Remembering Bill Small, who “assisted, encouraged, inspired and advocated on behalf of thousands of students” at the Gillings School

April 22, 2021

Bill Small

Bill Small

William T. “Bill” Small Jr., MSPH, compassionate student mentor and champion of equity in public health education, died on April 18 at the age of 82. He tirelessly served the students of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and in particular students of color, for 28 years until his retirement in 1999 as associate dean and senior advisor for multicultural affairs.

A native of Wilmington, North Carolina, Small earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in 1965 and later came to UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue a Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) degree from the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE).

“He was convinced to apply to the MSPH program by his friend Otto White Jr.,” said Barbara Turpin, PhD, chair and professor of environmental science and engineering. “Bill Small and Otto White were ESE’s first African-American students.”

Small graduated in 1969 and joined the North Carolina State Board of Health (now known as the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services) as an occupational health chemist.

In 1971, Roamless Hudson Jr. of the Black Student Caucus (now the Minority Student Caucus) approached Small with a request to improve representation from students of color within the public health program. At the time, Black students represented only 2% of the student body. Small joined the Gillings School as coordinator of minority affairs, and during his tenure moved into the roles of assistant dean for students, associate dean for students, and associate dean and senior advisor for multicultural affairs.

While at the School, Dean Small created a legacy of strengthening student relationships and advocating for equity in public health education. His recruitment efforts with underrepresented populations led him to form life-changing relationships with students of all backgrounds. He was a listening ear and a source of advice, assistance, encouragement and friendship to students before, during and long after graduation.

“Students are extremely exciting to work with because unexpected things happen,” Small once told a writer for UNC. “Each day is different, and you have to be prepared to handle whatever comes up. It always meant a lot to me to see and sense the leadership qualities in students. To see someone grow into a leadership role is something special.”

“Dean Small devoted his career to helping others,” recalled Victor Schoenbach, PhD, emeritus professor of epidemiology, “by making them aware of opportunities and then helping them to realize those opportunities, by encouraging people to develop goals and then helping them to achieve those goals, by helping people to learn, to grow, to solve problems, to overcome obstacles, to collaborate and to celebrate. He was a master listener, confidant, sounding board, strategist, advisor, facilitator, administrator and educator. He was wise, trusted, fair, compassionate and realistic.”

Bill Small and the 2007-08 Minority Student Caucus executive board.

Bill Small and the 2007-08 Minority Student Caucus executive board

Through his passion and dedication to the cause of student growth, he enabled pathways to educational and professional success, helped shape the Minority Student Caucus and supported the foundation of the Minority Health Conference.

“Dean Small went out to find minority students to come to the School, traveling all over N.C. and beyond,” said Dean Emeritus William L. Roper, MD, during the opening of the 21st Annual Minority Health Conference in 1999. “He opened doors for them, found money and stayed available to them all the way through their degree programs. Dean Small somehow never got into the spirit of self-promotion. But from now on he will not be able to escape recognition entirely, since henceforth the keynote address will bear his name.”

And, indeed, for over two decades, the highlight of the conference has been the “Annual William T. Small Jr. Keynote Lecture.”

In 2004, health behavior alumna Danielle Spurlock, PhD, (Master of Public Health ’05) – then the conference co-chair and now assistant professor at UNC – opened the keynote by saying, “during nearly 30 years, Dean Small assisted, encouraged, inspired and advocated on behalf of thousands of students.”

Small was active in numerous activities and programs with faculty, students and staff and received numerous awards and recognitions, including appreciation awards from the Minority Student Caucus and an Outstanding Service Award from Gillings School students. In 1984, he was appointed to the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission by Governor James B. Hunt for a four-year term. At the University level, Small was recognized as Student Organization Advisor of the Year and received the Harvey Elliot Beech Award from the UNC Black Alumni Reunion. The year he retired, Small was honored with the C. Knox Massey Award. Nationally, he was recognized by the Black Caucus of Health Workers of the American Public Health Association with the Award for Outstanding Health Service to the Minority Community.

Rosa and Bill Small

Rosa and Bill Small

Small never stopped believing in and working for public health initiatives, diversity and educational opportunities for students of underrepresented backgrounds at UNC. In 2010, he and his wife, Rosa, endowed the William Thomas Small Jr. and Rosa Williamson Small Scholarship. This Gillings scholarship focuses on enhancing the social, economic and cultural diversity of the student body.

After retirement, Small served as visiting professor at NCCU and St. Augustine’s College. He and Hudson established what became the first undergraduate program in industrial hygiene and safety at a historically Black institution of higher learning. Small maintained an active role in local community health issues, serving as vice-chairman of the Durham County Board of Health and on the board of Housing for New Hope, an organization dedicated to serving homeless individuals and families in Durham County.

“For many public health warriors of color, our entry into the profession began with a call from Dean Small,” noted LaVerne Reid, PhD, a 1977 Master of Public Health alumna who is currently professor and interim associate dean at NCCU. “He monitored our progression from start to finish and into careers. Never a more kind and knowing person have I met.

“When he retired from UNC, we welcomed him as an adjunct professor at NCCU, where he continued his brand of mentoring with our undergraduate public health students. As the department chair at that time, I was surrounded by my cadre of mentors from my UNC School of Public Health days serving as adjunct faculty and researchers at NCCU upon retirement from UNC. I consider those my glory days. Bill brought the same esteem and wealth of experience for the field to NCCU that we had experienced when he recruited us for the School of Public Health. The wisdom shared by Bill, John Hatch and Ted Parrish was beyond measure. I remained a willing student as they espoused their vision for our program.

“That vision continues. Our identity was shaped in part by this gentle giant. Thank you, Bill. We owe you so very much.”

Small is survived by his daughter Maria J. Small, MD, and was preceded in death by his wife, Rosa Williamson Small, and daughter Sheila Faye Small-Glover. A funeral service was held in Durham, N.C. on April 22. Condolences and memories of Small can be shared online, and a collection of Small’s contributions to UNC can be found in Schoenbach’s archive.

In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made in his memory to the following funds:

The William Thomas Small Jr. and Rosa Williamson Small Scholarship, available to all Gillings School students with particular attention to enhancing the social, economic and cultural diversity of the student body.

Ivy Community Center, designating the Rosa W. Small Scholarship on the memo line. The address is 4222 Fayetteville Rd., Durham, N.C. 27713.

The NCCU Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 19363, Durham, N.C. 27707, designating the William T. and Rosa W. Small Endowed Scholarship on the memo line. Memorial contributions may be provided online, including the William T. and Rosa W. Small Endowed Scholarship Fund in the additional gift designation box.


Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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