South Piedmont Community College’s longest-serving employee, History Instructor William Dick, is always recruiting students — even when he’s out to eat.
Dick, who began his career at South Piedmont in 1992, enjoys frequenting restaurants throughout Anson and Union counties. While he dines, he keeps an eye out for servers who have that certain spark.
“If I see that thing in them, that drive, I’ll ask them if they’ve ever thought about going to college. I enjoy giving people that nudge, getting them thinking about what they could do with their lives,” Dick said.
“And when I see them graduate, well, I say that I get paid once a month but I get rewarded once a year. Graduation is my reward.”
A native of Albemarle, Dick grew up working on the family farm, but early on, it was clear he was meant for a different life.
“My parents got me a six-volume set of children’s encyclopedias when I was 8 years old. There was this one picture of Charles Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, which stood out to me. That was it. I started reading and studying history.”
With his parents’ encouragement, Dick went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in psychology and history from Pfeiffer University. Still enamored with aviation, Dick joined the U.S. Coast Guard, thinking he’d eventually become a pilot. But after four years of service, Dick was yearning to get back to the classroom. He earned his master’s in American history from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and learned a valuable personal lesson along the way: He belonged on a college campus.
“I really liked going to college. That’s where I wanted to be,” he said.
Dick taught for a time at Randolph Community College and Pfeiffer, until a position opened at what was then Anson Community College. Thirty years later, what is now South Piedmont Community College has become Dick’s home, family, and a world he never tires of exploring.
“SPCC is a microcosm of the world. There are so many people from so many different backgrounds. There is always something to learn here,” he said.
Dick’s taught multiple generations of several families. He can recall numerous alumni who’ve gone on to earn advanced degrees. Some of his former students currently work at South Piedmont, including Kelly Stegall, dean of college and career readiness, who first met Dick while she was as a server at a restaurant called The Gopher Hole. He still keeps in touch with more than a few of his former students. Some have become dear friends.
Wherever their lives take them, Dick strives to imbue his students with a lesson that reemerges throughout history: the atrocities that can result from an “it’s us against them” mentality.
“We see this in Nazi Germany, the genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, and most recently in the Ukraine,” he said.
“When one group of people blames another for their problems — that never leads anywhere good. I try to teach them to think rationally about their world and to beware of demagoguery. If I can teach them what happens when you don’t respect other people, then I’ve prepared them for the world.”
For many years, Dick sang the National Anthem at graduation, but he relinquished that role a few years ago, when he became the most senior faculty member, and by tradition, became the mace carrier. As the mace carrier, Dick leads the procession of faculty, staff and graduates.
Ever the educator, Dick is quick to explain the historical significance of the mace (dictionary.com defines a mace as a “clublike armor-breaking weapon of war, often with a flanged or spiked metal head”).
“In the Middle Ages, the priests would go into battle with the armies, and they had to be equipped with a weapon, but they didn’t want to draw blood,” Dick said. “At one time, most colleges and universities were run by the clergy. The mace came to be associated with the clergy and then with institutions of higher learning.”
Carrying the mace is a special responsibility, and it’s one that Dick fulfills proudly. The true honor, though, is celebrating alongside his students on graduation day and wishing them well on their next chapters.
“Especially the students who a few months earlier were crying, telling me they didn’t think they could do it,” Dick said.
“To be there with them and to be able to say, ‘Yes, you can do it,’ there is nothing more gratifying.”