Q&A: Charles Byers - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Q&A: Charles Byers

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For Logan County native Charles Byers, farther from, not closer, to home was where he envisioned his feet taking him.

However, his feet eventually led him back to his ’68 alma mater of West Virginia State University, where he spent 42 years serving in several different job capacities and sitting in several different offices. His most recent position was provost and vice president for academic affairs.

On Nov. 4, 2013, Byers announced his retirement, effective June 30, 2014. Following a nationwide search, WVSU appointed Kumara L. Jayasuriya as provost and vice president for academic affairs effective July 1, 2014.

In a recent interview with The State Journal, Byers reflected on his long tenure.

The State Journal: How did you wind up at WVSU after wanting “to go as far away as you could?”

Charles Byers: I got accepted other places, but because I couldn’t go where I wanted to go, I said, “Well, I’ll come to WVSU.” It’s not that I disliked it. The only place I’d been on this campus was the gym, and it was like a totally new place for me. It was like going away except I was staying at home. I fell in love with it when I first came. When I graduated I had no intentions of coming back, though.

TSJ: Where did you go after graduating from WVSU?

Byers: I went to Ohio State right afterwards. I wanted to be a commercial artist. I was an art education major so I went to Columbus and started working as an artist. During the time when I was working at a large printing company, I would go to work very early. In the fall, it was during an election, it was dark when I went to work and dark when I came home. So I only saw daylight on the weekends. I decided I could freelance, and I was taking classes at Ohio State. I wasn’t in the graduate program because there was a long waiting list at the time.

TSJ: Did you ever dabble in other areas?

Byers: I started working at the Juvenile Diagnostics Center. First, I worked that summer at a community center … then the diagnostics center dealing with deviant behavior. Then I did volunteer work at a mental institution, which was right next to it, and I saw some extremes so I decided I’d major in guidance and counseling. I liked it, but I had initially applied in art and I got accepted in art. So, I started pursuing the MFA at Ohio State.

TSJ: What brought you back to WVSU?

Byers: That next summer, I came here to WVSU to visit my art teacher. She asked me why I wasn’t teaching, and I said I had never really thought about it. My teacher asked me to go visit someone in the Board of Education, who was an alumnus of the school. (The Board of Education) guy sent me upstairs and asked me a lot of questions. About a week later, they called me early in the morning and asked me, “How would you like to teach two-dimensional art?” I said, sure. I started teaching and really loved it. I taught there for three years. I was interviewed for a job in the New England area after getting my MFA from Ohio State. A former professor called me and asked me about a program they had started that needed inner-city experience. (Laughing) I had plenty of inner city experience; so, (my wife and I) came down, and it’s been 42 years.

TSJ: What helped shape your desire to help others?

Byers: When I was passing from ninth to 10th grade, maybe 13 or 14 (years old), it was during the summer, and it was the same time Charleston had that very bad cloud burst. … My mother was cooking, and to me, she was taking her time. I was hungry, but I wanted to go play basketball, and a friend of mine was waiting. I kept asking and she said, “No, not now. Just stay in.” I decided to sneak off and I went off to a dirt court, and I was playing basketball. They were building a house and a little kid was throwing clouds of dirt in the air and dropping it. An airplane was flying over and back then, they flew very low. I heard it and people said, “Look out.” So I moved away and looked up, and right when I looked up, this cloud of dirt hit me in the eye.

Everybody raced me back to my house. They took me to Dunbar, which did not have a hospital. Then I went to Thomas (Memorial Hospital). Well, I knew where Shepherds Eye and Ear Clinic was. It’s called something different now. So I had to hold one eye open — they had patched the other — to show them how to get to Shepherd. When I got there, remember I hadn’t eaten (for almost 24 hours), the doctor came in and said, “We have to operate on you first thing in the morning,” so I couldn’t eat anything. My minister, my mother and the (mother of the) kid who accidentally hit me in the eye, they were there quite a bit. When you can’t see, you can hear and smell … very well. The doctor would come in and he wanted my mother to sign something to take my eye out and she would cry and (the doctor) would leave. Probably about the second or third night, I just prayed to God. I said, “If you give me my eyesight back, I’ll dedicate my life to helping people.” I didn’t really know what I was saying and in never thought about it a lot. What happened in the middle of the night … I’m sure all of you do this — you take a flashlight and close your eyes and just go across and you can see red. That’s what happened, but there was no light going across. It was extremely painful, as if something was sewing my eye back up and I never did say anything. The next morning when the doctor came in, he examined my eye. Then he left and several doctors came in and examined it. I kept hearing the word “miracle,” then he didn’t say anything that day. The next day he said he thought he could save (my eye.) When I really thought about what happened, I’ve always dedicated my life to helping other people. My philosophy and I think … at the end of each day, it’s not that I say, “What have I done to help someone else,” but when I wake up, I just feel as if though whatever I have to do today, I’m going to make life better for someone.

TSJ: How has that philosophy played out in your career?

Byers: I look for the good in a person. I recognize bad behavior, but I try to bring out the good. I’ve taught about 4,000 students or more over time. Our educational system crowds so many people in (the classroom) you can’t reach each student’s needs. It’s a situation where I try my best to just be there for them and here at the university, I find myself counseling a lot of students and faculty and staff and administrators because I’ve been here a while. My thing is: I want people to succeed.

TSJ: Over the course of your many years, you’ve had to make a lot of decisions. What is your decision-making process?

Byers: You have to look and see all sides when you’re making decisions. In terms of jobs, I’ve always done several things because I’ve advised the yearbook staff, I’ve advised the (Omega Psi Phi fraternity) and I’ve been on a lot of committees. When a person comes to me, staff or student, the first thing I ask is if it’s legal. The second is would it be detrimental to this institution, specifically to the president who represents the institution and then the third thing I look at is how will it affect students. Faculty, they ask for programs and labs, a number of things, but I look and say, “How will students benefit?” I know the person asking will benefit.

TSJ: What are you the most proud of during your long tenure at WVSU?

Byers: I would say, for me, my contributions to the school. Getting ATMs on campus, vending contracts, our parking lots … where they’re located … the fact that we have mail delivery. I created the mail system and the copy system we have. When I was a student here, there were a lot of international students. You could hear a lot of different languages just by walking around. I’ve done things to try and rectify (the decreasing amount of international students) … creating national programs and international student services. I did lots of things I felt would make the institution function better. I didn’t do anything by myself. I did things with others. I never wanted to be a leader, but I pride myself in listening and being very quiet. Whenever I say something, people listen.

TSJ: What are you most looking forward to about retirement?

Byers: I’m very excited about retiring because I’m an artist and I want to paint. I’ve already created an outdoor and indoor painting studio at home and one of the things I want to leave is a legacy to this school. I’ve done a lot of drawing of all of our buildings … still have about seven to do. I drew them after they were renovated. I want to dedicate that or give it to the West Virginia State University Foundation so they can use the money for the Presidential Scholar Fund. I want to turn it into a book. I just want to dedicate every day to finishing that book. It’s not going to be anything big, just drawings and pictures. I look forward to that. I have five grandkids, and I want to travel. I like basketball and football. I want to go to games and everything.

TSJ: What is your one piece of advice you would give if asked?

Byers: My mottos are learning by doing, and I always say “know thyself, know who you are, know what you’re about.” Knowledge is power and I try to instill that for students, faculty and staff to learn as much as possible. I just like learning for learning’s sake. I have gone to seven different universities studying … in five different areas.