A Son Comes Full Circle With Commencement Honor
Willie Deese started mowing lawns with his father and brothers when he was six.
His father, Fred, worked as a long-time janitor at Davidson College and spent his time off as a landscaper for nearby homes and businesses. His mother, Janie, was a maid who sometimes served in the president’s office. His two grandfathers also worked in custodial jobs for the college.
Fred and Janie Deese’s nine children learned early the core family value of hard work. The value of education, which their parents insisted upon, was reinforced by their close connection to the college.
As Willie Deese received an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters during Davidson’s commencement ceremony this week, he choked up. He thought about his parents and felt their presence, despite their absence. His dad died in 1993; his mom, who is now 92, has Alzheimer’s disease.
The culmination of their love and hard work played out on the commencement stage as the college honored their fifth child for his commitment to helping other students from modest beginnings achieve their dreams.
“It was an outstanding day for me, and for the Deese family,” Deese said after the ceremony. “My mother and father have always been at the top of my list of heroes. They were never higher on that list than they were today. My brothers, sisters and I became who we are because they were living examples for us to follow.”
The Deese family lived on a farm near Davidson, where the vegetables they grew and the cows they milked provided their food and some income. The family tells the story about how Janie Deese spent a day picking cotton on the farm, then got to the hospital just in time to give birth to her first child.
Willie Deese wanted to make his parents proud.
“I demonstrated that I could push a lawn mower at an early age,” he said. “And along the way learned the value of faith, hard work and integrity.”
Philanthropist & Advocate
Fred Deese’s formal education stopped after sixth grade, and Janie’s at grade 11. Willie Deese says his parents spent their lives working to ensure that their children would go further. And they did.
Eight of the nine Deese children went to college; one daughter had special needs and did not. Four, including Willie, went on to earn advanced degrees.
Willie Deese graduated with a degree in business management from North Carolina A&T, an historically Black college in Greensboro, in 1977. A few years later and into his first corporate job, he received an MBA from Western New England University.
He rose to the top ranks of several large pharmaceutical companies, retiring in 2016 as president of Merck’s manufacturing division, overseeing 42 sites in 30 countries and an annual operating budget of $9 billion.
Along the way, he supported his alma mater and is its single largest alumni donor.
He’s committed nearly $10 million for campus needs and scholarships that have allowed hundreds of students to attend the college. He’s served as a member and as chairman of NC A&T’s trustee board. The Deese name figures prominently at the college. An auditorium bears his parents’ names. The clock tower in the campus’s center is named for him and his wife of 43 years, Carol Chalmers Deese. And last year, NC A&T named the new Willie A. Deese College of Business in his honor.
Deese also is an active advocate in efforts to solve America’s affordable housing crisis; and to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
He and Carol, a retired teacher, live in Chapel Hill. They have a son, Brandon, who is a film and web producer. They became first-time grandparents last year when Brandon and his wife Ashley had a baby boy, Bridge.
Giving Back & Gratitude
He didn’t achieve alone.
Besides his family, he credits mentors—from college professors to corporate executives—who guided him. He says their willingness to share their knowledge and experience inspired him to do the same. Hence, his favorite phrase: “When you get to the top, send the elevator back down; others are waiting.”
And that’s what he views as his obligation.
“Whatever I can do to be helpful to the next person is what I have to do. There were people who gave so selflessly to me, it wouldn’t be right to not do the same for others,” he said. “It would be a very lonely place to be if you’re at the top, and there’s no one there to share it with, and no one to pass along what you’ve learned.”
That’s why, on a chilly May morning, this returning son of Davidson did not feel like the honor he received was his alone.
“When I drive past the places in Davidson where we worked with Dad, it brings me back. I never dreamed that someday I’d be honored in this way,” he said. “It was very humbling, and I felt like my parents and my brothers and sisters were all being honored, too—that’s how close we are as a family.
“Because of what we learned from our parents, we were able to do the things they didn’t have the opportunity to,” Deese said. “They were not just great providers; they were great role models. This is life coming full circle.”