo, then the dean of the college of business, and the others backing Dyer.

“It was a very contentious election,” Dyer said. “The former administration divided the board into sheep and goats. The goats were not happy with the way things were going, and they asked me to be their candidate.”

The debate grew so heated that then-Gov. Mark Sanford even called a board member and urged him to resolve the situation, Dyer said.

With neither side budging, the two men sought a resolution.

The way Dyer and DeCenzo tell it, they agreed to meet for breakfast at Wild Wing. Over five hours, they mapped their strengths and weaknesses out on a notepad. An audit had shown Coastal’s finances were a mess and those problems had to be fixed. The university also needed to restore its reputation among state lawmakers.

DeCenzo took on the external role of working with legislators and finding donors. Dyer took the in-house challenges, resolving policy disputes, budget crunching and managing university operations.

Since DeCenzo had one more vote on the board, Dyer took the No. 2 spot.

“A lesser man that didn’t get the job could have walked away easily and gotten a job somewhere else as a college president,” Meacham, Coastal’s attorney, said. “[Dyer] was too much invested in Coastal. It was never about him. It never has been.”

DeCenzo and Dyer brought their plan to the board and it was approved.

“They helped each other rather than hurt each other,” said Robert Rabon, who served on the Coastal board during that period. “Dave will tell you in a minute that Eddie’s been a fabulous partner. And that’s what he looks at him as.”

The two administrators insist the division that existed then was on the board, not between them.

“Both of us had great hopes for Coastal Carolina University,” DeCenzo said. “We shared a dream of what this place could become. ... This was never Eddie versus Dave. Both of us looked at the bigger picture.”

The board gave the duo three years to correct the material weaknesses highlighted in the audit. They declared success after six months.

During that time, DeCenzo said he learned to appreciate Dyer’s impromptu humor, which the VP used to dispel tension during the process. Dyer jokingly called the financial corrections “Whack A Mole” because there were so many and they came from all directions.

“In some of the deepest times of despair and concern, when you feel like all sides are closing in on you, he can come up with something like Whack A Mole,” DeCenzo said. “That just broke the ice and created really that atmosphere that it was like, ‘OK, let’s step back a second and come back at it.’”

Although the search process was painful, Dyer remains thankful he ended up where he did.

“I think I have served Coastal better as the No. 2 than I would have as the No. 1,” he said. “Since I’ve been here so long and have seen things develop, I think I’m better at doing the internal things than going to Columbia and going out and asking people for money.”

Moving on

Last fall, Coastal opened the Edgar Dyer Institute for Leadership and Public Policy. The program focuses on getting students involved in policy research — Dyer’s wheelhouse.

“The reason that institute is named for Eddie is that a group of people in the community and in Coastal came together and said ‘We want to name this new initiative after Eddie to honor his kind of public service,’” said Holley Tankersley, who chairs Coastal’s department of politics and geography. “And they went out and were able to raise money to support this institute. ... I’ve never seen so many people want to contribute to an effort based on just their attachment to one person.”

Former students weren’t surprised. Many have anecdotes about Dyer, how he paid for a meal or sent them home when they were sick after marking them present or set up a law school interview.

Richardson, the solicitor, recalls that when he went on the Washington trip, he made the mistake of taking a local bank card to a city full of ATMs that wouldn’t accept it. Dyer paid for nearly all of his expenses. When the group returned, he wouldn’t let Richardson repay him.

“This gives you a lot about who Eddie is,” he said.

Chip Brown, a former Conway councilman and longtime teacher, said when he wanted to go to graduate school without quitting his job, Dyer worked out a schedule so he could attend classes.

“That just really sums up the way Eddie is anyway,” he said. “He is, in my opinion, a very student-oriented person. I’ll say this: If a student has a problem with Eddie, I would say it’s the student’s problem and not Eddie’s.”

Maybe if he’d stayed in the classroom, he wouldn’t be leaving. But all the years of working in administration, putting out fires, whittling budgets, that’s worn him down.

“Coastal was able to use pretty much everything Eddie had to offer,” Cynthia Dyer said.

The Dyers are moving out of Quail Creek, and they plan to settle into a villa near the 18th hole at Grande Dunes.

“We’re hoping he’ll be in a rocking chair, or on the beach or something,” said Dyer’s daughter Brannon. “It’s hard to imagine him kind of just sitting around. I think he’ll find something to keep him busy.”

Dyer’s friends suspect he won’t be completely retired, either. Coastal officials say they still plan to call him when they have questions. And, always a sport, Dyer said he’ll answer.

“I’m actually still working for Coastal,” he said. “I’m just not going to be on the payroll.”

Contact CHARLES D. PERRY at 626-0218 or on Twitter @TSN_CharlesPerr.

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