When Joe Oxendine came to Catawba College the first time in 1948, he was an 18-year-old Lumbee Indian who had just spent a year working at a Detroit automobile factory making and saving money to put himself through undergraduate school.
When Oxendine returned to Catawba this past March, he was an 81-year-old man, retired after a long and successful career in academia. He came back to his alma mater at the request of Catawba's Board of Trustees to serve as president until the Board could find Catawba a new leader.
Oxendine at Catawba – the First Time
"My dad wanted me to stay home and go to that little small, local school, Pembroke Indian Normal School. I could go there for almost nothing and come back home and plow the fields and pick the cotton, but I viewed that as just an extension of high school," Oxendine remembered. "I decided I would go away to school, but realized that my father with eight children could not afford to send us off to college. I said I'd do it on my own.
"At age 17, I went to Detroit city to work in an automobile factory for a year, making Ford body parts. I made money like you would not believe. I had never made more than $2 a day on the farm and there I was making $1.27 an hour. After a year, I came home, sat down in the living room, took off my shoes and took 17 $100 bills out of my socks – storing it there was my way of avoiding loss or theft of my money."
Oxendine was admitted to Catawba in the spring of 1948. He had heard about Catawba's extraordinarily successful football team, coached by Gordon Kirkland. He aspired to play on that team.
"I was not a terribly good student from a mediocre Indian high school and I was probably a mediocre athlete at the time. I had potential, but I had not been skilled in football – we just played pick-up games in high school. But, I arrived believing I could play football here. I went out for the team, they tolerated me, but I didn't impress them.
"When it came time to dress out for the game, we had 66 players on the field, a very impressive number for a small college back then. Those 66 players did not include me. It was embarrassing. Others who didn't get a uniform quit, but I kept practicing and all season, I did not get to dress for a game. I practiced with the team for spring practice and the next year, I did get a uniform and by the end of the season, I was playing a lot. My third and fourth year, I was a starter. I had potential, but it took a while to develop."
Oxendine had potential and a stick-to-it attitude that served him well at Catawba and in his career. As a freshman, he tried out for Catawba's baseball team as well, but he didn't make it or get a uniform. During his second year, he did make that team and become a starter, serving as its captain and leading hitter. After his senior year, he signed with the Pittsburg Pirates and played on their minor league team for three years.
While Oxendine enjoyed athletic pursuits, academic pursuits led to his professional calling. After graduating from Catawba in 1952 and while playing baseball in the minor leagues, he earned his master's of education degree from Boston University in 1953.
After serving in the U.S. Army from 1953-1955 in Korea and Hawaii, he worked as a teacher and athletic coach in the Lynchburg Public Schools in Virginia between 1955 and 1957. He then became a Teaching Fellow at Boston University between 1957 and 1959 while he earned his doctorate of education from there in 1959.
For 30 years, between 1959 and 1989, he served as dean and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "I had grown up in a cloistered, Indian community. We did not associate with whites or blacks. I had had no acquaintance with black kids, and then I go to Temple and I had a diverse group of students — from the Middle East, the Far East and there were black kids. I learned to appreciate diversity for the first time."
At Temple, Oxendine found his true calling. "There's no higher position at a university or college than being a professor and I think that that's what I am most proud of." There, he conducted research, published scholarly papers, won teaching awards and research grants, and even wrote two books. He was also frequently asked to lecture to organizations on the history and present-day status of American Indians.
"You know, I never denied or rejected that I was Indian and everyone knew that I was Indian. Ordinary people have a curiosity about Indians and they want a real Indian to talk to them about them."
He recalled one Thanksgiving season when he was sought out by the "Philadelphia Evening Bulletin" to do a story about what real Indians do at Thanksgiving. "She [the reporter] came out to our house and I showed her my pumpkin patch in the backyard, but the pumpkins were puny. To get impressive pictures for the newspaper, she sent her photographer out to the store to buy several big pumpkins to put amongst the vines.
"She asked me what Indians did at Thanksgiving," Oxendine recounted. "I told her they have a feast and that we always cooked a big hen, had sweet potatoes, field peas, turnips and that sort of thing. We didn't make an effort to go back to Puritan times or anything like that, but we did relish eating a big meal and a big fat hen is what we had. Indians, I told her, are ordinary people living ordinary lives.
"I didn't make a career out of being an Indian. People back home scolded me occasionally for not coming back there to 'help my people,' and I told them my people were at Temple. Some people may have resented me going away from Pembroke, but I had ambitions and things I wanted to do."
Coming Full Circle
Still, home was always important to Oxendine despite the many years he lived away from his native North Carolina and his hometown of Pembroke. When he had a chance to take a job as chancellor of UNC Pembroke (formerly Pembroke Indian Normal School), it was one he did not pass up.
"My children grew up in Philadelphia, but I always think of Pembroke as my home and I would say often to my wife, Adrienne, 'Come Thanksgiving, we're going to go home, or at Christmas, we'll go home.' She would chide me and say, 'No, your real home is here.' But I wanted my children to think of Pembroke as home, but I'm not sure they've ever felt of it as home like I do.
"It is kind of like you hear about the Indian who leave the community and there's a rubber band attached to his back that always gets you to come back. Sometimes that rubber band is so tight that it never lets you get away to do things and explore things. Most of us who do get away thought we could stay away for a while, but always come back for Christmas, the 4th of July, Homecoming and Thanksgiving.
"The Oxendines, our extended family, take every opportunity to be together. The closeness is something I pride a lot. I grew up as close to my cousins as my family — we all lived within three miles of each other — and I want my children to have the same level of devotion to their extended family."
"After I had been at Temple for 30 years, an opening occurred at Pembroke and I was sought after for that. I was 59 when I came back to Pembroke as chancellor," he explained. "I loved being there. I came back and felt like we grew the university — establishing recognition for colleges within the university — and we grew the student body. So, I felt like I did a good job there. It was satisfying in that I was at an academic institution. I found that there is a commonality in academic institutions — you deal with many of the same issues — issues of faculty, curriculum, budgets and athletics."
Oxendine served as chancellor of UNC Pembroke from 1989-1999. During his tenure there, the institution changed its name from Pembroke State University, its Carnegie Foundation classification to Comprehensive I, and its athletic conference from NAIA to NCAA II. New degree programs were also added under Oxendine's leadership, including a RN-BSN nursing program (offered jointly with Fayetteville State University), an MBA program, MA degrees in Agency Counseling and School Counseling, and bachelors degrees in Criminal Justice, Community Health Education, American Studies, Mass Communications, and Birth-Kindergarten. The landscape of the UNC Pembroke also changed during this period, with new, expanded, and renovated buildings, and an increase in student diversity.
He had been retired for almost 12 years as chancellor emeritus from UNC Pembroke, when Catawba College sought him for its president. He returned to his undergraduate alma mater this spring with fond memories, a strong sense of humor and a solid work ethic.
"I'm not a complex person. I want people to respect me and to believe that I'm working very hard to protect this college and to project it to the very highest level. I will feel best about myself if Catawba looks better a year from now than it does now.
"The truth is I don't spend a lot of time speculating on my image. I do my job. I want people to know that I have values, that I'm a spiritual person, that I am honest and care for people," Oxendine concluded with a calm, experienced smile on his face. "I want good things – to elevate the goodwill and the spirit of people I come in contact with."