Dr. Jesse R. Peel leaves legacy of philanthropy and compassion at ECU

Dr. Jesse R. Peel once said he hoped to be remembered as someone who made a difference, that he “tried to do what he could.”

Few have made a difference as enduring as Peel during his four decades of support of East Carolina University and the region’s LGBTQ community. He devoted his life to serving and caring for others. Peel, 83, died Dec. 28 in Atlanta.

Bethann Casey Wilkie visits with Jesse Peel at her home in Grifton.

Bethann Casey Wilkie visits with Jesse Peel at her home in Grifton.

“Dr. Jesse Peel exemplified the impact and importance of friends in the success and reach of this university,” Chancellor Philip Rogers said. “Through the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center and the Rural Education Institute, and in providing opportunities for students to pursue success in arts and sciences, education, and medicine, Jesse gave his time and gifts to make a difference. Though he did not graduate from ECU, Jesse embraced his father’s belief in the university and generously supported our mission — to be a national model for student success, public service, and regional transformation.”

Peel was more than a donor. He was a friend and mentor to students and staff, a servant leader on advisory boards and advancement councils, a volunteer, and a catalyst of philanthropy. His gift in 2014 established what is now the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center, the largest center of its kind in the UNC System. His hope was that the center would positively impact the lives of LGBTQ young people for generations to come.

“The legacy of his philanthropy is one of the hallmarks of his impact at ECU and for the Peel LGBTQ Center in particular,” said Mark Rasdorf, senior associate director in intercultural affairs at ECU and director of the Peel Center. “I think Suite 209 in the Main Campus Student Center (the Peel Center) is perhaps the living legacy to his life, his work, his philanthropy and his belief that ECU is pivotal to improving the lives of people in our region – most especially the students at ECU.”

With his planned gift for the LGBTQ Center, Peel began to establish his support of ECU into perpetuity with multiple gifts from his estate. His early gifts provided more than $100,000 in funding for scholarships, student experiences and campus programs. A combination of gifts planned through his estate will provide nearly $2 million in funding across multiple campus priorities. Additional gifts – valued at more than $1 million – from his estate are expected in future years to support the work of the College of Education’s Rural Education Institute (REI).

Peel’s support and dedication to ECU was recognized in 2009 when he was presented an honorary ECU alumni award. He received the Student Affairs Vice Chancellor’s Advocacy Award in 2017.

Regional roots

Peel was born and raised in Everetts in rural Martin County, about 30 minutes from ECU. He received his undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Though he had lived in Atlanta since 1976, Peel returned to North Carolina frequently and never lost his connection and affection for the region.

Jesse Peel poses at a mural during a Love Wins fundraiser. Peel, who died in December, supported ECU and the region’s LGBTQ community for four decades.

Jesse Peel poses at a mural during a Love Wins fundraiser. Peel, who died in December, supported ECU and the region’s LGBTQ community for four decades.

Peel completed his residency in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent two years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, with tours in Vietnam and Okinawa.

He lived in San Francisco and Nashville before moving to Atlanta, where he spent his career practicing psychiatry until his retirement in 1992. He played a significant role in how Atlanta responded to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Peel was one of the founding members of several activist groups, including AID Atlanta and Positive Impact, a mental health program for people with HIV and their friends, family and caregivers.

Peel’s philanthropic support of ECU began in 1986 when he and his mother, Helen, established the J. Woolard Peel Scholarship in the Honors College. Their gift was influenced by his father’s belief that ECU represented the future of eastern North Carolina. They were among the first 10 families to establish the EC Scholars (now the Brinkley-Lane Scholars) program.

Jesse and Helen became involved with scholar selection events. He served as a judge annually, and she made personal presentations to scholarship recipients at their high school award days.

Peel also served on the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center Advancement Council, College of Education Professional Advisory Board and the Honors College Advancement Council.

His generosity was recognized by membership in each of the university’s donor recognition societies including Circle of Gold, Order of the Cupola, Chancellor’s Society, Leo W. Jenkins Society, and the Honors College Polaris Society.

Mentorship and scholarship

Michael Denning ’19 benefited in many ways from Peel’s philanthropy and mentorship. He received the J. Woolard Peel Scholarship as an EC Scholar (Brinkley-Lane Scholar) — the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship at ECU.

Scholarships covered most of Denning’s academic expenses and allowed him to study abroad in England, Northern Ireland and the Dominican Republic. Denning graduated early and Peel’s contribution helped Denning earn a bachelor’s degree in public health and a Master of Business Administration with a certificate in health care management, along with subsidizing his first year of medical school at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine.

ECU students celebrate Jesse Peel’s 80th birthday at his home in Atlanta.

ECU students celebrate Jesse Peel’s 80th birthday at his home in Atlanta.

“Having Dr. Peel as a donor was monumental,” Denning said. “During my first year at ECU, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Peel, actually in the Chili’s on campus at the Croatan. Even then, Dr. Peel was a force, as we sat and talked about all thing’s life for the next three hours, even after the restaurant had closed. He created a list of individuals for me to meet with across both Main and Health Sciences Campus, including Honors College administrators, Brody School of Medicine leadership and reading through his diaries archived at the LGBTQ Center. He was creating a structure for me to network with individuals, who would become my mentors across campus. Dr. Peel’s financial donation was career-altering, but his personal donation of his time, energy and care was truly life-altering.”

Under Peel’s guiding hand, one ECU alumnus transformed his dreams into realities.

“His support extended into my academic journey,” said Jon Cockerham Jr. ’19, who longed to add French expertise to his public relations and political science majors.

Cockerham met Peel as a volunteer at the LGBT resource office and embarked on an alternative spring break trip to Atlanta, during which their connection strengthened.

“Jesse’s ability to connect interpersonally with students went beyond events; his genuine interest in their stories and aspirations created a meaningful bond that made a lasting impact on the lives of many,” Cockerham said. “Encouraged by Jesse, whose wanderlust mirrored my aspirations, I began to further integrate the language into my daily life. Jesse’s personal encouragement and financial backing through the LGBT Pride Scholarship in spring 2019 enabled me to fulfill my dream, completing my Bachelor of Arts in French during the fall 2019 semester while studying abroad in Tours, France. His legacy lives on through the indelible impact he had on my academic journey and the countless lives he touched.”

Cockerham said Peel’s financial support of student endeavors was rooted in a deeper investment of the individual lives he impacted.

“Reflecting on a special moment six years ago, during one of my most challenging semesters in undergrad, Jesse gifted me a photo embroidery adorned with the quote, ‘A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.’ Originally given by his father to his mother, it stands as an enduring reminder to embrace challenges, venture beyond comfort zones, and navigate life’s peaks and valleys — a profound lesson I aspire to embody daily.”

Catalyst for philanthropy

Peel was frequently an early contributor to causes on campus and often the first to offer a fundraising challenge. His gifts routinely included language that they be used to solicit other support.

Peel, Jon Cockerham, Mark Rasdorf and Zachary Dale celebrate at the Peel Center’s Lavender Launch event in 2017. Cockerham and Dale received the Samantha Hamilton Award for LGBTQA Leadership Excellence.

Peel, Jon Cockerham, Mark Rasdorf and Zachary Dale celebrate at the Peel Center’s Lavender Launch event in 2017. Cockerham and Dale received the Samantha Hamilton Award for LGBTQA Leadership Excellence.

A crowdfunding campaign celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Peel Center holds a crowdfunding record at ECU. The effort raised more than $36,000, well above the $15,000 goal. Rasdorf said the campaign and its success was a source of enormous pride for Peel, as he believed strongly that the cause had to secure the financial buy-in from across campus and in the community.

Peel’s estate includes a $500,000 endowment to provide programming and operating support for the Peel Center. In establishing this endowment, it was his intent that LGBTQ students at ECU have the support, affirmation and resources he never had.

Rasdorf said he loved when Peel would visit Greenville for a special event and would be blown away by a program’s success. One of those events was the Love One Another symposium in February 2023. The half-day event explored the intersection of LGBTQ identities and faith traditions. In addition to faculty from philosophy and religious studies, the planning committee was composed of 15 leaders of faith from Greenville, Winterville, Raleigh, Morehead City and Atlantic Beach. Attendance at the first-time event exceeded expectations, with more than 200 people from across the region.

“It was, by far, one of the most impactful programs that we have done that not only served campus, but engaged people from across eastern North Carolina,” Rasdorf said. “Jesse was floating on clouds when I took him back to the airport the next day. Once again, he said, ‘Mark, we’ve got the tiger by the tail. No one else is doing work like this and I could not be more proud.’ He loved being a leader in the field and was so proud to be a part of all of this.”

Campus and community

Following his mother’s death in 2005, Peel established the J. Woolard and Helen Peel Distinguished Professorship in Religious Studies through her estate, as well as designated funds for the Brody School of Medicine and the College of Education’s Rural Education Institute. The professorship honored Peel’s parents and his mother’s profound love of her church.

The Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center opened in 2019 in ECU’s Main Campus Student Center. (ECU News photo)

The Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center opened in 2019 in ECU’s Main Campus Student Center. (ECU News photo)

“This momentous gift, together with a state match, enabled us to hire Dr. Mary Nyangweso as a third full-time faculty member in our program,” said Dr. Derek Maher, associate professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. “It was propitious that her research touched on issues in religion relating to gender, health care, and diversity, all things that are close to Jesse’s heart.”

A $500,000 gift from Peel’s estate will establish the Dr. Jesse R. Peel Distinguished Professorship in LGBTQ Studies in the Department of Sociology.

“The Department of Sociology has benefitted greatly from Jesse Peel’s generosity and faith in us,” said Dr. Kristen Myers, professor and chair of the department. “In his devotion to the well-being and educational advancement of LGBTQ+ students at ECU, Dr. Peel trusted the Department of Sociology to educate the next generation of students about social issues related to LGBTQ+ identities, rights and contributions to society.”

Through his estate, Peel also provided a gift to create an REI endowment to support programs and partnerships to engage regional communities. Peel wanted to provide support for the College of Education to bring topics and programs to the region that address the unique issues and challenges related to social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in rural schools.

“Dr. Peel was raised and educated in rural schools and believed in the work of the College of Education through REI as we seek to improve educational outcomes for rural children, schools and communities,” said Dr. Kristen Cuthrell, director of REI and professor in the College of Education. “He knew we would continue to collaborate with and empower school stakeholders to positively influence the lives of students.”

Because of Peel’s support, the College of Education’s REI will be able to provide training, opportunities for scholarship and collaborations for professional development focused on social justice and inclusion in education.

The voice on the line

Beyond the organized philanthropy, event participation and volunteering, Peel frequently showed up unexpectedly to support students and friends. He relished dropping in at the Peel Center and visiting students, and often he was the first to call when someone needed help or was working on a cause.

Two months after arriving at ECU, Rasdorf received the first of many calls from Peel. He was calling to propose that the two of them hit the road to visit LGBTQ programs in the Triangle. The time together began their collaboration and friendship and kicked off planning for the new center at ECU.

ECU students gather with Jesse Peel at the Fall Welcome and Social in fall 2022.

ECU students gather with Jesse Peel at the Fall Welcome and Social in fall 2022.

ECU first founded the LGBT resource office in 2011. The Peel Center opened in January 2019 in the new Main Campus Student Center.

“The grand opening was momentous and unforgettable. That evening, we held a dinner that we called PRIDE. We had hoped for about 125 people and we had to cut off ticket sales at 330,” Rasdorf said. “It was an ecstatic, celebratory evening and Jesse could not have been happier as he was surrounded by close friends and family, as well as ECU faculty and staff and community members.”

Bethann Casey Wilkie, of Grifton, and her family were the recipients of many Peel phone calls and visits. Wilkie met Peel through the center, where her family had turned for support when her child came out. The family found safety, love and acceptance in Peel and in the center at ECU. Wilkie has a treasured photograph of Peel at the Love Wins wings mural she painted at her farm. She painted a similar mural at the Peel Center.

“When Jesse Peel showed up at my house at a Love Wins fundraiser, you would have thought Harry Potter himself was standing in front of me,” Wilkie recalled. “I am so blessed to have known such an amazing and inspiring soul.”

The support from Peel didn’t stop at the center. Peel was the first person who called when Wilkie’s son was struggling with his mental health. “Being that he was an expert in the field, his support meant so much to us and he talked us through our next steps and even called (him) in the hospital and gave him the reassurance he needed,” Wilkie said.

In a November social media post, Wilkie shared the story of one of her elementary school students who was having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Thanksgiving. In short order there was a voicemail, “Hello Bethann, this is Jesse. PB&Js on Thanksgiving! Well, this just can’t be. Call me back so we can make this right.”

A legacy of compassion

Denning saw how Peel’s vision and actions reflect closely with the missions of ECU and the Brody School of Medicine.

Sabrina Lawing and Jesse Peel visit during the Lavender Launch ceremony May 4, 2023 at ECU’s Black Box Theater. The event celebrates graduating LGBTQ and ally students.

Sabrina Lawing and Jesse Peel visit during the Lavender Launch ceremony May 4, 2023 at ECU’s Black Box Theater. The event celebrates graduating LGBTQ and ally students.

“He cared for those who were often unseen, unheard and forgotten,” Denning said. “He ensured that his knowledge was not used only within the confines of the clinic walls, but out in the community via advocacy and support of laymen. He answered the call to serve when others were weary and afraid to. From my time at ECU and Brody, these qualities of care, grit, resilience and service are instilled in us as Pirates, so it is no surprise that Dr. Peel also cherished this institution.”

Shanne McPherson ’18 learned the value of listening from Peel.

McPherson, assistant district attorney for the Pitt County District Attorney’s Office, met Peel when McPherson was an undergraduate at ECU, and valued their conversations about life and the world around them.

McPherson became involved with the LGBT center during his undergraduate years and got to know Peel as a mentor and friend, relationships that extended beyond graduation.

“He was always willing to not only talk but listen,” McPherson said. “He was always there for people and was one of the kindest people I ever met. He always wanted to do something, always wanted to chat, sitting in the center and talking about life.”

McPherson also earned a scholarship through the Peel Center’s LGBTQ Priority Fund, a development that changed his life and continued to affect his future and career.

“He wrote one of my letters of recommendation for law school,” he said, “and that was definitely something I’m extremely grateful for to this day.”

McPherson said the center that bears his name will be part of Peel’s legacy for years and decades to come — and even beyond.

“He’s not going to be soon forgotten,” McPherson said. “The students who come especially in the next couple of years but even beyond will be told about the guy who used to come to the office and make everyone laugh. He’ll be remembered as someone who cared deeply about a community and place where he didn’t really need to. He was an extremely philanthropic person who was an amazing and remarkable example of what the community has come to be at ECU.”

Rose Bogue, program coordinator for the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center, was a student volunteer as the LGBTQ resource office was moving to its new space in the Main Campus Student Center. They remember the immense change from the small resource office in Brewster to the large, bright space in MCSC.

“Seeing the public reaction to the center made me realize that this was not just an upgrade for ECU students, but a historic move to advance access to LGBTQ resources and education for the people of eastern North Carolina,” Bogue said. “Through this evolution, my volunteering went from something I did to find community to something I did to provide community.”

Bogue said interacting with first-time visitors is one of the most rewarding parts of their job at the Peel Center.

“Some first-year students walk in with a stunning amount confidence, having done the research, calling ahead, choosing ECU specifically because we have this center and they know they belong here,” they said. “Perhaps just as often, we get students who have been at ECU for some time who knew the center existed, but never made it in for some reason or another. They tend to be surprised by the sheer volume of our offerings.”

The center will host “Hey Sweetie,” a celebration of life for Dr. Peel on Saturday, Feb. 24, at 3 p.m. in the ballrooms of ECU’s Main Campus Student Center. A meal will be served following the program. The public is invited to attend. RSVP is requested.