Loy H. Witherspoon, a pioneering professor at UNC Charlotte who launched the school’s program in religious studies, died Sunday at age 86.
Recruited by UNC Charlotte founder Bonnie Cone, Witherspoon was the first chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion in 1964 and of the Department of Religious Studies when it became independent in 1972.
Twenty years later, the school honored him with the Loy H. Witherspoon Lecture in Religious Studies – now the university’s oldest and most prestigious endowed lecture series.
Witherspoon retired in 1995, but he continued to teach at UNCC for another 10-plus years.
“Loy was truly a legendary teacher and a mentor to scores of students,” said UNCC Chancellor Philip Dubois. “And he was one of the most active members of the campus community.”
When Dubois unveiled a portrait of Witherspoon in the Harris Alumni Center, he said that Cone hired Witherspoon because “she was looking for a builder – and a builder she got.”
The future professor grew up in Winston-Salem in the Methodist Children’s Home after both of his parents died. He went on to become an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, earning bachelor and divinity degrees from Duke University and a doctorate from Boston University.
Before coming to UNCC, he taught philosophy and religion at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.
His influence at UNCC ranged beyond religious studies. He was the first chair of the University Senate, and he twice served as president of the faculty. He also worked to establish the current Greek system at the school. The Loy H. Witherspoon Greek Alumni Scholarship is used to assist members of UNCC fraternities and sororities.
Witherspoon Hall, which opened in 1990, houses students in the university’s honors program.
But it is his work building the school’s Department of Religious Studies from a handful of courses to a full-fledged degree program that may be his most lasting accomplishment.
“All of his efforts have gone to creating the university of the future,” said Nancy Gutierrez, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. “The university of the 1960s and 1970s was a pretty small, parochial kind of place. Yet, in his mind, Loy never worked in that small place. He always had ambitions for UNC Charlotte. And so his work even in the early days was predicated on it becoming the great institution it is today.”