Shortly into his tenure as Duke’s ninth president, Richard Brodhead invited Phail Wynn over to the Hart House to talk. 

Wynn was in the midst of his first attempt at retirement, stepping away from Durham Technical College after 28 years at its helm. But Brodhead had a different idea.

In the wake of the rift the Duke lacrosse scandal caused in Duke’s relationship with Durham, Brodhead asked the longtime Durhamite to be Duke’s first vice president of Durham and regional affairs. 

Wynn was flabbergasted. He had promised his wife he was really retiring, and it was not a promise he took lightly. 

But soon, the man who would go on to spend a decade defining the new vice presidency and shaping Duke’s relationship to the city was sketching out ideas and visions for Brodhead.

“And so began a new life of service for which Phail was magnificently well equipped,” Brodhead said at Wynn’s recent memorial service in the Duke Chapel, standing feet away from Wynn's American flag-draped casket.

Decades of service

For about 40 years, Phail Wynn Jr. was a leader in higher education in Durham. 

When he died unexpectedly last month, the recently retired vice president of Durham and regional affairs left behind a legacy of connecting Duke to Durham and shaping the higher education landscape of the city.

Wynn, 70, was a native of Oklahoma. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma before serving six years in the U.S. Army and a combat tour in Vietnam, according to his Duke biography. Wynn earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. from North Carolina State University before receiving a Master of Business Administration from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business.

He became the first African-American college president in the North Carolina system when he took the reins of Durham Technical Community College in 1980. Wynn would remain there for nearly 30 years. 

Then Brodhead lured him away from retirement and into his cadre of vice presidents.

“Phail flunked retirement in 2008 when he retired from Durham Tech,” Brodhead joked at the memorial service. “He flunked retirement when he told me he would leave the same time I did but agreed to stay on six months to help [current Duke President Vincent Price]. Failed it again when [Price] asked him to serve six more months.”

During his decade at Duke, Wynn was a driving force behind Duke’s crawl into Durham—a city he considered “ingratiated and embedded” into his soul.

When he took over the newly created position, Wynn chose to have an office downtown to solidify the connection to Durham.

"I like to joke about the fact that after we set up downtown and I declared downtown safe, then everyone wanted to come downtown," Wynn told The Chronicle in June. 

Some of his achievements include Duke’s funding for the Bull City Connector, developing the Kent Street Corner, helping fund the Duke Habitat for Humanity chapter and working with the Durham Spelling Bee. 

His plans for retirement, he told The Chronicle during his last month on the job, included trips to Eastern Europe and riding his motorcycles. And working with a strategy group on affordable housing he had convened.

He was survived by his wife Peggy, his son Rahsaan Phail Wynn (U.S. Marine Corps), his mother Dr. Valree Fletcher Wynn, his brother Michael Wynn and his aunt Mary Wynn, according to his obituary.

“May we be thankful that our lives were improved, our loves strengthened, our work made more meaningful by having known Phail,” Price said at Wynn’s funeral. “And may we resolve to live lives of equal fulfillment, dedication and kindness in his memory.”

‘Lost a giant’: Community remembers Wynn

In the aftermath of Wynn’s death, the Duke and Durham community grieved his loss.

A statement from Durham Public Schools entitled “Thank you, Dr. Wynn” recognized his work on the America Reads/America Counts initiative and the Afterschool Reading Academy, among other efforts.

“Through his work leading the Duke University Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, he strengthened the bonds between a great city and a great university, and the partnerships he built demonstrated his steadfast friendship to Durham Public Schools,” DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said.

Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) took to Twitter to mourn the loss of his friend.

“Leader, mentor, advocate, and friend are a few words that come to mind to describe what Phail meant to me,” he wrote. “Durham, and the entire state of North Carolina, has lost a giant.”

At his memorial service, former Durham Mayor Bill Bell remembered first meeting Wynn before he became president of Durham Tech, when Bell was a county commissioner. 

“Among other impressionable attributes, he stood out as being very intelligent, personable and a leader,” Bell remembered.

When Bell received an honorary degree from Duke in May, Wynn was his sponsor.

Brodhead arrived at the Chapel for the service fresh off a delayed flight to pay homage to his friend. He remembered the vice president as a “person of massive dignity.”

“This proud son is the only person who, in my long life, has given me his mother’s Ph.D. dissertation to read for light reading,” Brodhead said.

Price noted the feeling of bewilderment stemming from remembering the accomplishments and life of Phail Wynn just weeks after he had retired.

“We feel bewildered to know that we will never again hear his infectious laugh rumbling through the Allen Building like one of his [Harley-Davidson motorcycles],” Price said. “Above all, we feel bewildered to have lost such a great colleague, extraordinary mentor and true friend so suddenly and far too soon."

‘This man lived to serve’

In front of hundreds of family and community members, Brodhead told the story of how Wynn became his vice president of Durham and regional affairs and the warmth and passion with which he led the office.

Wynn had a love for Harley motorcycles and jazz music. He lit up when he talked about his son.

When Brodhead heard about his friend’s death, the president emeritus called his cell phone in an attempt to reach his wife. Instead, he was greeted by Wynn’s mailbox message.

“Though he was no more, that voice absolutely was Phail’s—so warm, so welcoming in the presence of others," Brodhead said.

Above all, Wynn was remembered for his decades of service to Duke and the city it calls home.

“This man lived to serve—to serve his nation, his family, his city, his community, his university,” Brodhead said. “And he was never less than 100 percent invested in any service he undertook.”