UNC Asheville Announces Commencement Speaker and Honorary Degree Recipients for Spring 2018


Update: The UNC Asheville Board of Trustees voted to accept the voluntary return of William J. Murdock’s 2018 honorary degree and to rescind the award on March 8, 2019. Read the Board of Trustees' statement.

UNC Asheville will celebrate Spring 2018 Commencement on Saturday, May 12, with William J. Murdock, co-founder and CEO of Eblen Charities, serving as commencement speaker for the ceremony. Murdock also will receive an honorary degree, along with Etta Whitner Patterson, a civil rights activist and former student of UNC Asheville’s predecessor institution, Asheville-Biltmore College; and S. Tucker Cooke, professor emeritus of art at UNC Asheville.

“Our 2018 Honorary Degree recipients exemplify the range of social engagement that we value and promote as a liberal arts university,” said UNC Asheville Interim Chancellor Joe Urgo. “Working to alleviate social and economic injustice, striving against racial inequity, instilling a sense of aesthetic purpose through art -- these are lifelong commitments which advance the quality and significance of humanity at the local, regional, and global level. It is an honor for UNC Asheville to place the lives and careers of William Murdock, Etta Whitner Patterson, and S. Tucker Cooke before our 2018 graduates as sources of inspiration and emulation as they begin their own careers as UNC Asheville alumni.”

William J. Murdock

William J. Murdock, a resident of Western North Carolina since childhood, is the co-founder and CEO of Eblen Charities and the Eblen Center for Social Enterprise, an award-winning organization dedicated to helping families with medical and emergency assistance. Starting from a yard sale in 1990, Eblen Charities now helps hundreds of thousands of families in Western North Carolina with heating, housing, education, hunger, and health issues each year, regardless of income.William J. Murdock

Eblen Charities’ programs include Food for Thought, which distributes tens of thousands of snacks to Western North Carolina classrooms at no cost; the Eblen/Hearts with Hands Grocery Program, which provides more than 40,000 meals each year to families in need; the St. Nicholas Project, in partnership with Santa Pal, which assists more than 3,000 families each year during the holidays; the Dental Sealant Program, which allows more than 2,000 area second graders to receive dental sealants; and the Eblen Energy Project, which gives tens of thousands of gallons of oil each year. The organization has received numerous awards for its work, including the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation for the Eblen Children’s Pharmacy in 2001, as well as national recognition by the New York Times and PBS.

In 2014 Murdock was awarded the Mother Teresa Global Prize for Peace and Leadership. A former wrestler and avid wrestling enthusiast, Murdock was inducted into the International Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007, and into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2017 as an Outstanding American. Murdock is the author of several books, including Find Your Own Calcutta: Living a Life of Service and Meaning in a Selfish World and In the Final Analysis: Mother Teresa’s Enduring Message to All Who Serve.

Murdock is a graduate of T.C. Roberson High School, A-B Tech, and Mars Hill College. He also is a graduate of the nonprofit management programs at Duke University and Harvard University, as well as the Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Center for Social Innovation. He has served as an instructor for Duke University’s nonprofit management program.

Murdock will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

Etta Whitner Patterson

Etta Whitner Patterson was born and raised in Asheville’s historic “East End” neighborhood. A student at the segregated Stephens-Lee High School in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Patterson became one of the leaders of ASCORE, the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality, and served as the group’s second president. Inspired by the message of nonviolence and love of Martin Luther King Jr., the students of ASCORE worked to dismantle segregation in Asheville’s public institutions through peaceful protest.Etta Whitner Patterson

In the fall of 1961, Patterson became the first black student admitted to Asheville-Biltmore College, UNC Asheville’s predecessor institution. She was selected by leaders of her community to attend the college as a representative of the black community—an enormous responsibility and challenge. After her time at Asheville-Biltmore College, Patterson married and moved to Greenville, S.C., where she became the first black woman cashier in a store downtown.

Patterson’s career has included serving as director for the Greenville Urban League, a historic civil rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment; program coordinator for the Greenville County Special Needs and Disability Services Board; an outreach worker with a community action organization; secretary for the Green Avenue Area Civic Association to address drug crime; and as a substitute teacher. A lifelong musician, Whitner played piano at a special Stephens-Lee High School 50th Reunion event at UNC Asheville’s Janice W. Brumit Pisgah House in 2011, where members of ASCORE were recognized and honored for their courageous work toward racial equity.

Patterson will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

S. Tucker Cooke

S. Tucker Cooke joined the art faculty of Asheville-Biltmore College in 1966. During his four decades at the university—including more than 30 years as department chair—he was instrumental in expanding the art department in both size and reputation.

His courses included two-dimensional design, drawing and painting as well as senior level seminars, and in 1995, he received a distinguished teaching award from the university. In 2000, Cooke was awarded the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts, the highest award a civilian can receive from the Governor of North Carolina, for “his art and his ability to teach using personal experience.” UNC Asheville’s art gallery in Owen Hall is named in Cooke’s honor. In 2017, Cooke was presented with “The Inaugural Founder’s Award” by UNC Asheville students and faculty.

Cooke, who works primarily in paint and mixed media, has participated in numerous solo exhibitions and has had his work accepted in many competitive group exhibitions. The Asheville Art Museum hosted a major retrospective of his work in S. Tucker Cooke1976, and several of his pieces remain on permanent display there.  His work also is in the collection of the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Cooke directed the creation of UNC Asheville’s School of Athens mural, a full-scale reproduction of the 16th century Vatican fresco by Raphael, with special details added, such as the two bulldogs for UNC Asheville’s mascot. The 2007 mural, thought to be one of the largest recreations of the School of Athens in the world, was a result of two years’ work by more than 100 students, faculty and community members, and hangs in UNC Asheville’s Highsmith Union.

Cooke holds a B.A. from Stetson University, and an MFA from the University of Georgia.

Cooke will receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

Event Information

UNC Asheville’s Spring 2018 Commencement Ceremony is open to friends and family of the graduates.

For more information, visit news.unca.edu/commencement or contact the Office of the Chancellor at chanoffice@unca.edu or 828-250-6500.