Thomas K. Hearn Jr., president emeritus of Wake Forest University, dies at age 71

Former Wake Forest University President Thomas K. Hearn Jr., who led Wake Forest from being a well-regarded regional college to one of the top national universities in the United States, died at his Winston-Salem home Monday. He was 71.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Aug. 22 in Wait Chapel.

More information and photographs regarding Hearn and his presidency are posted on the Wake Forest Web site at

Hearn, an Alabama native, served as Wake Forest’s 12th president from 1983 until his retirement in June 2005. He was succeeded by Wake Forest’s current president, Nathan O. Hatch.

Today, Hatch called Hearn one of Wake Forest’s greatest leaders.

“He served 22 years with great vision and integrity, and all who love Wake Forest are grateful for his legacy of achievement and the place the institution holds in American higher education,” Hatch said.

K. Wayne Smith, chairman of the Wake Forest Board of Trustees, praised Hearn’s leadership and judgment.

“Tom Hearn provided the strong leadership and good judgment to move Wake Forest from a good regional college to a top 30 national university,” Smith said. “His legacy is one of superb leadership and an uncanny ability to do more with less.”

Edwin Wilson, who served as Wake Forest’s provost and as an English professor, said Hearn “clearly had a vision for what he needed to do to make Wake Forest stronger.”

“Whatever measure you use, Wake Forest, over the 22-year period, dramatically improved,” Wilson said.

While president of Wake Forest, Hearn also became one of the most active and influential community leaders in Winston-Salem, chairing and serving on numerous boards of organizations dedicated to bringing prosperity to the local economy and

improving the lives of community residents. Late in his presidency, he supported the expansion of the Piedmont Triad Research Park in downtown Winston-Salem. Wake Forest has a major presence in the park.

Hearn also received national recognition for his extensive involvement with the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Many national news media outlets interviewed Hearn as an advocate of college athletics reform.

Hearn was selected as Wake Forest’s president in June 1983 and arrived at the university in the fall. At the time, he was a senior vice president at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Hearn was born in Opp, Ala., on July 5, 1937, but grew up largely in Albertville, Ala. He received bachelor’s degrees at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky and a doctorate in philosophy from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

In his long tenure as Wake Forest president, Hearn presided over dramatic changes that brought Wake Forest unprecedented national esteem and recognition.

During Hearn’s presidency, Wake Forest ended its governing ties with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and established independent governance; saw college applications double; hired significantly more faculty; hosted Presidential Debates in 1988 and 2000; and launched an extensive construction and renovation initiative.

Wake Forest also achieved record-setting heights in fund-raising to meet numerous needs in its educational mission; experienced monumental growth in its endowment; earned recognition by U.S. News & World Report as a top 30 national university; received international recognition for a technology initiative that provided laptop computers to all students; expanded international study opportunities for students; and established the Wake Forest Divinity School.

Hearn’s tenure was marked by a sustained commitment to the development of the professional schools. “He had the vision to see that a unified university with strong graduate schools would be a more highly recognized university that would attract better faculty, better students and get better and better,” said Wake Forest Trustee Murray C. Greason Jr. in a 2005 article that appeared in Wake Forest’s alumni magazine.

Research grants also rose substantially on both Wake Forest campuses—Reynolda and Bowman Gray.

In 2003, Wake Forest announced that Hearn was being treated for a brain tumor at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Hearn took off some months to recuperate from surgery in late 2003 and early 2004. In April 2004, Hearn announced that he would retire, in keeping with long-held plans, in June 2005.

In his retirement, he held the title of president emeritus. He kept an office in the university’s Z. Smith Reynolds Library. The broad green lawn at Wake Forest that stretches from Wait Chapel to Reynolda Hall was given the name of Thomas K. Hearn Jr. Plaza in his honor. Recently, a collection of his commencement speeches called “On This Day of Endings and Beginning” was published.

Categories: President, University Announcement