By Billy Watkins
Tougaloo, MS — He speaks only in whispers now, his mind clear and strong but his 96-year-old body ravaged by Parkinson’s.
And while he can’t touch things with his fingers anymore, he still can feel with his heart. That is why Dr. Carmen J. Walters recently drove from a meeting in Mobile to New Orleans, where her father — Thomas Hawkins, Sr. — is in Hospice care at his home.
“Guess what?” she said softly, nestling next to him. “Your daughter is a college president.”
“At the school you are at now?” he asked.
“No,” she answered. “You’ll never believe it. Tougaloo College.”
Walters could see the emotion build in his eyes and across his face as he began to realize the scope of her achievement.
Emphasizing each word, he said: “I am so proud.”
The first person on either side of her family to attend college, Walters was publicly introduced Monday as Tougaloo’s 14th president. She succeeds Dr. Beverly Wade Hogan, who will retire June 30 after 17 years of leading the private liberal arts college in Jackson that is celebrating its 150th year.
“The whole thing seems like a dream,” says Walters, who has two grown daughters with her husband, Wayne.
She credits her father as one of the primary reasons she wanted — and got — the job.
“I grew up in New Orleans,” Walters says. “So one of the questions (during the interview process) was, ‘How can you tell the Tougaloo story?’ I can tell it because of my father.
“He was born and raised in Natchez, and he’s always been a historian and a storyteller. He knew everything happening everywhere in Mississippi.
“Growing up, he would make us children sit down and watch Walter Cronkite (on the CBS Evening News). We saw the Civil Rights struggles. He explained what was happening, why it was happening. And Tougaloo was at the center of all that. It was a time of saying ‘We deserve better. We want better. And we’re willing to lay down our lives for it.’
“I lived that story every day with him. And I am so grateful and blessed that the Lord opened the door to Tougaloo for me — and then to let me share that news with my dad.”
Walters was the ninth of 13 children — “or the first of the second set of five,” she says, laughing.
Thomas and Ophelia Hawkins had eight children and figured their family was set — then along came Walters five years later. They had four more children after her. Total, that’s seven girls and six boys if you’re keeping score.
“My dad was such a provider,” Walters says. “My mother worked, too, as a cook in the school system so she could be home with us in the summer. But my daddy worked as a carpenter, building houses during the day, then went to work for the railroad at night on the 3 to 11 shift.
“Think about that … 13 children and we never went on welfare. We had insurance and all of that. And our house is where neighbors came to borrow a cup of sugar. Neither of my parents finished high school, but they showed us what hard work was all about.”
Because of the age difference “my older sisters were like little moms to me,” Walters remembers. “We didn’t have kindergarten back then, so I would go to high school with them. I knew all their friends.
“I went to French class with one of my sisters when I was 5. The teacher would say a word in French, and I would say it, too. He brought me up to the front of the class one day because I was pronouncing the words better than a lot of the older kids.”
Walters graduated a year early from John Ehret High School, located just outside New Orleans. She earned a B.S. degree in accounting and business administration in 1984 from Southern University in Baton Rouge — like Tougaloo, one of more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the U.S.. She received a Master’s degree in 1990 in postsecondary counseling from Xavier University in New Orleans.
During her 18 years at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Walters worked in numerous areas, including grant writing, counseling and serving as assistant vice chancellor of human resources.
“I loved it — the collaboration with people in the different departments,” she says. “It was at Delgado when I decided to go back to school and earn my Ph.D. I wanted to be president at a four-year college.”
Week after week, after working 40 hours at Delgado, she drove 10 hours roundtrip to Mississippi State to take Friday night and all-day Saturday classes. It paid off in 2009 when she was awarded her Ph.D of philosophy in postsecondary leadership. Both of her parents attended the ceremony.
She left Delgado in October 2012 and was named Vice President of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Jackson County campus. Four years later, she moved to the main campus in Perkinston and served as Executive Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Success.
Walters’ name began circulating in the education community across the country. She was nominated to apply for several president positions, but none sparked her interest until about a year ago. She was a finalist at a university in Texas.
“The job went to someone who was already working there, so I felt fine about that,” she says. “Going through the interview process was great experience.”
And then came the nomination to apply for the job at Tougaloo.
“I have such a love for HBCUs,” she says. “I’m a product of that. When I learned the Tougaloo position was open, I knew I wanted to apply.”
Tougaloo received more than 70 applications.
A 12-member search committee with various backgrounds came up with a Top 8, a Top 4 and, eventually, two finalists.
“We were looking for someone with leadership skills and the background to drive the items we believe are important,” says committee chairman Edmond Hughes, a 1985 Tougaloo graduate who is Vice President for Human Resources & Administration at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula.
“We want to increase enrollment. We needed someone who can lead fundraising, someone who can develop the (500 acres) on our campus to support our infrastructure.
“But we also wanted someone who cares deeply about students and their needs, someone students will gravitate to.”
So what made Walters stand out?
“She brought poise, confidence, a calming leadership style and a student-centered approach,” Hughes says. “I think all of those made a huge impact on the committee.
“I truly believe we hired the right person to respect and understand our storied past but also lead us into the future, which is changing by the day.”
Others believe it, too.
Janice Bolden worked with Walters at Delgado CC.
“Every single thing Carmen has done has been in preparation for this moment, the Tougaloo job,” Bolden says. “She was always eager to learn. If she brought something to the admissions department for them to do, she wouldn’t just watch. She wanted to learn how to do it herself. She was like that about everything.
“She is a people person with a good heart. I’ve rarely heard her use the term that somebody works ‘for’ her. It’s always ‘with’ her.”
Bolden laughs. “She’s always preaching education. We’ll go out to eat and she’ll ask the waiter, ‘Are you working here while you’re going to school?’ If they’re not, Carmen will give them her card and say, ‘You should think about getting your education. Give me a call.’ That tells you how genuine she is and how much she cares about educating young people.”
Cathy Northington, chief operating officer of the Miss. Economic Council, knows Walters through the business world.
“I have watched her exhibit a very charismatic leadership style, demonstrating a unique ability to rally, engage and inspire leaders across different demographics,” Northington says. “I believe Dr. Walters will bring that same leadership style to Tougaloo, allowing her to interact and work with faculty, staff, students and alumni.”
And know this: Walters has the solid stamp of approval from the woman who has been Tougaloo’s president since 2002.
“It will be my privilege to pass the baton of leadership to her,” Hogan says. “Dr. Walters’ selection comes at an important moment in Tougaloo’s evolution amidst the seismic changes in the composition of students entering college today.
“Research shows the transfer and nontraditional student as the new normal for higher education. Her experience will be beneficial in addressing the challenging, changing and the competitive nature of student recruitment as the demographics continue to shift.”
While education is her passion, Walters has other interests.
She is an avid sports fan and a New Orleans Saints season ticket holder. She still isn’t over the blown call by officials late in the NFC championship game Jan. 20 that probably cost her team a trip to the Super Bowl.
Walters comes from a musical family. In fact, she and one of her brothers, T.C. Hawkins, played gospel concerts in Scandinavia and Germany during her summer breaks from Delgado.
“We both sang and we had a backing band,” says Walters during an interview in a conference room on the Tougaloo campus. “There is nothing quite like walking into an auditorium and people are coming in to hear you. Nothing like wearing yourself out in a concert and then talking with people who were there over a glass of wine.”
Walters also was a narrator, telling stories leading into each song. “I might say, ‘Imagine walking down the street, the church windows are open and you hear this from faraway.’ ”
Walters closes her eyes and begins to sing:
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound … ”
Chills cover the arms of the writer sitting across from her.
“Oh, I loved touring,” she says. “But I didn’t start until I was married and had children. My husband was working the 3-to-11 shift for Chevron. I needed to be there for the girls, take them to dance class, those kinds of things. As a mom, I needed to be at home.”
Which reminds the writer that we hadn’t talked much about her mother, who died in 2013.
What would she think of her daughter becoming the new president at Tougaloo?
Walters lowers her head and tries to choke back tears. Nearly a minute passes before she is able to continue — and she does so with a chuckle.
“When I received my doctorate, my mother went through her phone book, calling everyone she knew to tell them about it,” Walters says. “If she were here, she would be walking with me all over campus and saying, ‘This is my child, you know.’ ”