HATTIESBURG — J. Ralph Noonkester, who served as president of William Carey University for 33 years, has died at the age of 88.
Officials with Hulett-Winstead Funeral Home in Hattiesburg say Noonkester died early Monday after a brief illness. The cause of death was not released.
Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Main Street Baptist Church in Hattiesburg.
When Noonkester became president at age 32, William Carey’s enrollment stood at 400 students.
By the time he retired, it was 1,700 students. During his tenure as president, Noonkester oversaw the school’s accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, as well as the establishment of campuses in Gulfport and New Orleans.
At the height of the civil rights strife in 1965, Noonkester made William Carey the first private college in Mississippi to admit black students. That decision came with consequences, said his son, Myron.
“There was a cross-burning in our front lawn. We all knew what that meant,” Myron Noonkester told the Hattiesburg American.
Myron Nookester says consequences also came in the form of 50 or so hate letters when Ralph Noonkester, as president of the Chamber of Commerce, raised donations to rebuild the home of Vernon Dahmer.
Dahmer, a black voter registration activist, died in 1966 when the Ku Klux Klan firebombed his house. Ralph Noonkester had a longstanding friendship with the Dahmer family.
“He was a very loving, caring person and he cared very much about the plight of the black person at that time,” said Vernon Dahmer’s widow, Ellie Dahmer.
In 2007 William Carey University named the Ralph and Naomi Noonkester School of Arts and Letters for him and for his wife.
Survivors include his wife, Naomi; three sisters; a son and a daughter; and three grandchildren.