Teacher, preacher and university president are professions associated with strong leaders. They also perfectly describe Dr. Tommy King, president of William Carey University.
Since taking over the reins 13 years ago, the longtime Columbia resident has made great strides. The school changed its name from college to university, there has been a huge increase in the student body, athletics have risen to national prominence and many new degree fields have been welcomed onto the Hattiesburg campus.
What’s the secret to success? When asked how all these areas experienced marked improvement in a short amount of time, King replied candidly: “Leadership skill is hiring good people and getting out of their way. William Carey University is full of great leaders at both the faculty and student level.”
Other Columbia leaders point to King as a great example for the community.
Ken Knopp, who serves with King in the Columbia Lions Club, said, “Tommy King epitomizes the strength of the generation that came before us — one that unwaveringly gives back to their hometown through our local service clubs.”
Eddie Ray Breakfield, a fellow member with King at First Baptist Church of Columbia, said, “What makes Tommy King a special leader is his ability to tell you the facts and get you on board regardless of the project. Dr. King never proposes any project without having done every aspect of the research required. He leads every project by effectively communicating every segment of it to those involved. But, one thing remains the same in all the years that I have known Dr. King, his focus has always been on the students he was serving, and that is a passion few people dedicate their entire lives to.”
King’s story begins in the small Lamar County town of Sumrall, which was named after his grandfather, Daniel Sumrall, a Union solider during the Civil War. After graduating from Sumrall High School, King attended William Carey College and the Baptist Seminary in New Orleans. Immediately after college, He started preaching at churches in the community and ended up serving at several in Marion County, even a stint as the music and youth director at East Columbia Baptist Church.
Unfortunately, a health issue removed him from the pulpit for a while. At this point, King went back to William Carey and entered the educational field. His first teaching job was at the now-defunct Dexter High School in Walthall County, where he served as the librarian and seventh grade teacher. Jones County came calling next and King and his wife spent 12 years there.
“After I left Laurel, I had one of my first offers to return to William Carey College as a staff member, but I couldn’t see leaving the public school system yet because of their retirement,” King explained.
But, the college would come knocking again a short time later and with 29 years in public education, it was easy for Dr. King to return to his alma mater.
“My dear friend, Dr. Larry Kennedy, was the president of William Carey College when they invited me to join their staff again. At that point I felt it was the right time to join their faculty.”
Sadly, Kennedy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 2005 and died in 2006.
King was immediately announced president of William Carey College and has served in that role since 2006, becoming the first alumnus to serve as president.
Even with all the excitement and growth, William Carey has had its share of difficult times.
“We have a psychology professor who kept asking about us starting a DO program. It was a huge undertaking and I wasn’t 100 percent sure we could do it because of the requirements. We had to raise a cash escrow of $20 million in the bank, and couldn’t touch it. Plus, 2-3 years ahead of accepting students, we had to have the buildings and faculty in place to support this endeavor.”
With a lot of hard work and special donors, the first class from the School of Osteopathic Medicine started in 2010 and two classes have graduated now. Students from this program are spread out over the entire southern part of the state, with a couple working in Columbia.
In addition to the DO program, William Carey now also provides a Doctorate of Nursing, Physical Therapy and Pharmacy. Regardless of the program, the emphasis remains strong in religion and ministry.
The biggest challenge for William Carey University would come in the early morning hours of Jan. 21, 2017, when an EF-3 tornado took a direct hit on the university. Every building on the Hattiesburg campus was damaged or destroyed except for one. Early estimates said the damage was in excess of $106 million. The university and its leaders had two choices, rebuild or call it quits. Their growth and rebuilding process has proven King’s point: There are great leaders in every aspect of William Carey University.
“We were pretty heavily affected by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, and we accepted federal money. We didn’t realize at the time the strings that were attached and all the red tape we would have to go through. So, when the tornado hit, we agreed immediately that we wouldn’t take any federal disaster relief money at all. Thankfully, our insurance was amazing and helped with the rebuilding and loss of income for our faculty and some other special needs that came up. But, we are almost finished with our last building and should be in it by March,” King explained.
Today, William Carey University finds itself on the cusp of continued greatness. The U.S. News and World Report ranks William Carey University at 39th among its Regional Universities in the South list. But, at the rate the university is growing, this number is sure to improve annually.