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William Killian, founding president of BRCC, dies at age 96

Dr. William Killian. Dr. William Killian.

William R. "Bill" Killian, who as founding president led the growth of Blue Ridge Community College for 20 years, died Sunday at age 96.

Killian served as president of Blue Ridge Community College from 1969 until his retirement in 1987.

Hired from a community college in Hickory, Killian had the daunting task to select a temporary location for the college, hire faculty and staff, design a curriculum and begin classes in early 1970, just six months after his first day on the job. During his tenure, the college moved to its permanent location, now the Henderson County campus, and expanded its reach into Transylvania County. An instructor of vocational agriculture himself, Killian led the college from infancy to a thriving institution with dozens of job training programs, a college transfer track and a stellar reputation in the community.

The student center building, which houses the library, bookstore and other key components of student life, was named in his honor in 1989 in recognition of his exemplary service. Upon his retirement, he was named President Emeritus of Blue Ridge Community College by the Board of Trustees.

In 1990, Dr. Killian and his wife, Helen, created the Dr. and Mrs. William D. Killian Outstanding Teacher Award. Established through an endowment, this prestigious award annually recognizes a faculty member’s commitment to teaching excellence.

In 1997, Four Seasons Rotary Club of Hendersonville established the Dr. William D. Killian Leadership Scholarship Endowment in honor of Dr. Killian. The scholarship is awarded annually to a Blue Ridge Community College student that has exhibited leadership and service to the community. In 2002, he was inducted into the Henderson County Education Hall of Fame.

"His impact on Blue Ridge Community College and our community cannot be measured," BRCC President Laura Leatherwood said in a statement. "His efforts and legacy will long be remembered by our College community.

"One of the first things I did when I became president of Blue Ridge Community College was to visit Dr. Killian," she added. "My time with him was spent reminiscing about the early days of Blue Ridge Community College and his time as President. His advice and encouraging words to me were heartfelt and still relevant to me as a new president. His passion for education and building our College was clearly seen that day."

While an administrator at  Catawba Valley Technical Institute, Killian went back to N.C. State and earned a doctorate in education.

In April of 1969, the Legislature authorized the creation of Henderson County Technical Institute, which later became Blue Ridge Tech and then Blue Ridge Community College. A bond issue had authorized funding for the new community college.
When Killian arrived in Hendersonville on Dec. 1, 1969, Bill McKay, head of a search committee, led him to an office on the third floor of the Historic Courthouse, Killian recalled in a 2012 interview with BRCC communications director Lee Anna Haney.
"This is it. You're on your own from now on," McKay told him.
The office had no desk, and after Killian begged for a loaner from Sinclair Office Supply, he helped a worker from Sinclair wrestled it up to the third floor office.
"We didn't own any building, we didn't have an space at all," he said. One day in February of 1970, he saw that the tenants of the old Lampley Motor Co. building on Church Street were moving out. The space was available, so Killian rented it. Blue Ridge Tech when it first opened in the old car dealership offered welding, auto mechanics, secretarial classes, drafting and electrician training and had around 105 students.

Sadie Patton later donated 150 acres toward the start of BRCC at its current location.

"It got us on our way," Killian said.

A common question he got early on was, "Are you here to stay? Just the sheer newness" was something people had to adjust to.

Among the earlier supporters, he said, were businessman and community leader Frank Ewbank; John Gregory, the first chairman; bankers Bill McGee at Northwestern and Dan Gibson at First Union; and Chamber president Ray Cantrell. "They saw the training we were doing," he said. "We tried to be truly a community institution. Some of the prominent leaders were the business people."

The college had to overcome some distrust from the public schools and the Board of Commissioners, which feared a community college would create competition for tax dollars.

"The way you overcome it is by getting them service and training students that they need," he said. "I don't think I had lived anywhere where various segments of the community cooperated any more than they did here."

The endowment he and his wife established to honor good teachers supported what he regarded as the highest priority — hiring and keeping good teachers, he said in the 2012 interview.

In 1972, Blue Ridge students dedicated the college yearbook to Killian.

"He knows the difference between an open door and a revolving door," the students said, and he had created an institution that was open to all.

"We wanted to have classes by September. There just wan't time to go through all the procedures required. We painted the interior, we laid the first carpet in there," he said. Killian went to business leaders and raised money to get started. "Commissioners began to see it was a serious effort," he said. "Come July 1, of 1970, they approved our budget request." The appropriation was $14,000.

"Very few people get the opportunity to start a school from scratch," he said."It was a chance to leave some of your thinking and some of what you believe because how you get started is going to determine to a large extent how your school's going to be."

“I would like to be remembered as a person who cared for the working people," he said in the interview, "as a person who helped other people.”

He praised the first students and the first teachers for being bold enough to come to the brand new venture.

"I don't think we recognized what the first students did. They started the school in an old rented building," he said. "They had to have a certain faith that the effort was going to succeed ... as well as the first staff."

Killian mentioned his father, who grew up on a farm and had a third grade education. As president, there where was nothing like looking out at the faces of parents, spouses and others at graduation.

"Graduations were real important and unique and are," he said. "It gave you an opportunity to see the people from the stage and the happiest people I have seen in my entire life are people sitting in the audience at Blue Ridge graduation. ... To see somebody in your family be the very first person to graduate from college — that's an important event."