Cover image: Family gathering in Richmond, VA, July 20, 1985, left to right: William “Billy” Armfield, Dee Armfield Cannon, Massie Valentine, Edward M. “Ed” Armfield.

When North Carolina Textile Foundation (NCTF) Director George Ragsdale invited Mindy Oakley, executive director of the Edward M. Armfield Sr. Foundation, to a meeting to learn more about North Carolina State University’s Wilson College of Textiles, he told her: “‘Getting involved would be a fabulous opportunity for your foundation!’” Because George is “an unbelievable connector,” Oakley says—not to mention a gifted salesman—and because he “has vetted everything he’s involved with,” she readily agreed. Little could she have imagined that within six months of that initial meeting in January 2019, the Foundation would commit $500,000 to the College’s newly created Pioneer Scholarship program. In foundation speed, that timeline is nothing short of breakneck.

The aim of the Pioneer Scholarship program is “to provide a pathway to a college education for gifted students in North Carolina’s under-resourced rural communities,” says NCTF Executive Director Michael Ward. Scholarship recipients are likely to be first-generation college students who often lack the know-how, networks and self-confidence to apply to college. Dean David Hinks’ vision for this program—the first cohort of five Pioneer Scholars matriculates this fall for the class of 2024—is for it to grow to 16 fully endowed scholarships. The goal is that when the scholars graduate, they go back home and start businesses, jumpstarting local economies along with the textile industry statewide.

“The Armfield commitment to Pioneers represents a huge milestone for us,” says Ward, “a foundational building block for the entire program.”

Traditionally, the Greensboro-based Armfield Foundation has stayed mostly within its “umbrella focus” of funding scholarships for college-bound students from North Carolina’s Surry, Guilford and Randolph counties. But it made sense to the trustees and executive director to invest in the unique textile education program offered at State, for a whole host of reasons. For starters, the textiles industry built the fortune of the foundation’s namesake.

“I believe that Ed (Armfield) would have viewed this scholarship as a way to develop future managers and owners to sustain an industry that (he) loved, believed in and had been very good to him from a financial standpoint,” says Bedford Cannon, an Armfield Foundation trustee. “The university has never lost sight of its mission of expanding the body of knowledge with regard to the textile industry while graduating young men and women who will become leaders in the field. If the North Carolina textile industry is not only to survive but to expand and advance, it will be due to the efforts of North Carolina State University.”

Upon her first visit to the Wilson College of Textiles in late March 2019, Oakley embarked on a steep learning curve about the innovative, cutting-edge work being done here.

“From the minute I got there, it blew my mind,” says Oakley. She toured labs with sensors on mannequins, marveled at fashion applications and learned about specialized textiles applications for medical and dental use as well as for firefighters and the military. She was impressed by “hard-core engineers and levels of collaboration with other departments and entrepreneurs throughout the university.” Prior to the tour, Oakley had a vague sense of the local narrative of textiles as a declining industry—an impression quickly dashed that day. What’s more, she caught the infectious spirit of those she met on campus. “I would not undervalue the fact that Dean Hinks is a fabulous leader,” she says.

An added enhancement for the trustees was the opportunity to name its endowed scholarship for both Edward M. “Ed” Armfield and his nephew, William Johnston “Billy” Armfield, an original foundation trustee who had passed away just a few years earlier. That Billy Armfield had served as North Carolina Textile Foundation Board President from 1989 to 1991 only added to the program’s appeal.

The Pioneer Scholarship program takes its place alongside Wilson College’s prestigious, merit-based Centennial Scholarship program, now entering its 21st year. Dean Hinks’ articulation of the Pioneers program as a means of promoting economic development for rural Tier 1 and Tier 2 North Carolina counties through education resonated with the Armfield Foundation philosophy, and donor intent. For years when Edward Armfield’s factories were running in Surry County, he personally offered college scholarships to the children and grandchildren of his employees. College access and completion were always top of mind to Armfield. “Ed realized that a scholarship program providing access to education would help break the cycle of poverty,” says Adair Armfield, chair of the Board of Directors of the Foundation. Another plus for the Pioneers program is the wrap-around support and enrichment funds it provides to ensure student success. Happily, a student from Randolph County is in the first Pioneer cohort.

Oakley calls out the remarkable stewardship of the grant, including a recent Zoom call with Dean Hinks, Michael Ward, NCTF Board Chair Rick Elmore and a cadre of major donors. She was impressed to learn about “all the work the Wilson College is doing to improve the industry–especially significant in this Covid-19 era. It feels like the general public is now more aware of the importance of textiles. As a society, I don’t think we’ve valued the industry the way we do now.”

At the end of the day, Ragsdale’s recommendation proved to be spot on. “Being able to marry textiles and education in one grant,” says Oakley, “was for us a remarkable, synergistic opportunity.”

If you would like to learn more about ways to support the Pioneer Scholarship Program, please contact Michael Ward.