UNCP alumnus, Mel Gardner made an important observation during his first weeks in the U.S. Marine Corps, fresh out of high school. “I noticed the officers seemed to live a whole lot better than I did. They lived better and dressed better.” When he asked a lieutenant the requirements for becoming an officer, the answer would change the course of Gardner’s life. “He said, ‘the only difference between you and me is a college degree.’ Right then, I decided I was going to get one.”
That decision would eventually lead Gardner to Pembroke State University, where he would earn an accounting degree that has been the foundation of a successful career. His experiences as a student at Pembroke, and the opportunities his degree has afforded him over 30-plus years in the accounting field, are the primary reasons Gardner and his wife, Teresa, have made a commitment of $1 million to UNCP to establish the university’s first endowed professorship in accounting.
Mel Gardner says he wants to ensure future UNCP students have the very best teachers the accounting field can offer. “If you put educators in the classroom who have reached the highest level of training, and they can impart that knowledge to the students, why wouldn’t you?”
“With growing enrollment, increased regional engagement and a new state-of-the-art facility planned, the UNCP School of Business is poised to play an even greater role in the economic development of southeastern North Carolina,” said Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings. “Establishing the Mel and Teresa Gardner Endowed Professorship in Accounting is a significant gift by an alumnus and will accelerate the school’s momentum to amplify its impact on students and employers across our area and beyond.”
“We are deeply grateful for this extraordinary commitment by Mel and Teresa Gardner,” says Alison DeCinti, assistant vice chancellor for Advancement. “Their transformational gift will benefit future generations of UNC Pembroke students while encouraging fellow UNCP supporters to consider a similar display of confidence. Mel and Teresa want our students to have every advantage in their professional careers and their generosity is a remarkable testament to their belief in a UNCP education.”
Education makes all the difference
Perhaps more than most, Gardner understands the vital role education can play in a person’s life. Growing up in Rockingham, college wasn’t on his radar as he approached his high school graduation. “No one in my family had ever been to college, on either side,” says Gardner, who today works for Trinity Manufacturing, based in Hamlet. “I had no reference point; I just didn’t know any better.” It was his four years of military service, and the encounter with the lieutenant, that began to open his eyes to the possibilities that could come with an education. “In the service, I got to looking at these lieutenants, and I realized they were on a career path,” Gardner says. “Slowly over time, I began to understand the difference between having a job and living week-to-week, and having a career and being part of a profession. It boiled down to an education.”
Gardner began taking college courses while still in the military, then attempted to work and go to school after his discharge. “I realized I was going to be 40 years old before I ever finished if I kept that up, so I finally just bit the bullet and started back to school full time.”
He enrolled at Pembroke State as a commuter, sometimes sharing rides with other students from his home in Rockingham. “A lot of times, I would be in class during the day and at night,” Gardner recalls. “So in between, I would do homework. I would also tutor, and I would use that money to pay for gas.” Gardner also remembers the top-flight teaching he got in the classroom. “There were a lot of good teachers at Pembroke. I remember Barry O’Brien was teaching economics when I was a student.”
Competing with the best
Beginning with his first job after graduation at a firm in Rockingham, Gardner worked alongside graduates from some of the state’s top accounting schools. He is convinced his UNCP education prepared him just as well as those students, and he envisions the day when UNCP accounting graduates will be thought of in the same light as those from more heralded programs.
“If we’re turning out really good, prepared students, it won’t take long for the accounting firms around the state to realize that,” Gardner says. By establishing an accounting professorship, Gardner hopes to provide resources to attract top talent to teach at UNCP. “It can be hard to encourage someone to give up a professional accounting career and come teach in the college classroom. It’s just the economics of it. So we’ve got to do something to change that.”
The endowed professorship will give UNCP an edge in attracting faculty members, says Barry O’Brien ’75, dean of the School of Business. “Recruiting qualified faculty in accounting can be challenging for a dean, because they’re in short supply.” Making it even more special for O’Brien is the fact that Mel Gardner was one of his students. “I am so proud of his incredible success and very thankful for his generosity to our alma mater.”
As the School of Business prepares to build a new facility that will expand its influence in southeastern North Carolina, Gardner also sees an opportunity for UNCP students to fulfill the ongoing needs of accounting firms in this region. “There are some really good accounting firms in eastern North Carolina that invariably draw their young staff accountants from other institutions. There’s no reason why our graduates can’t fill those jobs.”
Grateful for the path UNCP set for his life, Mel Gardner encourages other alumni to consider supporting the university. “I would tell them that where there is a will to make a gift like this—with some planning, with some hard work—there is a way. You can do this.”