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The pandemic has claimed around 12,000 North Carolinian lives since March 24, 2020. To honor them, we're telling eight life stories – a cross-section of our Carolina neighbors – that ended too soon due to COVID.

Irving Pressley McPhail, President Of Saint Augustine’s University, Spread "Love As A Leader"

illustration of Irving Pressley McPhail
Natalia Polanco

Irving Pressley McPhail was on the quaint Raleigh campus of Saint Augustine’s University for only a few months as president before he succumbed to COVID-19. The historically Black university celebrated its leader as if he had been there decades. There was a special open-air service for him on the front lawn of the school, where a gospel choir sang the words, “My hallelujah belongs to you, you deserve it!”

Saint Augustine’s was where the 71-year-old McPhail was expected to wrap up a stellar career in higher education. He was the founding chancellor of the Community College of Baltimore County and had served as president of two other schools.

Headshot of Irving McPhail
Courtesy of Saint Augustine’s University
Headshot of Irving Pressley McPhail, the late president of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh.

While colleges and universities across the country grappled last year with whether to allow students back on campus or not, McPhail chose to open. He recorded a virtual message to welcome new students and freshmen at the start of the fall semester.

“As you begin your educational journey, Blue and White Week of Welcome, has been designed to help you transition into the community and connect with the many resources that will help you complete your academic journey,” said McPhail.

McPhail knew the challenging times students were living in. He wrapped up his message with an important reminder.

“In this new normal, I encourage you to make judicious decisions and commit yourself to the Safe Falcons Pledge which reinforces the importance of wearing masks, hand sanitizing and social distancing,” McPhail said, with a booming voice. “We wish you the very best in the fulfillment of your personal academic goals.”

Shortly after the start of the semester, McPhail reported early symptoms of COVID – a headache and a fever. He had met in-person with his new staff at the university. One staff member reportedly also had COVID, but recovered and returned to work. McPhail’s illness was swift. He died two weeks after becoming sick, hospitalized and placed on a ventilator.

McPhail Was Like 'Another Father Figure'

Leoneda Inge
Saint Augustine's Student Government Association President Aaliyah Williams remembers her short time with McPhail fondly.

Aaliyah Williams, the Student Government Association President at Saint Augustine’s, remembers her short time with McPhail fondly.

“I did work with him very closely. He was like another father figure to me,” said Williams. “He just taught me how to love and express the love, just basically spreading love as a leader, whether you had to be harsh or nice.”

Williams said she remembers receiving a campus-wide email last October of McPhail’s death.

“I was playing my game with my friends and I said, 'Guys, I got to go.' Kind of like the world kind of stopped,” said Williams. “He was literally about to make an extreme impact on the school.”

My family, every day we are reminded of our loss. We know the meaning of that empty chair. This COVID has impacted the African American community much more than it has other populations. But it also points to the resiliency of our race.
Christine McPhail, widow and new president of Saint Augustine's University

Williams said that is why she is so happy McPhail’s widow, Christine Johnson McPhail, will be taking over the president’s job at St. Augustine’s. Williams said she sees a lot of her in him.

“They are basically the same person, twins," Williams said.

St. Augustine’s University named Christine McPhail the school’s new president effective February 24, 2021. Christine McPhail has had a celebrated career in higher education, and served as president of Cypress College in California. McPhail said she was surprised and honored when “St. Aug” asked her to continue her late husband’s legacy.

“So, we are not going to lead anybody down a pity party about Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail,” said Christine McPhail. “Because if you know who he was, you’d celebrate his message and his ideas about what it’s like when you do something with the mind. And I see it living every day when I talk to young people like we’re doing today.”

Christine McPhail, who suffered and recovered from COVID around the same time her late husband took ill, says almost everybody she knows has been touched by COVID.

Leoneda Inge
St. Augustine’s University named Christine McPhail, Irving McPhail's widow, the school’s new president effective February 24, 2021.

“My family, every day we are reminded of our loss. We know the meaning of that empty chair,” said Christine McPhail. “This COVID has impacted the African American community much more than it has other populations. But it also points to the resiliency of our race.”

Christine McPhail said she is healthy, ready for work and has gotten her vaccine.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” said an enthusiastic Christine McPhail. “I wouldn’t dare walk on this campus and expose these young people to me not having that vaccine. I am the poster child for that. And this is very personal to us.”

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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