A drive to ‘do better’

Leadership, serving at heart of philanthropy for trustee and alum

Before the many cleanup efforts Bill Crowder ’68 organized, the living rooms he helped dry out and the debris he helped remove, the lives to which he helped restore order; before the executive boards and
councils he has helped lead, the young people he’s mentored, the scholarships he’s funded; before the various civic awards and the recognition he’s received
from mayors and governors and presidents, there was Eric Yarborough.

Crowder was a freshman at Wingate Junior College in 1966, a young buck more interested in pouring concrete and building bridges than cracking the books. He wanted to be a builder, wanted to get his hands dirty and get on with life. But he didn’t want to let down his father, who insisted that his son would need an engineering degree if he was to take over the family construction business one day.

So Crowder found himself at Wingate, in the engineering program (yep, once upon a time Wingate was something of an engineering school). Restless, Crowder, along with several other students, formed the Outing Club, intent on seeking thrills in the mountains and forests of the Carolinas. Yarborough was pressed into being their faculty advisor. “I think this was his first year out of college,” Crowder says. “He was 25 maybe, and he drew the short straw.”

Short straw or not, the pairing continues to reap benefits for the wider world. Crowder says Yarborough recognized something in him, an indifferent student with a yen for adventure. “I never had a class with him,” Crowder says, “but he probably had more effect on me than anybody else here.”

Yarborough helped pull out of Crowder the leadership qualities that would eventually play a pivotal role as the Charlotte area rebuilt after Hurricane Hugo. Yarborough subtly nudged Crowder toward a more responsibility-oriented way of thinking.

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“He recognized, somehow, some way, some leadership ability in me and others,” the tall, lanky Crowder says. “He would pull me aside and say, ‘Crowder, you can do
better than that.’ Or ‘Crowder, I expect more out of you.’ And it was funny because Eric’s like 5-foot-6. He’d reach up with his arm and pull me down and
say, ‘You know better.’”

Crowder has consistently done better and given more ever since. He now serves on the Board
of Trustees at the University and has established a couple of scholarships here (including one in the name of Eric Yarborough). He has worked for decades with the Alexander Youth Network, and he’s served on boards at various universities, nonprofits and industry groups. And Crowder was instrumental in cleanup efforts for several natural disasters that hit the Carolinas over the years.

The seeds of that selfless leadership were subtly planted at Wingate, during mountain hikes
and cave dives.

“The feeling with Eric was not like, ‘Gee, he’s turned me into a leader,’ or anything like that,” Crowder says. “I didn’t recognize that stuff. Instead it was, ‘I don’t want to disappoint him. He thinks I can do better than that, so I need to do better than that.’ It made a big difference in my life.”

And, subsequently, Crowder has made a big difference in a lot of other people’s lives.

Lending a hand

Crowder’s first real exposure to disaster relief came during his three-year stint in the U.S. Army. The Vietnam War was raging, but Crowder had taken his associate degree in engineering from Wingate to N.C. State University, intent on getting that four-year degree his father said he needed. There, he says, he “fell into the cookie jar.”

“It was too much, too fast,” he says. “I was there for a year and they asked me not to come back.”

After working for a while, Crowder knew he would be drafted soon, so he joined the Army. Because he had a college degree, Crowder was lined up to go to Officer Candidate School, but after he completed basic training, no OCS slots were available yet. Ever practical, not to mention a little feisty, Crowder had a solution.

“I tell you what. I’m going to go back home to Charlotte, and when it opens up y’all call me and I’ll go up there,” Crowder told his commanding officer. “He looked at me
and said, ‘Crowder, we don’t do things like that around here. Get your ass on the bus.’”

He was sent to Advance Individual Training instead, and it nearly killed him. One day while Crowder was using a crowbar to manipulate a large rock through a jaw crusher, a fellow soldier accidentally engaged the clutch on the crusher, sending the bar shooting into Crowder’s face, where it glanced off his jaw. “If it’d gone on the inside of the jawbone, it would’ve gone through my head,” Crowder says.

The blow cracked his jawbone and broke most of his teeth, but Crowder survived. After he recuperated, out of sheer luck Crowder was skipped over for combat and instead was assigned to a construction-engineering battalion, in Fort Meade, Maryland. In 1972 the battalion was assigned to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which Hurricane Agnes had leveled after running roughshod over much of the eastern half of the United States – the costliest hurricane in U.S. history to that point.

In Wilkes-Barre, Crowder witnessed the power of organization (the Army’s) and empathy (his own). The town had suffered horrendous flooding, as the Hurricane had tracked up the Susquehanna River, dumping over a foot of rain in a 24-hour period. It was the worst flood ever to hit the Mid-Atlantic.

Cleaning up was messy work. “Cemeteries got flooded,” Crowder says. “There were caskets on
top of roofs over front porches. There was an abattoir in town that was flooded. That was the first place we went. Very aromatic work. A waste-treatment plant was flooded.”

Helping get the city back to some semblance of normalcy left its mark on Crowder. “That was my first exposure to disaster response and the organizational skills it took to manage it,” he says. “Now, granted, it was the Army, and it was point-and-do kind of stuff. It wasn’t like you were working with a mess of volunteers. But the interaction I had with the people whose homes were flooded made an impression on me.”

So much so that a dozen years later, when a line of tornadoes ripped through central South Carolina and eastern North Carolina, Crowder, now running Crowder Construction, enlisted a group of builders in Charlotte to help out. For a couple of months, Crowder and other volunteers from construction companies in the Charlotte area headed east with their equipment every weekend, cleaning up Bennettsville, S.C., Laurinburg, N.C., and tinier towns in between.

“It was a pickup team,” Crowder says. “It was pickup ball. I just called around and said, ‘Guys, they need our help.’”

‘The hand of God’

1989 was a busy year for Crowder, at least as far as his disaster-relief efforts went. In early May of that year, seven tornadoes, including three of F4 intensity, touched down in upper South Carolina and western North Carolina. The intensity of the twisters was almost unprecedented – since then, only one single tornado of F4 intensity has touched down in the western Carolinas, and this was three of them in a short span of time. Houses were flattened, cars were left in piles, cows were thrown from one field to the next.

Crowder was there soon afterward with another group of volunteers from the Charlotte construction industry, organizing the cleanup. For that effort, in September of 1989 former Gov. Jim Martin awarded Crowder the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest honor.

“Jim Martin surprised the hell out of me with that,” Crowder says. “I was invited to go to a community ceremony in Morganton. They’re talking about thanking community volunteers, and the next thing I know he calls me up. Honestly, I didn’t know what it was.”

Later that month, Crowder found himself directing the recovery efforts in Charlotte after Hurricane Hugo felled 80,000 trees in the city and did billions of dollars’ worth of damage throughout the Carolinas.

The Charlotte cleanup he could handle – he was an old hand at it by now. But Sue Myrick, then Charlotte’s mayor, called Crowder and asked him to fly with her to tiny Awendaw, South Carolina, a fishing community 15 miles north of Charleston that had been in the eye of the storm. “Sue was like that,” Crowder says. “She’s the most empathetic person I know. Sue cares.”

He and Myrick surveyed the damage. “They had nothing to start with, and now they’ve got less,” Crowder says of the village.

Crowder says the damage was so severe that the community would need someone for about a year to coordinate the recovery effort. He couldn’t spend that much time away from his business, so Myrick suggested he call Drew Cathell, a builder from New York who had once served as construction coordinator for Habitat for Humanity.

Turns out, Cathell and Crowder had crossed paths a couple of times before, though they’d never met. Cathell was in Wilkes-Barre after Hurricane Agnes, helping with cleanup. He was in Laurinburg and Bennettsville after the tornadoes in 1984. And now Crowder and Myrick were persuading him to stay nine months in Awendaw to coordinate the recovery efforts there. “For me, if you don’t see the hand of God at work here …” Crowder says.

Serving others

Crowder gives Yarborough a lot of the credit for putting him on a path to leadership and service, but Yarborough doesn’t see it quite the same way.

“I wasn’t but about four or five years older than him,” he says. “I was a young man myself struggling in some ways. The guys helped me as much as I may have helped them. … I just sort of became one of them. And yet I wasn’t, because I was the sponsor.”

Maybe treating them as equals was the key. “I think it’s important to see young people eye-to-eye,” Yarborough says.

Whatever it was, he could see in Crowder all the qualities that ultimately led him to help rebuild Wilkes-Barre, Laurinburg and western North Carolina and to bolster the lives of wayward children in his native Charlotte.

“Bill was a leader, even back then,” Yarborough says. “He was outgoing. He was a happy person. Very outgoing and upbeat all the time. Just a fun person to be around. He laughed a lot. He joked a lot. But he was a serious person when it came to safety and working together with the other guys. I could tell he was going to make a contribution and be a successful man as an adult.”

And he continues to be. Crowder’s volunteer and leadership efforts are less disaster-oriented these days. He stepped down as corporate operations officer at Crowder Construction in 2015, freeing him up to devote more time to his various philanthropic obsessions.

Atop the list is the Alexander Youth Network. For six decades Crowder has been involved with the organization, which started as an orphanage and now provides services for at-risk youth. He’s served on the organization’s board of directors off and on since 1990 and recently finished up two years as board chairman.

As times have changed, fewer and fewer children served by the Alexander Youth Network live on the organization’s campus. Most are in foster homes. But those in need of the most assistance stay on site, and those are the ones Crowder visits with regularly.

“We have 36 kids on campus, who are the most traumatized and have the worst issues,” he says. “They can’t function in society yet. Alexander gets them to a place where they can. And that’s the kids that I get to work with every week as a volunteer.”

Crowder is also interested in helping young people who are in a better place but still looking to improve their lot in life: college kids, like he was back when he’d have rather been hiking or climbing or building a bridge.

In the past couple of years Crowder has turned his attention more and more to his old junior college, now a fast-growing university. He is in his second year on the Board of Trustees, and he’s heavily involved with the Student Veterans Organization.

Crowder sees the University’s pivot the past decade and a half toward the health sciences as potentially playing a very important role in society. It could even tie in with the Alexander Youth Network, by sending physician assistants and others out into the community to provide the health care these kids need.

“You think about how important the health sciences are today, and particularly mental health science has to fit into our society, with all the crap that’s going on today,” Crowder says. “I think Wingate is strategically well positioned to be a player, to make a difference.”

And that’s all Crowder asks of anybody, first and foremost himself.