Lambert’s legacy: In their own words
Members of the Elon community reflect on President Leo M. Lambert's legacy.
An inspiration to parents
By Warren “Dusty” and Peggy Rhodes P’86
The right person, in the right place, at the right time and with the right resources, can change a world of things. Elon College was fortunate to hire Leo Lambert in 1998 to be the institution’s eighth president. He brought ideas that would change a small educational institution into the national institution we know today.
The Rhodes family lived close to campus and had a strong relationship with the college—our son, Larry, graduated in 1986 and our daughter, Jennifer, also attended. Dusty joined the board of trustees in 1997 and met Leo when he arrived on campus. We were impressed with his ideas and ability to communicate, and we soon began discussing Elon’s need for an on-campus football stadium and greater recognition for athletics. At that time, Elon was playing its football games at a local high school stadium.
To get the stadium project moving, the Rhodes family gave $1 million to Elon in April 1999 and added another $1 million gift in July 1999 to encourage support from others. On March 14, 2000, we gathered for a groundbreaking. It happened to be Peggy’s birthday and Laurie Lambert led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” on this historic occasion. The stadium was named for the Rhodes family and the first game was played there in September 2001.
Much has changed since those early days of President Lambert’s service to Elon. But throughout the years, parents have always felt that Leo could make Elon an example of what a higher education institution should be. He inspired parents because his focus is always on young people and providing the faculty and programs they need to succeed. He has brought national and world recognition to the university, which is now known as a leader in business, communications and liberal arts programs. Many families, including ours, continue to be a big source of support for Elon and its students.
Leo was the right person at the right time, and his thoughts, words and deeds will live forever at Elon University.
Keeping the vision
By Jeffrey C. Pugh, professor of religious studies
Anticipation had been building over the weekend of the board of trustees retreat about Elon’s next 10-year plan. Small groups of Elon’s most committed supporters had gathered in the mountains of North Carolina to plan the roadmap for our future. I was sitting on the edge of the room with other members of the strategic planning committee when excitement flared up about a new convocation center. All eyes turned to President Lambert. What did he think?
Leo looked around the table and said that the future of Elon was not going to rest on the building of a basketball arena, rather Elon’s role in American higher education would be defined by the quality of graduates we send out into the world, and the reputation of our faculty who were making contributions to their fields and bringing recognition to the university. Though it was not what many wanted to hear, it was a reminder of how important it is to keep our focus.
From the moment Leo Lambert came to Elon he has kept our priorities where they need to be. We built a library before a football stadium, which was a powerful reminder of why we are here. We empowered our faculty with time and resources to work with students in engaged learning, helping them in research and the classroom. As a result, our students are admitted to some of the finest graduate programs in the country and are respected in their professions.
As we reflect on how far we have come since Leo Lambert arrived at Elon, we can be grateful that he had a vision, shared by many across the Elon family, of who we could be. He called us to be our best selves and Elon, as well as our surrounding communities, are stronger for it.
By Kebbler McGhee Williams ’98
There is a popular quote: “Some people touch our lives so briefly while others leave lasting impressions and are never forgotten.” President Lambert has left a lasting impression on Elon University. That impression will be felt by the next generation of Elon students and remembered by alumni from all eras. As a new president, he carefully studied the work of his predecessors and embarked upon a new strategic plan that propelled our university into the 21st century. His bold leadership under two comprehensive strategic plans has resulted in Elon becoming a household name both nationally and internationally. That boldness is consistently matched with humility and grace, the kind of humility and grace that is rare to find in someone who has had so much success.
When President Lambert began his tenure at Elon, I was a youth trustee on the Elon College Board of Trustees. At that time, I was an elementary school teacher who was passionate about K–12 education, but didn’t really understand what it meant to be a college trustee. Dr. Lambert saw something in me that he has cultivated during our 18-year relationship. That is another one of his many gifts—finding value in people and providing opportunities for them to demonstrate their value in unique and complementary ways.
President Lambert appreciates diversity of thought and regularly asks the right questions and selects the right people to sit around the table to deliberate those questions. He is also a lifelong learner, continually finding new ways to boost his own knowledge to help Elon grow. His energy and enthusiasm are contagious. I sometimes wonder how he keeps up, but then I consider the wonderful team he has assembled. Without a doubt, he is the Head Phoenix, but his leadership style exudes teamwork, inclusiveness and high expectations of all.
It is hard for me to imagine Elon University without Leo Lambert at the helm, but the legacy he is leaving behind will surely help us to remain on the right course for excellence in transforming mind, body and spirit. His leadership has inspired me. There is no question the university is better because of him, and so am I. He is my mentor, and the model that he has provided is my roadmap.
The stuff of legend
By Nan Perkins, vice president emerita
My first introduction to Leo Lambert was as a member of the Presidential Search Committee in 1998. Twelve of us sat behind tables in a hotel conference room, armed with penetrating questions and serious determination to expose the real man behind the resume. Walking in the door, he lit up the room. Within moments, he charmed and disarmed us. His ready smile, quick wit and relaxed confidence all seemed to say, “We’ve known each other for a long time, right?” And his answers to our questions revealed the smart, visionary, “lets-talk-outside-the-box” leader he turned out to be.
Perhaps as early as that interview, Leo started talking about a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Elon, the ultimate symbol of academic prestige. Most of us thought he was crazy, but were too polite to say so. Now, of course, due in large part to his relentless drive, Elon has that PBK chapter and a long list of other accolades. Leo’s achievements in building Elon’s academic distinctiveness and reputation are the stuff of legend, nationally and even internationally.
Hard driving as he is, the real Leo Lambert has a heart as big as the Elon campus he has built, especially for young people who have the fewest advantages. “Elon cannot be an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty,” he has often said. The Elon Academy, the Odyssey Scholars program and the “It Takes a Village” Project owe their existence to his vision, compassion and support. Through those programs, hundreds of young people have a chance to receive a world-class education, breaking the cycle of poverty for them and their future families.
Soon after Leo became president, he led a group to rewrite the college’s mission statement. A great writer himself, he labored over every word and phrase and the result is a beautifully written, inspiring statement that, among many ideal attributes, speaks of “preparing students to be … informed leaders motivated by concern for the common good.” Leo Lambert not only wrote that vision. He lived it.
Leader, collaborator, friend
By Mark Mahaffey P’97 P’01
I met Leo Lambert in 1999 when he became president of Elon. My daughter, Kiley, was a junior, having followed her brother, Tom, who graduated from Elon in 1997.
I remember receiving a phone call in 2001 from Leo asking if my wife, Marianne, and I would be willing to have lunch with him in St. Petersburg, Florida, the following week. I cautiously agreed. Later I mentioned the lunch to Marianne and she replied, “I wonder what he wants?” My answer was that he wants money or something from me. I had just promised Marianne a few days prior that I was stepping back from volunteer activities after having been involved in many organizations for many years. Well, the big lunch arrives and Leo waits for dessert (standard operating procedure) and then proceeds to ask me to consider joining the Elon University Board of Trustees. After a couple of days of serious thought, I graciously accepted. I told Marianne that something tells me that I need to do this. Needless to say, I thank God that I decided to say yes.
Sixteen years have now gone by. What an experience for me. I have witnessed Leo’s extraordinary talents as a leader in so many ways. He is one of the few individuals that I have met in my life who is a visionary and then is able to accomplish and execute the vision. He knows how to surround himself with extraordinary staff and has the unique ability to communicate his goals to all the stakeholders of the Elon family. During my term as chair of Elon’s board of trustees in 2010–12, I learned Leo is a great listener and collaborator. Leo is definitely a team player from all perspectives.
I cherish my friendship with Leo. Marianne and I consider Leo and Laurie very close friends and certainly look forward to many wonderful experiences in the future.
Going above and beyond
By Omolayo Ojo ’15
My relationship with President Lambert started with a voicemail he left on my home phone after I attended Fellows Weekend at Elon. I got home one day and my dad said, “the president of Elon called you.” Wow, I thought, these Elon people like to go above and beyond. Dad insisted, “He left his home number, so I doubt it's just a courtesy call. Quickly, call him back.”
I did, and Dr. Lambert warmly told me I had been chosen as the Kenan Scholar with a full-tuition scholarship. Elon was my dream school and I would not have been able to attend without this award. A few months later, Dr. Lambert made time to meet with my entire family when I arrived on campus.
Over the years, I learned firsthand how Dr. Lambert’s passion and dedication to Elon, especially its students, have shaped the university. I’ve witnessed his commitment to programs like the Periclean Scholars, National and International Fellowships Office, Isabella Cannon Global Education Center, Lumen Scholars and Elon Fellows program, all of which I was involved in. I was particularly impressed with how open Dr. Lambert was to students’ suggestions. For example, he wholeheartedly championed the intellectual climate initiative, which was proposed by two students.
In May 2015, I had the opportunity to reminisce about our relationship when Dr. Lambert interviewed me on stage at the Leaders of the 21st Century event during Commencement week. I recalled our first in-person conversation, sitting in his office and talking about my plans for my time at Elon. Now it was my chance to tell the audience how I had achieved all those goals and even more.
Dr. Lambert frequently says, “the world needs Elon graduates.” He, along with all the dedicated staff and faculty, have created an environment where students can develop into amazing individuals, spread their wings and soar. Today I stay in touch with many of these remarkable mentors, updating them on what I’ve been up to and seeking their guidance. I’m lucky to count Dr. Lambert among the many Elon people who are only an email away.