Former Chancellor ‘Barney’ Coulter leaves a lasting legacy of civility and a passion for education

By BILL STUDENC MPA ’10

Of the tens of thousands of students whose lives were touched by longtime educator Myron Lee “Barney” Coulter, among the standouts is a crow named Midnight. It was while he was a high school basketball star in the small Indiana town of Albany that Coulter, the man who would one day be known as “the teaching chancellor” at Western Carolina University, gained a measure of celebrity for teaching the art of conversation to Midnight the crow.

A time-yellowed copy of an undated newspaper article from the Muncie (Ind.) Star chronicles the story of how Coulter had adopted the crow, part of a nest of baby birds used by a local scoutmaster for nature lectures. Despite a penchant for stealing items from neighbors and attacking the family cat, Midnight became a beloved figure in town after Coulter taught the bird how to talk.


“The day we visited Midnight, he wasn’t talking much. One neighborhood boy … got him to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Oddly enough, he says this in a clear, sweet whistling voice. The words can be plainly identified. When he’s viewing a ball game from some convenient tree, Midnight gets excited and screams, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’” the article states. “Crows can be taught to speak in about two weeks, Barney Coulter says, if you can stand having them around.”

In remarks at a memorial service for her father, who died Oct. 4 after a battle with cancer, Nan E. Coulter included “teaching a crow to talk” among the achievements that made him the most proud, right up there with his wife and family, his time as a teacher and completing his own education. “He was a tireless champion of education and service to others, because he has always benefited greatly from them,” Nan Coulter said.

Chancellor from 1984 until 1994, Coulter was known for his true love for education, deep devotion to family and friends, genuine sense of grace and civility, and enduring passion for excellence in teaching. “For 10 years, Dr. Coulter served us with absolute integrity, thoughtful intelligence and a love for the institution and its people,” said Judy Dowell, his longtime assistant. “Barney believed in the dignity and worth of each individual. Civility became the cornerstone for his method of operation and the expectation that others with whom he worked would follow, as well. Courtesy, politeness and consideration of others were the hallmarks of his administration.”

Coulter guided WCU in a decade characterized by a renewed emphasis on excellence in teaching, strategic planning and goal-setting, service to the region, and outreach to the international community. During his tenure, the university established a center that later would be renamed the Coulter Faculty Commons for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in recognition of his support. Even in retirement, he remained an active member of the WCU community, commuting daily from his home in Waynesville to an office in Cullowhee until failing health made it difficult.

As part of his emphasis on global outreach, Coulter led delegations to The Netherlands to establish a partnership in business education with Hogeschool West Brabant, to China to set up agreements for educational and cultural exchange with Yunnan University, and to Thailand, Swaziland and Jamaica to create and strengthen agreements for vocational, technical and teacher training.

An active community leader, Coulter served on the board of directors of Western North Carolina Tomorrow, N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching, N.C. Board of Science and Technology, Western North Carolina Development Association, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, WCQS Public Radio, Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and N.C. Arboretum. He was a member of the Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee Historical Association and Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. He served as chairman of the board of directors for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in 1988-89 and was a founding member of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

That work in organizations at the local, state, national and international levels represents “a living legacy for Barney,” said L.D. “Luke” Hyde ’63, who commended the impact that Coulter had in other regions of the nation where he worked in higher education settings. “He had an audacious idea. He believed that the sons and daughters of farmers in Indiana, and the children of steelworkers in Pennsylvania, and the offspring of autoworkers in Michigan, and youngsters on tenant farms in Idaho could, with good teachers, learn to love learning and could gradually but surely change their world for the better,” Hyde said. “He brought that same strong conviction to Western. And he made it work for the sons and daughters of mountain people here.”

In recognition of his contributions to the university and the region it serves, Coulter was named 2011 recipient of WCU’s Distinguished Service Award. The award was presented posthumously, as Coulter died just 18 days before he was to receive it at Homecoming 2011. “While we are deeply saddened that he is not here in person, we feel strongly that his spirit will maintain and carry forward a legacy at Western that encourages and reveres the practice and art of teaching, that strives to provide our students with the best opportunities for learning, and that embraces our region and its culture with true and lasting partnerships,” son Ben Coulter MS ’94 said in accepting the honor on behalf of the family. “My father had a fierce and unshakable pride in this university and in the people and culture that made and continue to make it great.”

As to the influence of a certain crow on the professional path taken by Barney Coulter? “While I don’t know if Midnight had an immediate impact on dad’s career choice, it certainly was a teaching accomplishment that he was very fond of and served as the content for many of his anecdotes,” Ben Coulter said. “In reflection, there must have been some ties, direct or indirect, between those years with Midnight and his career that have been associated with mentoring, patience, diligence and perseverance, not to mention a good sense of humor and approaching life with an amusing smile.”

Memorials may be made to the Coulter Faculty Commons at Western Carolina University, c/o WCU Office of Development, 201 H.F. Robinson Building, Cullowhee, NC 28723.