Isothermal’s second president passes away at 86

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dr. Ben Fountain

Dr. Ben Fountain

Dr. Ben Fountain, who served as the second president of Isothermal Community College, passed away Saturday at the age of 86. Fountain succeeded Fred Eason as Isothermal’s president upon Eason’s retirement in 1978. He remained in the position until 1985.


Fountain’s service in North Carolina education began as a high school teacher in the Nash County Schools in 1950 and spanned a half-century. His career included posts as an elementary school principal, school superintendent, university professor, two community college presidencies and nearly eight years as the second president of the North Carolina Community College System during its formative years in the 1970s. His most recent service was membership on the Peace College of Raleigh Foundation Board of Directors concluding in 2010.

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Fountain was born on July 20, 1929 in Rocky Mount, N.C. He was educated in the Rocky Mount Public Schools.


He earned three degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: A.B. in 1950; M.Ed. in 1952; and Ph.D. in 1958. He taught English and history in the Nash County and Rocky Mount Schools and was principal of Bassett Elementary School in Rocky Mount from 1950 – 1955. In 1955, he married Martin County native Norma Fagan Roberts, music teacher and choir director.


Fountain was a Kellogg Fellow during his doctoral studies at Chapel Hill. He served as associate executive secretary of the North Carolina School Boards Association from 1955 – 1957. In 1958, he became a faculty member of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was elected superintendent of the Elizabeth City Schools in 1961. During his tenure the district schools were successfully racially integrated.


In 1965, Fountain was named president of the new Lenoir Community College in Kinston. The college grew rapidly and was recognized nationally for the successful melding of job training and academic programs on a single campus. The local history collections and programs existing on many community college campuses today were pioneered at the Kinston College.


As no community college personnel leadership preparation programs existed at the time, Fountain initiated informal training activities at Lenoir. During the following years, Lenoir Community produced 18 community college presidents and many other college leaders for North Carolina.


In January of 1971, Fountain became the second head of the eight-year-old North Carolina Community College System, succeeding Dr. I. E. Ready. Fountain initially refused the invitation to leave the local campus, but relented only upon the urging of Dr. Ready, long-time Fountain family friend.


During Fountain’s tenure as state president, and with support from State Board of Education members, governors, legislators, institution trustees and many other citizens, the system experienced a campus building boom and a marked increase in the number of students taught across the state.


By the fall of 1978, when Fountain returned to a campus presidency at Isothermal Community College, each of the then-57 community colleges had a permanent campus, each was accredited, hundreds of new job and academic programs were open to students, and the groundwork was complete for the addition of the 58th and final college, Brunswick, to the system.


As of 1971, the recently established community college system had no formal history of de facto or statutory racial discrimination. Nonetheless the system was ordered to participate in the effort to desegregate public higher education in the state. Fountain led the effort that led to the removal of the system from the order in such a way that the traditional black institutions were protected.


Throughout his service as state president, Fountain was a stalwart advocate of local control of community colleges, saying on occasion, “All wisdom is not concentrated in Raleigh.” He supported unfailingly the “Open Door Policy” for students through low tuition and location of programs within commuter distance of their homes.


Upon his retirement in 1985, Fountain returned to university teaching in the Community College Leadership program at North Carolina State University at Raleigh. During this five-year period, he oversaw the writing of a Fiftieth Anniversary History of the North Carolina Community College System by Jon Lee Wiggs.


He collaborated with Terrence Tollefson in the preparation of two editions of Community Colleges in the United States: Forty – Nine State Systems, published by the American Association of Community Colleges. He served for several years as a consultant to the North Carolina Advisory Council on Vocational Education.


In his later years, as he reflected on his life as an educator, Ben was fond of quoting Thomas Carlyle’s words, “Blessed is the man who has found his work.”


Ben Fountain was active at various times over the years in several professional associations in education. They included president of the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents; chairman of the statewide Community College Advisory Council; The National Education Association; The North Carolina Association of Educators; and the Association of Directors of Community Colleges.


Gov. Terry Sanford appointed him to serve as Secretary of the Commission to consider the means of selection of Boards of Education.


He was the founding chairman of the editorial board of the scholarly quarterly Community College Review. On the national level, Fountain was one of few who opposed the massive expansion of student loan programs as a means of aiding needy students in higher education. He forecast that such loans would encourage higher education tuition increases and leave many students heavily in debt upon graduation. A memorial service was held in Raleigh on Tuesday.


Submitted by Mike Gavin