While keeping his illness private, the late Washington State University President Elson Floyd accomplished a great deal, especially in the last year of his life.

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Five thousand hands to shake: Offering congratulations to all of Washington State University’s graduates each year is exhausting work, even for a healthy man.

And this year, WSU President Elson Floyd was not in good shape — so gaunt and weak that his staff begged him to at least sit on a stool.

Floyd, 59, wouldn’t have it. He stood in his crimson and black robes and clasped hands with every student who crossed the stage.

Floyd Founders Fund

WSU has created the Dr. Elson S. Floyd Medical Education Founders Fund to honor the late president and to support the accreditation, implementation and operation of the new College of Medicine at WSU. Donations can be made online at https://secure.wsu.edu/give/default.aspx?fund=7521 or by mail to WSU Foundation, P.O. Box 641927, Pullman, 99164-1927 (Make checks to WSU Foundation, and put ESF Medical Education Founders Fund in the memo field.)

Six weeks later, on June 20, he died of complications from colon cancer.

Friends say his actions on graduation day are a vivid example of his strong will and determination.

“He loved the students, and the students loved him, and that was the thing that was so unique about him — he touched those students in such a way they felt like Elson Floyd was their best friend,” said Dan Bernardo, who is now WSU’s acting president.

His death came as a surprise to many because he had worked hard to keep his illness private. His friends believed he didn’t want to worry anyone. As he grew thinner and weaker, he told some people he was purposefully losing weight for health reasons.

The day after his death, politicians across the state praised him as a visionary and a giant in the world of higher education.

This week, his friends and colleagues offered a more intimate portrait of a man who was in a hurry to accomplish a lot in a short period of time.

Floyd, they said, was a charismatic leader who commanded a room with his presence, and had a special gift for listening to people and making them feel like they were important.

“Part of his extraordinary skill was that people wanted to work with him, wanted to be part of his vision,” said Warwick Bayly, who served as WSU provost from 2009 to 2013. “He could be captivating, persuasive and enthusiastic, and he made everybody feel they had an important role to play.”

Many recalled his personal charm and the warmth of his smile.

Elson Floyd

Education: Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Career: Held leadership posts at UNC and the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, and served as president of two universities before coming to WSU — Western Michigan University and the University of Missouri.

Accomplishments at WSU:

Enrollment grew by about 17 percent, to 28,686 students. The number of minority students doubled.

Annual-research expenditures grew by 57.5 percent, to more than $335.9 million, placing WSU in the top 11 percent of public research universities for research funding. WSU completed 30 major construction projects, including the Paul G. Allen Center for Global Animal Health, the renovation of Martin Stadium and a football-operations building, and the Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences Building in Spokane. Expanded WSU’s footprint in Everett and started an engineering program there. Consolidated WSU’s health-sciences programs on the Spokane campus, helping the university win approval for a medical school. Established the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication and the School for Global Animal Health. WSU’s organic agriculture program is now ranked as one of the top three programs in the nation, and its wine-science program is in the top two.

Source: Washington State University

“That smile of his, that ability to remember names, to talk to people, to get their attention — it really was outstanding,” Bayly said. “He never came across as being personally ambitious, and I think that endeared him to many people.”

Honoring president

Universities tend to make changes at a glacial pace, but Floyd was not content with that speed. In the last year of his life, he finished a $1 billion private fundraising campaign, began negotiating a partnership with Bellevue College to offer WSU degrees on the Eastside campus, opened a wine science center on WSU’s Tri-Cities campus, and perhaps most of all, won approval from the state Legislature for WSU to start a new medical school in Spokane.

This week, a bipartisan group of state legislators sponsored bills to name the medical school after Floyd, and alumni have started a Facebook campaign for that purpose.

Along with big ideas and major accomplishments, friends say Floyd and his wife, Carmento, were responsible for many small kindnesses: setting up student scholarships, giving away money to people in need, waiting at the hospital bedside of ill students until their parents arrived.

Their house — the president’s mansion, in the middle of campus — was the scene of countless social gatherings. Sometimes Floyd would walk home from his office to find a group of students had taken over a room for a meeting, said Felicia Gaskins, who with her husband, Bill, became close friends of the Floyds in recent years.

Floyd, who loved to cook, would make the students something to eat, or he’d call a local restaurant and have food delivered. It was his way of bringing Southern hospitality to Pullman.

Floyd had a dry sense of humor, and “he would often refer to the president’s house as government housing,” Felicia Gaskins said.

“What he meant by that,” she added, “was that it belonged to everybody.”

Impact of education

Floyd was raised in Henderson, N.C., the oldest son in a family of four boys; neither of his parents graduated from high school. He was the first African American to graduate from the prestigious private Darlington School in Rome, Ga., which he attended on scholarship. He served as president of Darlington’s student council, and was a three-sport athlete, co-captain of the school’s football team, and was voted “class favorite” by his peers.


Related video: Education conversation with Dr. Elson Floyd

Washington State University President Elson Floyd discusses what education means to him personally in 2013. Read more.    

He often said that the school changed the trajectory of his life.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and launched a career in college administration, which later took him to a top job at Eastern Washington University. Colleagues say he fell in love with the eastern part of the state and the people he met there.

In 2007, the WSU job came along, and Floyd — then president of the University of Missouri — was on the short list.

“He came into the room, and in about three minutes, I knew we had the next president of WSU,” said Bernardo, who was a dean at the time and on the presidential search committee.

“Why did I know that? Anyone who was ever in a room with Elson Floyd would know. He commanded a room like no other.”

After Floyd moved to Pullman, he and Carmento decided to put down permanent roots. Over the years, he turned down numerous job offers at other universities — including one at his alma mater, UNC.

Bill Gaskins believes Floyd stayed in Pullman because he loved the college-town vibe, and because he regarded WSU as a diamond in the rough — a school that could grow in stature and influence with his help.

Floyd always made much of WSU’s role as a land-grant university — not an elite institution, but a university for common people and common problems — with programs in agriculture, engineering and veterinary science.

“This was the people’s university — he liked that,” said John Gardner, WSU vice president for advancement and CEO of the Washington State University Foundation. “He never wore it on his sleeve, but giving voice to those that have no voice — that was part and parcel of who he was.”

National recognition

WSU’s reputation in Washington and beyond grew during Floyd’s eight-year tenure, and he was recognized nationally for his leadership, said David Long­anecker, the executive director of the Western Interstate Higher Education Commission.

Longanecker said he was particularly impressed by the thoughtful way Floyd chose to use the one-time federal money WSU received as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act during the recession. Instead of using it to tide the university over until good times returned, he used them to “recast the institution for a new normal in funding,” Longanecker said.

Longanecker said he didn’t always agree with Floyd, but “I always knew that his position was principled and I had a great respect for a great leader.”

Floyd’s greatest legacy is likely to be his final project, the WSU School of Medicine. Getting that bill passed in the Legislature meant taking on the University of Washington, which vigorously opposed the plan and wanted to expand its own medical program in Spokane.

Gaskins, who grew up in Spokane and worked as a pharmacist for many years in Pullman, said people in Eastern Washington have talked about wanting their own medical school for decades. It was Elson Floyd who made it happen.

“He was a very, very driven person,” he said. “It’s amazing that one person can make such a difference in such a short period of time.”