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President of St. Augustine’s University in North Carolina dies of covid-19 complications

Saint Augustine's University President Irving Pressley McPhail speaks at a an induction ceremony in August for the Class of 2024. McPhail died Oct. 15. (Jerrell Jordan /Jordan Esteem Photography )
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The president of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C., died Thursday of complications from the coronavirus, the school announced.

Irving Pressley McPhail became president of the private historically Black university in July.

McPhail self-quarantined about three weeks ago after he feared he may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, said James Perry, a former Florida Supreme Court justice and the chairman of the school’s board of trustees.

McPhail tested positive while still mostly asymptomatic, Perry said. But about two weeks ago, McPhail had difficulty breathing and was taken to the emergency room. His condition seemed to be improving while he was hospitalized, but about three days ago, he took a turn for the worse, Perry said. He died Thursday night.

“We were very hopeful and prayerful,” Perry said, “But that’s the nature of this pandemic. Nobody knows what it’s going to do.”

McPhail was an inspiration to the students, Perry said. “He had the Ivy League background — but he didn’t have the Ivy League arrogance.” McPhail was a first-generation college student, born and raised in Harlem, Perry said. “Our students could relate.

“He was a good person,” Perry said. “That’s my ultimate compliment.”

McPhail earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, his master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to hold numerous leadership roles in education and nonprofit organizations, including serving as the founding chancellor of the Community College of Baltimore County.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) mourned McPhail’s death with a statement on social media.

The university plans a memorial on campus Oct. 27, with spacing and other safeguards, and a virtual event as well.

The News & Observer reported that people gathered in the rain Friday for a prayer and to leave long-stemmed roses outside of McPhail’s house on campus. He told the outlet in August, as students were returning for the semester, that he ended every day driving around campus, checking on whether students were following public-health guidelines, and rolling down his window to remind them to stay safe.

The school has only had a couple of positive coronavirus tests among students, Perry said.

He said McPhail was a stickler for following health protocols, and made clear that anyone who didn’t comply would be sent home. Perry said St. Augustine’s students, like many at HBCUs, didn’t have the privilege to feel immune from the virus, or invulnerable.

“Our kids know it’s real,” he said.

McPhail “was very careful in what he did,” Perry said. “Life is tenuous — very tenuous.”