When Dwaun J. Warmack said, “I was happy here,” the past tense was startling. Since August 2014, he has led Harris-Stowe State University as its 19th president, and on Thursday, July 11, the university and wider community bid him farewell.
Warmack is off to Orangeburg, South Carolina, where he will lead Claflin University as its ninth president. He acknowledged that Orangeburg (population about 14,000) “is not a destination,” but credited God with his decision without further explanation.
To say the least, he was not pushed out. Ronald Norwood, who has chaired the Harris-Stowe Board of Regents for the same period Warmack was president, listed his many accomplishments. In just over four years, Warmack spearheaded dramatic increases in student enrollment, retention, graduates and degree programs.
Tony Thompson, who served on the committee that offered him the job at Harris-Stowe, said to Warmack, “You did everything you said that you were going to do.”
The respect he commands in St. Louis may be judged from the fact that one speaker imagined Warmack in dialogue with Jesus Christ and another compared him to a superhero. James Tyson, Vice President of Institutional Advancement at the university, imagined Warmack in a scene from the Gospel of John, with Jesus eliciting from Warmack his devotion to education. Alderwoman Marlene Davis compared his resourcefulness to that of Spiderman.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, a Harris-Stowe alumna, was a state representative when Warmack came to the university and first experienced the perennial struggle of securing funds for an urban, black university from a state legislature dominate by outstate, white Republicans.
“I know your challenges and frustrations,” Gardner said to Warmack. “I was in those meetings when they discounted the students who came to this university.”
It was remarkable how the speakers all addressed Warmack directly from the stage, as if savoring one of their last opportunities to talk to him in the same room. Warmack was equally eager to talk back and return praise, frequenting going off-script to sneak back onstage to join the speaker and talk to and about his friend or colleague.
For example, he joined state Senator Jamilah Nasheed onstage to stress to the audience how hard she fought to fund the university and to secure its privilege to offer graduate programs.
Indeed, the evening began with a conversation between Warmack and Bernie Hayes, who volunteers to direct the university’s jazz institute. Warmack was warm, personable and funny in conversation, calling himself a “‘hood rat” from Detroit, giving a vivid snapshot of his aunts “eating skins, playing cards and drinking beer,” and saying he found education as his ministry, rather than the actual ministry, because he has “a cussing spirit.”
He also was moving. He remembered how a high school guidance counselor told him that he “was not college material.” It was not difficult to figure out how he arrived at his “ministry of serving first-generation college students and students from under-represented college communities.”
Gardner was such a student when Harris-Stowe nurtured her, though President Emeritus Henry Givens Jr. was at the helm then. “When I came here I was a single mom from North City who had been kicked out of a couple of schools,” Gardner said. “No one else wanted me” or could see her potential.
The mission of Harris-Stowe — which Warmack also takes with him to another historically black university — ultimately emerged as the hero of the event. A talented President is leaving the university, but the need for the university remains. As Gardner said, “We in the St. Louis Community need to protect this university.