AJC Sepia HBCU of the Week is an occasional series that looks at Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Last fall, in Atlanta’s new Center for Civil and Human Rights, Isaiah and Hellena Tidwell handed the chancellor of North Carolina Central University a $31,000 check that served as the fulfillment of a nearly 50-year promise.
For the retired Atlanta banker and his wife, both graduates of NCCU, it was the last payment toward a $100,000 personal investment.
But even before the last payment, the endowment that the couple established in 1999 had swollen to more than $150,000 providing funds for dozens of students to go to school.
“We are grateful beneficiaries of unmerited favor, and honor NCC for endowing us with gifts of capability, courage and purpose,” Isaiah Tidwell said. “Now is our time to provide a reasonable return on that investment.”
It was a long way from where the couple began – when the literally only had two sticks to rub together.
It was Homecoming Week of Isaiah Tidwell’s junior year 1965 at North Carolina College at Durham. He and his fraternity brother Eugene Dudley were standing in line for breakfast.
Eugene saw sophomore Hellena Huntley first and told Tidwell: “There’s a girl who could get my heart.”
Isaiah turned quickly and responded, “She already has my heart!”
Isaiah Tidwell was already a member of Omega Psi Phi. That morning when they met, Huntley was pledging Delta Sigma Theta.
According to the rules for initiates, Huntley was embarking on six months of social probation and dating a big brother would incur her big sisters’ disfavor.
“But I found a way around all that,” said Huntley, who was also a majorette in the marching band. “I soon left the marching band to join Isaiah’s band.”
This couple did not come from affluent families.
Tidwell’s father was a laborer and his mother was a domestic worker. Neither was college educated.
But they valued education and encouraged Tidwell and his younger sister Loretta, now a special needs teacher, to pursue higher education.
It was Martin Luther King Jr., in his address to Tidwell’s West Charlotte Senior High School commencement, who convinced him not only to attend college, but also to live his life with greater purpose and conviction.
An accounting major in the commerce department, Tidwell worked to support his studies at NCC as a bookkeeper at the nearby studio of Stanback Photography.
Huntley was a psychology student, but she worked for Dr. Cecil Patterson developing videos for English instruction.
One semester, the couple recalled that having just registered and paid for their books, they found they had only a dime left between them.
They bought and split a double-stick Popsicle.
Today, in their Atlanta home, Popsicle sticks are on display throughout to remind them of their humble beginnings.
It was May 25, 1968, the day before Huntley’s graduation that the couple married on NCC’s campus.
On that rainy Saturday, the Rev. Lorenzo Lynch, the father of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, officiated the ceremony in the recreation room of Latham Hall.
Dr. Howard Fitts and his wife, professors on campus and an Omega and Delta respectively, hosted the couple’s rehearsal party in their home.
“This was so symbolic of the bonding relationships that were formed and still exist for friends associated with NCC,” Tidwell said.
Three years later, on Christmas morning in 1971, the couple welcomed their first son, DeVane.
After graduating from NCC in 1967 with a degree in commerce, Tidwell went to work for the Celanese Fibers Company as a general accountant in Charlotte.
Five years and two promotions later, he left a promising career at Celanese to begin his 32-year tenure at Wachovia Bank.
Tidwell intentionally pursued corporate banking, conscious of the fact that no African-Americans had previously held office in this role at Wachovia.
The new Hellena Tidwell put her degree in psychology to work at Johnson C. Smith University as director of the college’s Upward Bound and Special Services program, helping at-risk public school students graduate from high school and enroll in college.
With Tidwell’s transfer to Winston-Salem in 1976, Hellena Tidwell took a break to care for their new born son, Damion, before re-entering the workforce as assistant campaign director at the United Way of Forsyth County.
She would later become the director of corporate and foundation relations at Winston-Salem State University.
At WSSU, she helped the school land a $1 million gift from R.J. Reynolds, the largest received by any HBCU at the time.
Tidwell, meanwhile, continued his career climb. He completed an MBA at the Babcock Graduate School of Management at Wake Forest University, finishing at the top of his executive class of 1980.
In 1986, Hellena Tidwell left WSSU – after establishing the school’s art museum – to become director of development for the Winston-Salem’s Arts Council.
In 1990, Tidwell was promoted to head Wachovia’s office in Charlotte as regional vice president and area executive for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
With the move, Hellena Tidwell was named senior vice president for resource management at the Arts and Science Council for Charlotte/Mecklenburg.
When Tidwell was promoted to executive vice president and president of the Georgia Banking Division in 1999, Hellena Tidwell focused on her volunteer service as a member of several civic boards.
She was chair of the Board of the Penland School of the Arts when the couple established the Huntley-Tidwell Endowed Scholarship for minority students there.
By the time he retired in 2005, Tidwell had moved upward through 14 positions at the bank to Georgia executive vice president for wealth management.
But the couple’s roots, philanthropy and public service were always based in North Carolina and at NCCU.
When Julius Chambers became the university’s chancellor in 1993, he established a program to create something that the school never really had – funded endowed chair.
Tidwell steered a corporate donation of $500,000 from Wachovia to NCCU to establish an endowed chair in 1999.
That year, Tidwell also decided that he would personally endow a scholarship to honor his parents.
First his father William, and then his mother, Anna Davis, passed away just as the couple were expecting each of their two sons.
“It seemed fitting to honor my parents with a gift to future generations,” Tidwell said. “I hope the message that comes across is that investments grow in value over time. Truth is that the value of the endowment has grown substantially beyond our initial goal through continuous contributions and investment gains.”
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