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Telling The Story of Resilience and Determination: Memorial Display Unveiled to Name the W. Duke Kimbrell Atrium

Kimbrell Family Unveiling Photo
A memorial display was unveiled to honor distinguished alumnus W. Duke Kimbrell ’49 in the college's W. Duke Kimbrell Atrium. In attendance at the unveiling ceremony were Dean David Hinks (center) and Kimbrell's daughters and grandchildren: (l-r) Davis Warlick, Shepard Halsch, Pamela Warlick and Collins Byers.

By Kamilah Heslop

Those who knew him often use a common phrase to describe W. Duke Kimbrell ’49: a force to be reckoned with. His journey to success is truly remarkable. 

He went from sweeping the floors as a 14-year-old summer employee at Parkdale Mills, the largest consumer of cotton in the United States and the world’s leading manufacturer of spun yarns, to leading the organization as its president and CEO. Today, he is ranked the second most influential textile executive in the 20th century by Textile World Magazine. Without his unmatched work ethic, this wouldn’t have been possible.

Before becoming a national textile leader, Kimbrell’s path took him first to NC State. After serving courageously in World War II, he followed his passion for textiles to the Wilson College of Textiles — known then as the School of Textiles. During holiday breaks, Kimbrell always returned to Parkdale to work. After graduating in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in textiles, he took his talents to Parkdale full time. The spirited young man quickly rose through the ranks and by 1967, Kimbrell had been named president and chairman of the company. Under his extraordinary leadership, Parkdale ballooned from having a single mill and 200 employees to becoming an organization with 26 plants, over 5,000 workers and $1 billion in annual sales.

Kimbrell’s love for his alma mater remained strong throughout his life. In addition to his annual support of the Wilson College of Textiles over the years, he joined with his fellow textile and apparel manufacturers in the late 80s to secure public and private investments for the college’s Centennial Campus building. His priceless connections to the industry also inspired the donation of multi-million dollar equipment to benefit innovative textile research and educational programs.

“I learned of Mr. Kimbrell’s incredible journey and steadfast support when I first came to NC State,” David Hinks, dean of the Wilson College of Textiles, said. “He was a guardian of the U.S. textile industry and Wilson College when it was needed the most. We will always be so grateful to him for all he did in transforming the lives of so many of our students.” 

In 2008, Kimbrell established a $3 million endowed scholarship fund for NC State’s textile students. Today, his remarkable support continues to fund the education of students from North Carolina with a focus on Gaston County. The Wilson College of Textiles has used Kimbrell’s gift to award life-changing scholarships to 73 individuals through two scholarship funds: the W. Duke Kimbrell Centennial Scholarship Fund and the Kimbrell Scholarship Fund. Currently, there are 17 Kimbrell Scholarship recipients on campus. 

Logan Givan speaking about the W. Duke Kimbrell Scholarship.
Wilson College of Textiles student Logan Givan shared how her W. Duke Kimbrell Scholarship changed her life after losing her father unexpectedly during her first year on campus.

One such scholarship recipient is Logan Givan, a junior at the Wilson College studying fashion and textile management. 

During her first year on campus, Givan lost her father unexpectedly. In turn, her life changed drastically. Her Kimbrell Scholarship served as the guiding light at the end of a tunnel that almost swallowed her whole. 

“I will always remember the feeling of unutterable relief that came over me, my mom and my little sister the second we opened the email congratulating the both of us on receiving the scholarship,” Givan said when speaking with the Kimbrell family. 

“The kindness that each one of you has shown to my family and me is so significant, and I will never forget it.”

Last summer, Givan’s connection to Kimbrell and Parkdale Mills was further strengthened when she worked at the company as a product manufacturing intern. She assisted Parkdale with manufacturing 17 million reusable masks to combat the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Givan was tasked with organizing shipment data for all of the materials needed to make the masks. 

“My work didn’t just impact me,” she said. “I had the opportunity to do my part in fighting COVID-19 while also diving deeper into my love for product development and management. My Kimbrell Scholarship was what empowered me to tackle such an important project.”

Dedicating the W. Duke Kimbrell Atrium and Unveiling a Storytelling Memorial Display

The legacy that Kimbrell left behind after his passing in 2014 is one of integrity, tenacity, ingenuity and generosity.

To recognize the mark that he made on the textile industry and the Wilson College of Textiles and its students, the college named the W. Duke Kimbrell Atrium in his memory. As the college’s largest gathering space, the 4,617-square-foot atrium inspires creativity, collaboration and discovery among students, staff, faculty and industry partners. 

On May 26, an intricate memorial display was unveiled in the W. Duke Kimbrell Atrium. The mounted display features actual cotton sliver, or unspun yarn, from Parkdale Mills, images of Kimbrell throughout the years and a written profile of his connection to the college.

Kimbrell memorial display
An intricate memorial display featuring unspun cotton yarn from Parkdale Mills was unveiled in the W. Duke Kimbrell Atrium on May 26. Photo courtesy of Eleven Fifty Seven.

“Time and time again, Mr. Kimbrell’s exceptional character and generosity were on full display including his support of this college,” Michael Ward, executive director of the college’s philanthropic arm, the North Carolina Textile Foundation, said during the ceremony. “I know he would be so proud of his college and the increasing impact it is having on our industry in North Carolina and beyond.”

In attendance at the unveiling ceremony were his daughters, Pamela Warlick and Shepard Halsch, his grandson Davis Warlick, executive vice president at Parkdale Mills, and his granddaughter Collins Byers. They were joined by representatives from the W. Duke Kimbrell Family Foundation. 

“It tells his story,” Pamela Warlick said, tearfully, about the memorial display. “This is such a beautiful way to honor our father’s memory. To know that countless students will be able to read about his influence on Parkdale and the entire textile industry along with his love for this college is invaluable.” 

CLICK THE IMAGES BELOW TO ENLARGE

In addition to being honored by the Wilson College of Textiles, Kimbrell has been recognized by the university and UNC System with three of their highest honors:

  • NC State’s Watauga Medal, which honors individuals who have made significant contributions to the advancement of the university, in 1995.
  • The UNC System University Award, which is the highest honor conferred by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, in 1996.
  • An honorary doctorate of humane letters, in recognition of his achievements of extraordinary and lasting distinction, from NC State in 2005.

Kimbrell leaves behind an inspiring legacy that will be admired and emulated by the countless generations of textile entrepreneurs, researchers, designers, engineers, scientists, management leaders, educators and innovators to come.