On Nov. 26, N.C. Central University and others received sad news that Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, 59, died after a long battle with kidney cancer.
To honor and celebrate Saunders-White’s life, the university arranged a memorial service at B.N. Duke Auditorium Monday evening. By 5 p.m., there was only standing room for students, faculty, and staff in the 250-capacity auditorium.
Attendees were greeted with an uplifting and powerful gospel performance from the NCCU Worship and Praise Inspirational Gospel Choir. Several student volunteers stood in front of the stage with baskets of ribbons, offering attendees maroon and gray ribbons to pin on their clothing for the memorial service.
At the service, Student Body President Alesha Holland, Miss NCCU Dajah Johnson and others spoke about their relationship with Saunders-White and her legacy.
A video tribute portrayed Saunders-White’s spirited personality and dedication to the university’s students, faculty and staff. Attendees witnessed several moments of Saunders-White dancing and laughing with students, hugging new NCCU alumni on graduation day, and cheering on the football team from sidelines of the field.
Keenan Farr, an NCCU junior, said he remembered having a deep conversation with Saunders-White during his freshman year while he was going through a difficult time. When Farr heard about her death, it shocked him.
“When I heard the news, it took me by surprise when it happened because I know what kind of lady she is,” said Farr. “Saunders-White was a very hard-working woman. She was dedicated to making sure the students on campus succeeded in whatever they wanted to do. She was a strong support system at every campus event. She encouraged us to do our best every single day. She is someone who motivated everyone on campus to strive for excellence in the classroom every day.”
One of his fondest memories of Saunders-White was when she appeared at Homecoming’s annual event, Late-night Breakfast, during his freshman year.
“The way that she was interacting and engaging with the students at that time of the day, it was just amazing,” he said. “At that point, she came as if she was one of us and that’s what really stood out to me. She was interacting as a regular person and not just ‘Chancellor Debra Saunders-White.’ ”
He said he also encourages students and others to “just remember her legacy and remember what she stood for as a person.”
After the tribute video, the audience was led out of the auditorium row by row for the vigil lighting. Each person received a tea light candle as they made their way to Hoey Circle, which was decorated with bright white Christmas lights, pictures, notes, and white flower bouquets and wreaths.
The NCCU Choir sang somber gospel tunes as everyone circled around the James E. Shepard statue. The speakers at the vigil asked everyone to hold their candles up to the evening sky in memory of Saunders-White, which was followed by a long moment of silence. Toward the end of the vigil, candles were placed near the flowers. Attendees comforted each other after mourning the loss of Saunders-White.
NCCU senior Nathaniel Dunn said he understood what it was like to lose a loved one to cancer. In his experience, he lost his mother to breast cancer.
“When I think of my mother, I realize there’s some peace that comes after suffering,” said Dunn. “It was comforting to know that [Saunders-White] isn’t suffering anymore. It was very devastating. It was unbelievable because she seemed in good health when I last saw her.”
For Dunn, he said that he will always remember the chancellor’s “brilliance” and “charisma.”
“When I was able to speak with the chancellor on one occasion, she seemed so pleasant. She was very encouraging,” he said. “I think that made her unique. She was a wonderful person.”
Saunders-White was NCCU’s 11th chancellor and she was the first woman to hold a permanent position of chancellor.
Before becoming the NCCU chancellor, Saunders-White served as a deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs in the Department of Education.
The university will be holding the “Celebration of Life Tribute” for Saunders-White on Friday, Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. inside the McDougald-McLendon Arena.