Edwin Speir Jr., a former president of Georgia College who championed its international program and accepted the mission of turning the school into the state’s public liberal arts college, died Tuesday in Milledgeville. He was 80.
Speir was at the helm from 1981 until he retired in 1997, soon after the college was renamed Georgia College & State University.
“President Speir’s primary legacy will be helping usher in the new mission of being the state’s public institution for liberal arts,” said Ralph Hemphill Jr., vice president and dean of faculties in Speir’s administration who is now retired.
Hemphill, who on Thursday said he often referred to himself as Speir’s “sidekick,” said the faculty admired Speir, the college’s eighth president.
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“He was a very good leader,” he said. “He was able to get the best out of people, not just the most out of people.”
Speir arrived at Georgia College in 1981, succeeding J. Whitney Bunting. Early on, Speir was keenly interested in expanding the college’s influence in the region by bolstering or creating branch campuses in Macon, Warner Robins and Dublin, said Bob Wilson, a history professor and Georgia College’s historian.
“He had this vision of Georgia College becoming a regional university, but it never really quite worked out,” Wilson said. “Part of the reason is we were too close to Athens,” home of the University of Georgia.
But by the time the University System’s Board of Regents targeted Georgia College to become the state’s public liberal arts college in the mid-1990s, Speir had all but abandoned the regional plan.
“He was the one who, at the end of his career, did a 180-degree turn from the regional college idea” and embraced the new mission, Wilson said.
Speir’s successor, Rosemary DePaolo, is perhaps most closely identified with Georgia College’s name change and new liberal arts mission, but the ball began rolling in the waning months of Speir’s presidency.
Max Allen, hired in 1994 as executive director of university relations, said Thursday he remembers Speir as friendly, easygoing and “someone who certainly loved people.”
“He was a fantastic leader and was well respected, not only in Milledgeville but in the region and the state,” Allen said.
Born in North Carolina, Speir spent much of his early years in New York and Connecticut, but he returned to his home state to attend Davidson College, where he earned an economics degree. He served two years in France with the U.S. Army, according to his obituary. After his military service, he returned to attend Harvard’s Business School and in 1965 received a doctorate in international studies from the University of Denver.
That same year, his obituary said, he was assigned to the Peace Corps in Brazil. He worked at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, Coker College and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the years before being named Georgia College’s president.
Allen said Speir will be remembered for his strong international push at the Milledgeville college.
“Georgia College had a number of international students from a number of different countries,” he said. “(Speir) was a champion for the international program.”
In 1987, for example, Speir oversaw an education exchange established between Georgia College and the People’s Republic of China. That began “a revival of international interaction through study abroad and exchange programs,” according to the Georgia College website.
Speir, a strong supporter of the college’s fine arts programs, was at the helm when several multimillion-dollar construction projects got the green light, including the arts and sciences building in the heart of campus, the library’s expansion and the Centennial Center athletic complex, which opened in 1989 during the college’s 100th anniversary.
“He’s going to be missed,” said Allen, recalling one of his favorite memories of Speir.
It was in the summer of 1996 leading up to the Olympic Games in Atlanta, and Speir, who had been in an accident, was in a cast and wheelchair.
“I made arrangements for him to carry the torch through downtown Milledgeville ... in front of the college,” Allen said. “He was proud of that.”
A memorial service is scheduled for Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. in Milledgeville in the Williams Funeral Home chapel, 1670 N. Jefferson St.
To contact writer Andy M. Drury, call 744-4477.