My Own Personal Wake Forest

By Rogan Kersh (’86)
Excerpt from Edwin G. Wilson’s (’43) “The History of
Wake Forest University Volume V/1967-1983”

My first moments as a Wake Forest aspirant were spent in the inspiring company of President James Ralph Scales. It was February 1982: the first cohort of Reynolds Scholarship seekers was gathered in the Autumn Room, a small dining area down the hall from the Magnolia Room. I’d arrived a half-day late, owing to a high-school symphony competition, and slipped in anxiously to join my fourteen fellow-finalists. President Scales had just begun to address the group when I arrived, and paused as I clattered in, trailing my father’s old suitcase.

As a college administrator myself now, I can readily imagine a number of reactions to a tardy, disheveled student’s interruption: a light joke at the entrant’s expense; irritation perhaps; or at best ignoring the intrusion altogether. Mr. Scales, as he later insisted I (and every other student he spoke with) call him, took none of these all-to-human routes. Instead he fixed me with a kindly, welcoming smile, just long enough to reassure me but not to mark the moment as disruptive. And then back to his talk, a moving account of what the University meant to him, and how he hoped we each would come to embrace “your own personal Wake Forest.” He spoke without notes, as I recall, and was so absorbing that my apprehension and self-consciousness faded away completely. Talking informally afterwards, other finalists had the same experience: in a 15-minute transfiguration, Mr. Scales turned us all from a collection of nerve-wracked high schoolers into young men and women worthy of Wake Forest.

That at once powerful and gentle touch was sustained throughout the Reynolds interview weekend. Tom Phillips’s constant encouraging good cheer, Ed and Emily Wilson generously opening their home to the lot of us for dinner, Peggy Smith guiding us patiently through Reynolda House’s stunning American art collection, Jim Barefield pointing out the high notes of WFU semester in Venice — on an immense map, displayed upside down (he blamed the map-holders — who, as a pair of hearty Wake juniors, seemed to us impossibly suave and sophisticated): all these encounters felt more like a family gathering than a scholarly inquisition.

Driving home to the Western North Carolina mountains, fond visions of Deacon-hood danced in my head. I had a Morehead Scholarship interview a week later in Chapel Hill; Wake Forest’s Dean Tom Mullen, another warmly welcoming familiar figure during the Reynolds interviews, suggested I stop by and say hello on the trip back from UNC. He and Bill Starling, the much-beloved admissions director, were standing on the Reynolda Hall steps as I pulled up. From somewhere Dean Mullen produced a clutch of farm-fresh eggs, further cementing my impression of Wake Forest as the most wonderfully intimate, personable institution of higher learning imaginable. We talked a half-hour, in that painterly late-afternoon Winston-Salem sunlight. “We hope you’ll join us in the fall,” Mullen said by way of parting; it seemed more a benediction than a recruitment pitch.’

And so I did, to my lifelong benefit. For me the deal was sealed with Mr. Scales’s smile — my version of ‘you had me at hello.’ The rest of the weekend, and indeed the four incomparably memorable years that followed, were an extended confirmation of that essential warmth, understanding, and instillation of confidence. Thus began my own, yes, “personal Wake Forest.”