Jenkins presided over a period of rapid expansion of East Carolina College that led to university status reflected in the institution's name changing to East Carolina University. Many of the current campus were constructed during these years, including campus buildings, dormitories, a large percentage of the College Hill neighborhood. This period also saw the expansion of Joyner Library, Mendenhall Student Center and Hendrix Theater. Campus librarians and historians generally credit Jenkins for his leadership during times the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Leo W. Jenkins died after an extended battle with cancer on January 14, 1989.
Dr. Leo Warren Jenkins was born May 28, 1913. A New Jersey native from Succasunna, he called attention to himself in East Carolina with his accent and demeanor: direct and down-to-brass-tacks. This is partially due to his extensive military service in World War II, having served in Guadalcanal, Guam, and Iwo Jima, earning himself the Bronze Star for valor and two Presidential Unit Citations from the latter station.1 His experience in education began with teaching within the New Jersey public school system, and in higher education at Montclair Teachers College, netting him the title of Assistant to the Commissioner for Higher Education of the New Jersey State Department of Education.2 Dr. Jenkins earned a B.S. in education from Rutgers University in 1935, and his master’s from Columbia three years later.3 Shortly after, he married Lillian Jacobsen in 1942, had six children, and moved to North Carolina in 1947 to begin work at East Carolina College.4
Dr. Jenkins received his doctorate of education from New York University, initially hired as Dean of the School of Art at East Carolina Teacher’s College in 1947. He was elevated to Vice President of the college in 1955, and inaugurated as President of East Carolina College on May 13, 1960.6 Dr. Jenkins’ unwavering ambition and loyalty to realizing East Carolina College’s potential pushed the school into an accelerated path to success and into what East Carolina University is today. Relatively early in his tenure, Dr. Jenkins became Chancellor Jenkins as he achieved the school “University” status on June 6, 1967,7 legally adding East Carolina into the public university system of North Carolina.
More than anything, Dr. Leo Jenkins’ tenure was known for the campus’ rapid expansion. Many of the current buildings that exist today were built under Dr. Jenkins, such as the Brewster, new Austin, Belk, and Fletcher Music Hall buildings as well as dormitories such as the Aycock (now Legacy Hall), Greene, and Belk Residence Halls; most of the College Hill neighborhood.8 The Mendenhall Student Center and Hendrix Theater were also built around the same time, including an expansion to Joyner Library.8
East Carolina’s modern image features its football program and medical school, both of which were modernized by Dr. Jenkins. Both Ficklen Stadium—dedicated in 1963—and Minges Coliseum—dedicated in 1967—were constructed, with an additional expansion for Ficklen, in order to host ECC’s up-and-coming athletics program at the time.8 Throughout years of back-and-forth, Dr. Jenkins ignited East Carolina’s football mania with East Carolina College’s induction into the National Collegiate Athletic Association on September 1, 19619 and the hard-won entrance into the Southern Conference, confirmed on May 4, 1964.10
Perhaps the hardest fought battle of Dr. Jenkins’ career was his struggle for East Carolina’s Medical School, saying “If one man had been sick it would have been a tie vote, and if two men had been sick we would have lost the Med School; it was that simple,”11 regarding the legislators involved with ECC’s legal promotion to ECU. Often derided for East Carolina’s desire and need for a medical school, Jenkins, prominent for his witty retorts and double entendres, famously responded to the question of “what the hell would you do with an organ in eastern North Carolina?” with “We would play it the same as you would. Frankly, we would probably play it better.”11 East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine graduated its first class in 197712 and has revolutionized eastern North Carolina since.
Chancellor Jenkins was also faced with the largest domestic controversy within the latter half of the twentieth century, the repercussions of segregation. Between February and March of 1969, the Society Of United Liberal Students (SOULS) presented a list of ten demands to ECU’s Administration in an effort to address racial disparity on campus.13 Applauded statewide by the public and those within the universities for his supportive and firm approach to the issue, Chancellor Jenkins addressed each of these demands.14 With East Carolina host to the largest African-American population of any college in the state at the time, about one hundred thirty students compared to the next largest being Duke University’s sixty-eight and Western Carolina’s twenty-five black students.15 The grieved SOULS members appeared on Chancellor Jenkins’ doorstep on the night of March 27, 1969. Jenkins saying “I support them...”,16 immediately addressed the entire student body at Convocation on April 1, 1969.17 Chancellor Jenkins calmed the boiling racial tensions on campus thereafter with his response to the demands. He worked diligently with the Race Relations Committee,18 and had the university produce a pamphlet discussing the race issues on campus with integrity and honesty for all students, including prospective freshmen.19 Jenkins had a blunt approach to racial tension, tirelessly working with the faculty and administration to address the grievances articulated by the students. Facing the unsavory racial truths with the aforementioned brochure for prospective students illustrated Dr. Jenkins’ direct leadership style.
Upon his retirement on June 30, 1978, Dr. Leo Warren Jenkins had developed the reputation as the embodiment of East Carolina University across the state, always faithful and passionate about his university and students. When asked about his greatest achievement, Dr. Leo Warren Jenkins replied, “The greatest achievement? I feel it was instilling a sense of pride in the people here in the East. People walk a little taller because of ECU, and they take a great pride in themselves.” Dr. Jenkins died of cancer on January 14, 1989.21