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Wyatt and Mary Upchurch gift $1M to UNCP School of Business in honor of late son

Wyatt and Mary Upchurch

Wyatt Upchurch has reaped the rewards from running one of the region’s largest turkey hatchery operations.

Since retired, this business leader and turkey farmer-turned-philanthropist has chosen to invest in Southeastern North Carolina’s future through UNCP’s vision for a new School of Business building.

Upchurch and his wife, Mary, are donating $1 million toward the construction of a $36 million building that will house the School of Business.

The motivation for their gift is a sentimental one for the Raeford couple.

“We wanted to do something in memory of our son,” he said. “We did some research and felt like this would be the best opportunity for him to be remembered for a long time.

“This gift will be an asset to the university and an asset for us to give to the university.”

The Upchurch Auditorium in the new building will be named in honor of Wyatt Jeffrey Upchurch who died in 1976 after battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was 16.

The state-of-the-art School of Business building will be built near the main entrance of campus. Included in the plans are a career center, auditorium, a video conference room, computer lab, trading room, and a multi-media resource room.

UNCP received $23 million from the Connect NC Bond in 2016. Including this gift, the university has received $9 million in additional contributions from organizations and individuals.

The university has additionally received a $3 million endowment for building maintenance and program operations.

“We are overjoyed to be a part of this project,” Wyatt said. “I know it will be successful because of the support it has received from the chancellor and others.”

The new building, Upchurch says, will attract more students locally, regionally and nationally to UNC Pembroke. UNCP business student Harrison Pegram said the new building will have great impact on the university and the region for years to come.

“Pembroke has a large opportunity to grow and this would significantly help not only our college but our town,” said Pegram, a junior from Greensboro. “The new facility will serve as a recruitment tool for the university and a catalyst for growth in the surrounding communities.”

Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings said the university cannot thank the Upchurches enough for their investment in the lives of our students.

“As pillars of agribusiness, Wyatt and Mary Upchurch made massive contributions to our region’s economy and laid the groundwork for a thriving food-production industry that provides so many livelihoods today.

“Through their generous gift to the UNCP School of Business, the Upchurches will continue to drive job creation and investment in southeastern North Carolina for generations to come. “

The Upchurches owned Tar Heel Turkey Hatchery in Raeford which at its peak, the 26-farm operation was hatching 15 million turkeys a year and producing 350,000 eggs a week. Wyatt was president of the National Turkey Federation in 1990.

They sold the hatchery to Butterball in 2010, but Wyatt says his success didn’t come without tough lessons he learned as a young entrepreneur.

“In 1957, I grew my first flock of turkeys and I lost money on them,” he said. “I lost money because of ignorance and not knowing how to handle them. I was learning from the school of hard knocks.”

“That’s why I hope students will learn these lessons in the business school without having to do it the hard way.

Wyatt Upchurch, who was born in Lee County, worked early in his career as the eastern sales manager for Priebe Poultry based in Chicago. Constant travel and time away from his family led him to become an entrepreneur. In 1962, he established Upchurch Turkey Farms, and became partners with Tom Cameron, a well-known businessman who ran a milling company.

He built the first turkey hatchery in Raeford in 1965. After 10 years with Cameron, Upchurch purchased the breeder operation and hatchery and formed Tar Heel Turkey Hatchery. Upchurch later expanded into commercial hog production.

They sold part of the company to Carroll’s Foods – known today as Smithfield – in the 1970s. Upchurch and his wife, Mary, grew the business to more than 200 employees. A large office complex was built in 1993.

For three decades, the Upchurches – who celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary on February 6 – served their community in many capacities. Wyatt was president of the Raeford-Hoke Chamber of Commerce. He served on the Hoke County Economic Board, North Carolina Southeast Economic Development Board and was a Hoke County commissioner for 10 years.

He continues to serve on the Lumbee River Electric Corporation Board of Directors. In 2003, Wyatt was inducted into North Carolina Poultry Federation’s Hall of Fame.

Mary Upchurch served for 28 years as a member of the Board of Trustees at Sandhills Community College. They are also active members of Raeford Presbyterian Church.

Cummings adds, “It is the foresight and generosity from visionaries like Wyatt and Mary Upchurch that will boost UNCP’s role in spurring economic development across southeastern North Carolina.”