Charles J. McCann, best known as founding president of The Evergreen State College, died July 8 of natural causes. He was 89.
McCann became Evergreen’s first president in 1968, three years before the first day of classes at the experimental college in Olympia’s wooded outskirts. He is credited with setting the experimental tone at the nontraditional college with no letter grades and no formal undergraduate majors.
In 1977, he left the post to teach English literature at Evergreen until retiring in 1991 and continuing as an emeritus professor until 2009. Prior to joining the college, he had been a faculty and administrator at Central Washington State College in Ellensburg..
McCann was born Feb. 24, 1926, and grew up in Bristol, Connecticut. He received multiple degrees from Yale University, including a bachelor of arts in naval science, master of arts in English, a Ph.D. in English and a Ph.D. in organization and management. He held a master’s in science in merchandising from New York University. In 1996, he received Evergreen’s first honorary degree, a master’s of public administration.
His wife, Barbara McCann, died March 31, 2013. She had been a key presence on campus as Evergreen’s first first lady, according to college archives, and a scholarship was established in her honor.
Rudy and Gail Martin were two of McCann’s longtime friends and colleagues. Gail Martin first met McCann while she studied at Central Washington in 1963, and she eventually joined the Evergreen faculty with her husband.
She described McCann as a visionary who offered unconditional support to Evergreen students and faculty. McCann had a short list of things the professors were not allowed to do, such as forming departments or duplicating programs from other campuses. Otherwise, he conveyed “an extraordinary level of respect and trust” for the faculty.
“When it came to discussing what we would do, he basically just got out of the way,” Martin told The Olympian. “He was trying to get people to imagine a different kind of education.”
And when McCann stepped down from the presidency, “Charlie was happy as a clam to roll up his sleeves and start teaching again,” she said.
Karen Cochrane, who graduated from Evergreen in 1976, told The Olympian that she remembers McCann for his accessibility and kindness. His door was always open to anyone at any time, she said.
“He had a great way with words. He was very inspirational and encouraging,” said Cochrane, who now lives in Hawaii. “He had a way of asking questions that really made you think.”
Evergreen’s outside-the-box approach was a good fit for Cochrane, who eventually went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience. In those days when hippie values flourished, “the big joke on campus was that we were created as a camp to gather all the radicals together to keep an eye on us,” she said.
However, there was nothing “cookie cutter” about Evergreen’s textbook-free and discussion-rich learning environment, Cochrane said. She praised the integrative and holistic programs that helped her grow intellectually in a way that a traditional college could not.
“Charles McCann was the guy who made that happen,” she said. “He really was just the right person to get that school started.”
McCann’s family is planning a private memorial service, according to an announcement by Evergreen President Les Purce. As part of tradition, the college will raise a black flag as a sign of respect and mourning.
In a statement issued Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee called McCann an education pioneer who helped everyone “imagine a different sort of college that would allow students to learn in a new way.”
“Evergreen likes to say that Geoducks do things a little bit better, or smarter, or just differently,” said Inslee, referring to the college’s mascot. “That stems in large part from Mr. McCann’s vision of a place in the woods where a diverse faculty would teach diverse students through interdisciplinary, collaborative and team-taught programs.”