The Man Behind the Name
At Wake Forest,
the McCreary name is hard to miss.
His story is hard to forget.
Huddled around their fellow teammate, the sweaty players rose from where they had taken a knee, counted off and let loose a guttural, “Deacs!” Before the man in the middle could flee, the mass of players hoisted him – a former lineman – on their shoulders. With their own serenade-like chant serving as their soundtrack, they carried their hero off the field.
It didn’t happen in front of a crowd of thousands on a Saturday; it was with the team and a small group of friends after practice on a Thursday. It wasn’t on the gridiron reserved for game day; it was on the practice field between Wingate Road and McCreary Field House. He wasn’t wearing his “74” black and gold jersey; he had on a black sweater vest. And he wasn’t in his 20s anymore; at last count, the passing years made him 77.
No doubt you’ve seen his name around the Reynolda Campus or in various places at BB&T Field. (“Don’t put my name on the tower,” he said, only to hear that the letters had already been ordered.) No doubt you’ve read press releases announcing his historic commitments or tweets offering thanks. And no doubt you figure you already know the story of a man who can’t seem to contain his generosity. But just when you think you know a guy, Bob McCreary (’61) will surprise you.
All that stands of Bob McCreary’s childhood home is the front porch and one side wall. For most of the year, it is hidden beneath the overgrown vegetation of Caldwell County, but there are a few weeks when the leaves fall and the growth holds itself back, offering Bob a glimpse of his roots.
“We lived in an old home,” revealed Christine McCreary (P ’61, P ’09), Bob’s 97-year-old mother. “But Bob goes twice a year to see it – because it’s home.”
It was where Christine and her late husband, Coy, raised their four sons: Bobby Joe, the oldest; then Max; then Larry, who was born without sight; and finally, Danny. The family of six squeezed into a four-room structure that had no indoor plumbing.
“It’s a given how we grew up – a house without running water,” said Bob. “But we never went to bed hungry or dirty.”
Like many in the area, Coy worked in a furniture factory, sanding the white oak from Grandfather Mountain. Christine stayed home with the boys, caring for them and tending a small farm – a cow, chickens, a hog every year and the large garden – that kept them fed. She canned hundreds of jars of vegetables, and every day, when the boys stormed through the door after school, she had a snack waiting. Something special. Every day.
The boys helped around the house, played sock ball in their tiny front yard and, from time to time, met other kids for a game of football in a nearby cow pasture – Bob’s first home field.
“We just lived an old country life,” Christine noted. “We had plenty to eat, but we didn’t have plenty of things. We were just poor people. We didn’t have much, but we loved each other.”
“I didn’t even realize we were poor until later in life because we had love,” remarked Bob.
It wasn’t just his family that showed him love, but people in his community. Taller than the rest of his fifth-grade classmates, a young Bob slumped in an attempt to disguise his height. His teacher, Mrs. Matthews, convinced him that his height would someday be an asset. Mrs. Kincaid, an 11th-grade English teacher, told Bob he could be the first in his family to go to college if he applied himself. “I excelled academically because of that conversation,” he remembers.
And being 6’2” and weighing in at 200 pounds by age 13, Bob was encouraged to play football. The first game he ever saw was the first one he ever played in. He was a solid player for the Hudson High School Hornets, but in his senior year, he transformed from a good player to a great player under the fiery coach, Jim “Bull” Newsome.
“Oh, I loved him!” Christine said. “He was a wonderful coach and a wonderful guy. He was good for Bob.”
“He made me a new person,” Bob remembers. “For some reason, I was inspired by Coach Newsome. I wanted to perform for him. I wanted to show him that I could do anything, and I pretty much could. I was bigger and stronger than most I came up against; I was able to dominate. But, not before. I was good before, but I would never have gotten where I did without his inspiration.”
Between Bull Newsome, Mrs. Kincaid and Mrs. Matthews, Bob had the athletic and academic ability and confidence that colleges were looking for; by the end of his senior season, Bob had received several scholarship offers to college, among them Clemson, Duke and Wake Forest.
No one in Bob’s family had ever been to college; not many in his town had either. “Nobody went to college,” Christine said. “A lot of people didn’t finish high school. They got a job in the furniture factory. I wanted my boys to finish high school more than anything in the world.”
“I was a 17-year-old who’d barely been out of Caldwell County,” explained Bob. “My mom and dad didn’t know how to direct me; they just wanted the best for me.”
After visiting a different college nearly every weekend, it came down to a footrace between Duke and Wake Forest. One Sunday morning, Bob told his mom that he was going to the school that contacted him next.
The following morning, Bill Hildebrand, an assistant football coach for Wake Forest, stood in the halls of Hudson High School. Bob signed to play for the Demon Deacons that day.
“And very gladly!” he smiled. “I never second-guessed it at all.”
“It was a huge deal,” remembers Larry McCreary (MALS ’09), Bob’s younger brother. “Going to college had never been done in the family before.”
Christine and her brother Bill took Bob to Wake Forest in the fall of 1957 to achieve a first for his family. “We saw where he would be. It was something,” she described. “I was very, very proud of him.”
In the late 1950s, Coy McCreary’s paycheck was docked one dollar a week for a year in order to help pay for the construction of Caldwell Memorial Hospital. “I remember how upset my dad was that his paycheck was docked,” Bob said. For Coy, a dollar meant a lot to his family.
Several months ago, Bob and his wife, Michele, walked through that very hospital. “It’s the same as it was back when it was built; there hasn’t been much done to it,” Bob remarked.
They met the head of surgery who has been serving the community for more than 20 years. They were introduced to the head of nursing, who started at the bottom of the organization and worked her way up over the past 30 years.
“You see how dedicated these people are, and you see what they’re doing with what they’ve got,” Bob said. “It’s amazing. They deserve better facilities.”
In June 2016, Bob and Michele gave the hospital – and the community – the lead gift to build the McCreary Surgery Center. Their neighbors will have access to good healthcare facilities without one dollar being docked from their paychecks.
“Bob looks after me. In the afternoon, when he gets home from work, he calls me. Even if he’s on vacation, he checks on me. We go places; we travel a lot. After my husband died, we went everywhere. Everywhere Bob and Michele went, they took me with them. He is so good to me. I couldn’t ask for a better son; I’m so lucky to have him.” Christine McCreary
Like all first-year college football players, “Big Bob” suited up for the freshman squad for his playing debut at Wake Forest. After a solid season that showed great promise for the coming years, the spring game was Bob’s opportunity to get his name on the varsity roster. He played offense and defense for every play – including the fateful last one.
“Last play, it happens,” remembers Bob. “Tore my medial collateral.”
Today, athletes return to competition in fairly short order following a typical MCL injury. But it was 1958.
“Back then, an injury like that could finish you,” he explained. “It was the end of your career.”
Almost before it had really started, Bob’s playing career teetered on extinction. Doctors put his leg in a cast for four weeks, hoping his knee would stabilize. When it didn’t, he found himself on an operating room table, where steady hands tried to repair his knee and salvage his football career. After a surgery that left a gnarled scar, he spent six more weeks in a cast.
“It was brutal,” Bob recalled.
Treatment and recovery caused Bob to fall behind in his schoolwork. But true to form, a Wake Forest professor came alongside Bob, offering help.
“Señor Delgado,” Bob smiled. “He was a true friend. I was not a great Spanish student, and that spring semester put me way behind. But Señor Delgado walked me through. Without him, I wouldn’t have gotten through college.”
Marcel Delgado wasn’t the only Wake Forester to help Bob. That summer, a future legend arrived at Wake Forest. R. Lewis Martin, better known as “Doc,” signed on as Wake Forest’s athletic trainer. Baseball cap atop his bald head and cigar snug in the corner of his mouth, the trainer started working with the injured tackle. Even after a summer of rehabilitating his knee, Bob was hesitant to return to the field for fall practices.
“It was not healed,” remembers Bob. “I was finding it a little hard to move the way I wanted to.”
And this is where the story turns to Wake Forest lore.
“There was a day I was out on the field,” recalled Bob, “and I just hobbled off sobbing and saying, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I’m going home.’”
Doc followed Bob off the field and into the training room.
“He gave me a talking to the only way Doc Martin could,” Bob smiled. “The bottom line was: ‘If you quit now, you’ll quit again.’”
Bob returned to the field that day, and by the third game of his sophomore year, he was playing confidently on a knee that never quit again.
“‘Don’t quit.’ That has stuck in my mind ever since,” Bob said.
When people remember Doc, they often grin, acknowledging the no-nonsense, direct approach the trainer never failed to use, but remembering the heart that always lingered just below the surface.
“Doc was tough on you, but he also cared,” Bob remarked. “He had an incredibly warm heart, but there was a façade that he had – that he was gruff, that he had a bull whip.”
The athlete who broke through the façade built a relationship with the trainer that spanned decades. They took road trips together to see Wake Forest play in bowl games. When Bob’s first son was born, Doc was named the godfather. And every November, there was a plate at the Thanksgiving table for Doc. In fact, for several years, the old trainer arrived at the celebration early and pushed the cart through the grocery store helping Michele pick up the fixings for the big meal.
“She loved Doc,” Bob said of Michele. “The guys that played for him did too.”
In the summer of 2008, that mutual friendship was proven when Bob and Michele rented several beach houses and invited old Wake Forest football players, Doc’s siblings and his extended family – some of whom he hadn’t seen in 50 years – to celebrate Doc’s 75th birthday.
“There they all were, sitting around telling stories and talking and laughing,” Michele remembers.
“We had a wonderful time that week,” commented Jody Puckett (’70, P ’00), a friend of both men. “I don’t think I saw Doc that happy for that long in my life. He was as rough and gruff an individual as you’ll meet, and that week, he was happier than I ever saw him.”
That birthday – one of the happiest times of his life – was also one of the last birthdays Doc would ever celebrate. The old trainer passed away on March 6, 2010.
To honor his persistent trainer and longtime friend, Bob gave funds to the Doc Martin Sports Medicine Endowment Fund that supports Wake Forest’s Sports Medicine Department. In 1989, he also helped fund the naming of the Doc Martin Football Practice Complex, a field dedicated to the head trainer who served Wake Forest for more than two decades, giving “more than his professional abilities, but also investing his heart and soul in that work.”
“I’m so glad I knew him,” Bob said. “If you knew him, you would not forget him.”
“I first met Bob in 1960. I was an incoming freshman, and he was a senior. I was amazed at how big he was. What in the world was I getting into? He was tough. I’ll never forget the third practice; we scrimmaged. He was an offensive tackle, and I was a defensive lineman. He just ran over me and knocked me down. From then on, I knew that if you got knocked down, you’d better get up fast.” Bill Faircloth (’64, P ’89, P ’90, P ’93, P ’94),
Former Assistant Athletics Director,
The sun was shining, and it had warmed up to 78 degrees by 2 p.m. – a perfect fall afternoon for college football. There were 36,000 filling Chapel Hill’s Kenan Stadium, including more than 3,500 instrument-wielding high schoolers on hand for Band Day.
Rivals since 1888, Wake Forest and Chapel Hill were set to battle for the 55th time. The Tar Heels led the Tobacco Road rivalry with 38 wins, including a three-point victory the year before in a muddy debacle in Winston-Salem.
This year, though, sportswriters had voted Wake Forest the favorite to take the ACC title. The Deacons had quarterback Norman Snead (’61), a farmer’s son with a threatening right arm, who would go on to set 15 conference records, earn All-American honors, be selected second in the NFL draft and play in four NFL Pro Bowls. But the Deacons lost their first three matchups in 1960, doing little to prove those writers prophetic. Luckily, the Tar Heels were having troubles of their own – winning their only game the week before against Notre Dame.
Carolina’s game strategy needed to include a way to thwart Snead’s arm, and that afternoon, it seemed their plans were working. The Wake Forest quarterback had failed to complete a single pass in the first three quarters, and a few ticks into the fourth, Carolina led 12-7.
But there was something that Carolina couldn’t devise a game plan for: heart. And it is likely that few in the stands knew exactly what inspired the boys in black and gold that day.
Running back Bill Skippon (’61), a senior who had been part of the reason why those sportswriters found Wake Forest’s season so promising, hadn’t been feeling well. He played the first game of the season against Clemson, and he had made a brief appearance in the second against Florida State. But it was after that game that doctors told Skip the reason he didn’t have the energy a 21-year-old athlete should: acute leukemia. In 1960, it was certain death, with only months attached to the sentence.
“At the beginning of the day, we dedicated the game to Skip – my best friend, roommate, teammate and fraternity brother,” remembers Bob. “And I played the game of my life.”
They all did.
Snead, finding his rhythm, threw a series of spirals, the last one landing in the hands of halfback Donnie Frederick (’63), who stood in the far left side of the end zone. There it was: Wake Forest 13, Carolina 12. Only 2:21 remained before victory was had.
With just a few seconds left on the clock, Bob, playing right tackle, approached the center.
“I went and got over the ball and told him to move over,” Bob explained. “I’d take care of the ball.”
So the right tackle lined up at center, and when the whistle blew ending the in-state contest, Bob held the game ball in his hands, just as he had planned.
“I ran to the sidelines and handed the ball to Skip,” Bob smiled. “That’s my greatest sports memory at Wake Forest.”
Not a game. Not a victory. Not sports at all. Just a special moment with his closest friend.
For the next several months, Skip traded time between classes and receiving treatment at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital. When he wasn’t in the hospital, Skip stayed at Doc Martin’s house so the trainer could care for and watch over his player.
On Saturday, April 22, 1961, the Deacons hosted the annual Black and Gold game, where all proceeds went to help defray the medical expenses for Skip and his family. Just hours after play ended, Bill Skippon passed away with Doc at his side.
After Skip lost his battle with cancer, Wake Forest awarded him its first-ever posthumous degree. Months later, Wake Forest opened its 1961 football season, and on the roster was a new running back – a freshman player named Piccolo.
The Skippon Lounge, located in Pruitt Football Center, was one of Bob’s first gifts to Wake Forest. It was created to honor his best friend and encourage the building of strong friendships. After watching Skip endure cancer treatment, Bob had a better understanding of what it meant for patients and their families to receive quality care close to home. In August 2012, the McCreary Cancer Center opened in Lenoir, North Carolina.
“I receive letters from people who went to the Cancer Center,” commented Bob. “They tell me how well they were treated. They don’t have to make the trip to Charlotte or Winston-Salem. They couldn’t afford it. So they go right in town, and they are treated like nowhere else.”
“Just look around and you’ll see the legacy of Bob McCreary. You’ll see him in so many things, but he also does many things behind the scenes that nobody ever knows about.” Jody Puckett (’70, P ’00)
After turning four college football teams with losing records into winning savants, Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf retired from coaching and became a scout for the San Francisco 49ers. It was early in his second career that he sat in the stands of Bowman Gray Stadium and was captivated by the Deacons’ right tackle.
Pappy revealed his findings to his front office, and on December 27, 1960, at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia, a decision was made that would change the life of a young man from Caldwell County. In the same year as Mike Ditka, Bob Lilly, Billy Kilmer and Wake Forest quarterback Norman Snead, Bob McCreary was the 65th player picked in the draft during the fifth round by San Francisco.
“I got a phone call,” Bob remembers. “‘We’ve drafted you. We want to offer you a contract. We’d like to meet you at the Winston-Salem airport next week.’ So, Pappy Waldorf came and paid me a signing-bonus check, which was more money than I’d ever seen.”
Bob traveled to the West Coast and spent training camp with the 49ers. But he didn’t stay long.
“They were just loaded with players,” explained Bob, “so they made a deal with Dallas, and I was shipped to Texas.”
Back in the 1960s, the Dallas Cowboys team offices were stashed in a corner of an automobile club. In between would-be vacationers mapping out trips, you could hear one-sided phone conversations concerning player contracts and team strategy. Practices were held at Burnett Field, a minor league baseball field that had gained a reputation as a breeding ground for rats. Rumor had it the rats chewed on shoulder pads, prompting the players to use pipes as their clotheslines to protect their jerseys, and scorpions slithered their way into the cleats of some, making it necessary to look before lacing. The offense huddled in the first-base dugout to plot their attack, and the defense convened in the third-base dugout. When it rained, the field and locker room showers flooded.
The earliest years of the Dallas Cowboys’ existence were a far cry from the multibillion-dollar enterprise it is today. To be fair, the entire NFL was a very different organization. In that day, most of the professional players actually had second – more lucrative – jobs, including Lou Groza, who sold insurance, and Jim Brown, who marketed Pepsi. The player salaries didn’t compare to the millions divvied out today; in fact, a modern right tackle makes in four plays what the same player in that position probably made in the early ’60s. Many weeks, players had to wait until Tuesday to get paid so the front offices could make sure the checks would clear.
This was the world where Bob McCreary found himself in 1961. It was Dallas’ second year in existence. To build the program from scratch, the Cowboys had selected a young, successful defensive coordinator from the New York Giants, who had coached alongside offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi. The first year had been trying for the new team, and Bob joined a winless squad led by the fedora-wearing legend, Tom Landry.
Hidden by his hat, Landry’s face gave up little, but his mind for the game formed the “Doomsday Defense” and other innovative tweaks that kept opponents scrambling.
“You didn’t respect how good he was until afterward. It took me a while to understand,” commented Bob. “But I have a great deal of respect for him. His character was impeccable, without question.”
Bob stayed with the Cowboys for a year and a half. Bob’s brother, Larry, a loyal Wake Forest fan who listened to Bob’s games religiously, remembers an exhibition game where Dallas took on the Baltimore Colts.
“Bob was playing against Gino Marchetti, an All-Pro, and he played well,” Larry recalled. “I don’t remember who won the game, but it was a good ballgame, and Bob did all right.”
In 1963, Bob and Pete Manning (’60), a former Chicago Bear, went to Canada. The Calgary Stampeders signed Bob for the season, but right before the first game, he suffered a severe concussion.
“I had probably had them before, but not like this,” he described. “I was in the hospital for two days.”
Once his thoughts cleared, he came to a decision. “I just said, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m not willing to pay the price. There’s a better way to make a living.’”
Bob, who had a no-cut contract, walked away from the game that Bull Newsome taught him to love. The game that led him to an education. The game that brought him his closest friends. The game that sent him around the country to discover places he had never seen before. The game that he learned in a Caldwell County cow pasture.
When Donald Gray, pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church of Catawba, was a young kid, he went to a baseball game in Atlanta that changed his entire outlook on life. He’d been from a poor area and didn’t have much opportunity. But there were people in his life who exposed him to different experiences and changed the way he thought about his future.
Now Gray is doing the same for other students. He takes hundreds of at-risk youth to Wake Forest football and basketball games; they travel to Charlotte Motor Speedway; they go to Discovery Place; and last year, they crossed the northern border into Canada. In the summers, he feeds more than 1,000 children a day through his church’s summer program.
Gray’s work is all about helping young people see beyond their current circumstances to a limitless future, so it’s natural that Bob and Michele would be interested in helping Gray and his work.
Just recently, the McCrearys offered their support to Think Before You Move, Gray’s organization. Together, they are working to build a community center where students can spend time building friendships, developing character and experiencing what was once just a dream.
“The first time I remember meeting Bob McCreary was at a Homecoming. I remember walking to the football practice fields, and there was this guy out there hitting our sleds and our tackling dummies. He was the only one there. I walked out on the field, and who was it? Bob McCreary. He was doing all the drills he used to do as a lineman at Wake Forest. He was sweating like he was in midseason form, and he was absolutely having a ball. He was in his 50s, and you’d have thought he was trying out for the Dallas Cowboys. He was getting energized for that afternoon’s game.” Ron Wellman (P ’98, P ’01, P ’04, P ’04),
Director of Athletics
His students called him “Fess.” He was known for his terrible driving skills, his even-worse singing ability and his great love of politics. He coached the debate team, taught in the speech department and, at the same time, served as mayor of Winston-Salem. And all the while, Frank Shirley inspired students.
“I met Dr. Shirley and took a speech class,” Bob said. “I found that I liked communicating. You can use your mind in so many different ways. There’s a lot of reasoning and thinking on your feet. That’s what I really enjoyed about it.”
In addition to Dr. Shirley, Bob also met Professor James Walton, an instrumental figure in the theater program. “He inspired you,” Bob commented. “I loved his courses.”
It was because of those courses that Bob found himself not just performing on the field, but exploring his talents on the stage. In the spring of 1959, the College Theater put on its production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In his review for the Old Gold and Black, then-senior Bob Sitton (’59) applauded Walton and his entire cast, including a motley crew of first-time actors, for a fine performance.
“An entire herd of Football Coach Paul Amen’s boys put their brawn together to turn in some of the most hilarious comic scenes ever presented on the Wake Forest boards,” Sitton extolled. “The ham sessions were led by Sammy Butler, with Bob McCreary, Bruce Smathers, Barry Hines and John Niznik contributing to the antics.
“If Will Shakespeare had cast the show himself, these boys, southern accents and all, would have been high on his list of clowns.”
Just as football had opened a door to attend Wake Forest, Wake Forest was introducing Bob to all sorts of new experiences. Having barely left Caldwell County until his teens, Bob was meeting people from around the country, learning foreign languages, finding his own voice and pursuing dreams.
When Pappy Waldorf called offering him a spot in the NFL, Bob was in his final year of college. He followed opportunity’s knock to the opposite end of the country, but he never forgot the work left undone in Winston-Salem. After his first season as one of Landry’s men, Bob returned for the spring semester to complete his degree. He enrolled in classes, but it was a struggle to stay in them.
“I was young, confused,” he admitted. “At the time, my best friend, Johnny Morris’ (’62) dad passed away. So I went to Murphy, North Carolina, to be with Johnny, and I never came back.”
He returned to the NFL that summer and went to Canada until that concussion ended his playing career. And while he knew there was a better way to make a living, he wasn’t sure what that would be just yet.
One memory that rang strong for Bob was Doc Martin, chasing after him and giving him that blistering talking to: “If you quit now, you’ll quit again.”
So, in the spring of 1963, Bob enrolled again at Wake Forest. To finish.
“I had gotten so far behind that it seemed it was impossible for me to graduate,” he remembers. “I had to pretty much get A’s and B’s on everything. But you don’t give up. I came back, and I made it. It was against the odds, but I achieved it. I made it happen. I got a diploma.”
In May 1963, Bob took his diploma home to his mother. More than five decades later, she still remembers seeing the first college diploma with the McCreary name on it. “Oh, it was great!” she smiled. “It was a special day. I was very proud of him. I still am.”
For Bob, the moment was important too.
“My mother and father were able to say, ‘My boy graduated from college.’”
The kid from Caldwell County, who didn’t see much until he left, has worked to give opportunity to the community that raised him. Inspired by Michele and perhaps his brief stint as a thespian, Bob has helped promote the arts in Newton, North Carolina.
The Green Room Community Theatre produces several shows a year. For years, rehearsal space was hard to find, costumes were stored in the basement of a church, and they rented an old auditorium for shows. At the same time, Newton’s old post office – built from monies from FDR’s New Deal – was standing vacant in the center of town.
The empty building avoided a date with the wrecking ball when Bob took one look at it, envisioned the possibilities and bought it. He gave it to the Green Room to build a playhouse – with enough rehearsal space, ample storage for costumes and props, and a beautiful gallery that preserves the history of the building and their town. Bob and Michele also helped with the renovations and additions that needed to be done, and the community contributed to support their fellow neighbors and celebrate the arts.
By the time the renovations were finished on the Old Post Office Playhouse in 2010, the Green Room was saddled with an overwhelming amount of debt. At a meeting of the board and capital campaign committee, Bob stood to comment. Certain that he was going to express disappointment about the fundraising efforts, those in the room were instead stunned. “You are incredible at putting on shows, but you’re not fundraisers,” Bob told them. “So, as of next week, you are debt-free. Go put on shows!”
Several members of the board let tears fall, and Bob got to do what brings him great joy: tell people about a gift that would dramatically change reality for them.
Each year, Bob and Michele’s company, McCreary Modern, sponsors one of the Green Room’s six shows. They buy out the theater and invite all of their employees. The first year, there were more actors on stage than people in the audience. But now, the audience is so large, they have to buy out the theater for two evenings.
“Bob is one of the kindest, most caring and most compassionate people that I have ever met. He quietly goes about doing good works for the community expecting nothing in return. Bob truly enjoys giving and trying to make life a little more enjoyable for the people in our area.” Sherry Butler, Executive Director of
the Green Room Community Theatre
Bob did what most people in his town did: He got a job in furniture. He started at the same company where his dad sanded white oak, but the younger McCreary took the challenge of the sales department. Under the wise guidance of Wes Collins, Bob learned about the industry. To understand the product, he spent a few months in the factory discovering the magic of manufacturing and merchandising. Then, he traveled the East Coast selling the furniture that his friends back home crafted.
“I owe so much to Wes Collins for his leadership,” Bob reflected. “As a young man in the industry, I thought if I could be like him, I would have arrived. I had much respect for him; he inspired me. I wanted to model my professional career after him.”
As a salesman for a manufacturer, Bob met a lot of furniture buyers. In the spring of 1983, he met Michele Acosta, a California native and buyer at an upscale furniture store in New York City. Bob, who was divorced, had no intention of pursuing a relationship, but that is exactly what happened.
Meanwhile, after several years perfecting his sales pitch and then gaining experience in management, Bob took on the challenge of overseeing a startup furniture company. For two years, he operated someone else’s business, all while thinking, ‘‘Someday I could do this for myself.”
Someday came in 1985.
In August, he married Michele, starting a wonderful partnership in life and in business. In November, they bought their first factory building. In December, Bob resigned from a stable, good-paying job, and in January 1986, Bob and Michele started McCreary Modern.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” confessed Bob. “We were literally starting from scratch. We mortgaged the house, bought the factory and started with no product, no customers, nothing. It was very risky.”
Their operation began in an old two-floor fiber mill in Newton, North Carolina. It had no air conditioning, the floors were warped and uneven, and the stairs looked somewhat dangerous.
“Here he goes and starts a little company with a few employees and a dream in a facility that probably wasn’t well-suited to furniture manufacturing,” remarked Robert McCreary, Bob’s oldest son. “If I really analyzed it looking back, I would say the conditions of that factory were minuscule and very precarious.”
And so were those first few months. In March, fresh into their business endeavor, Bob got incredibly sick.
“He couldn’t get out of bed, and we had this building and debt and 30 employees and few customers,” remembers Michele. “I had no idea how to hold on to it all.”
She wasn’t the only one concerned.
“I thought, ‘Have I made a mistake?’” commented Bob. “I’ve got payroll and all these other expenses, and I didn’t have the revenue return yet. But it was just one of those things where I had faith and was not intimidated by the challenge.”
Bob didn’t quit before; he wouldn’t quit now. After getting healthy, he called on the dealers across the country with whom he had built strong relationships during his time in sales. “Without exception, they all gave me help,” he said. “Within five months of starting, we were turning a profit.”
Part of that is because of the business model that Bob developed and perfected. From the very beginning, McCreary Modern was a private-label manufacturer; it co-designs furniture with its customers and makes it exclusive to those customers. McCreary Modern does not have a brand, which means it doesn’t have many sales, marketing or advertising expenses. This allows the company to price aggressively and gain market share. Because of this, it is aligned with the part of the furniture industry that is growing.
“From the start, McCreary Modern made furniture for customers and was not concerned about its own brand,” Robert said.
The business model isn’t the only thing that makes McCreary Modern a little different than the rest. Twenty years ago, many companies were taking their factories offshore. But McCreary Modern refused.
“We are going to stay here and keep our people employed, and we’re either going to make it or we’re not,” Bob stated.
And they’ve made it. What started in that rickety fiber mill has been transformed into six large production facilities in Catawba and Caldwell counties. Those first 30 employees multiplied to more than 1,000, and all of them receive a 401(k) plan in which McCreary gives them 25 cents on every dollar with no limit on that match.
But perhaps the most surprising move for McCreary Modern came in 2008. The McCrearys wanted to thank the employees who had done so much for the company; they wanted to entice new people into the furniture industry when so many seemed to be leaving it; and they wanted to secure the future of the company since there was no familial succession plan at the time.
After months of researching and planning, Bob and Michele created an answer that satisfied all three concerns. One December day, they went plant to plant to reveal their idea to their employees. They started at the sew plant, where mostly women cut and sew fabric for the furniture. Bob gave them an overview of the state of the business and where it looked like they were headed.
“He made it sound like we were going to sell the company,” said Michele. “People’s eyes got bigger and bigger. I could hear their hearts banging in their chests. I told Bob, ‘Stop it! Tell them right now!’”
At Michele's direction, Bob told his employees that he was giving 30 percent ownership of the company to them. They were not just working for McCreary Modern anymore; they were working for themselves.
“They cheered; some cried,” remembers Michele. “It was a wonderful day. It was monumental. We were changing people’s lives.”
As they shared the news at the other plants, cheers and cries also combined with looks of skepticism. It’s not often that people receive something for nothing.
There’s usually a price. But not that day; not at McCreary Modern. Ownership didn’t cost a penny.
Knowing that football was not always going to be what could feed his family, Bob relied on education, community and faith for his future. In 2011, after meeting Joe Haynes at the High Point Furniture Market and learning about his work at Wake Forest with Athletes in Action, Bob started supporting Joe’s work in helping athletes build their character and prepare for life after sports. Bob has also funded international scholarships so Wake Forest students can learn about other people, cultures and viewpoints different from their own.
“Leadership is everything in an organization, and you sense when you go to McCreary Modern that they follow Bob’s leadership, his passion, his desire and his drive for success. Bob is the full embodiment of Pro Humanitate. High integrity. A true gentleman. And a great, caring heart. He is successful, but he is always in tune with other people – what they’re doing and what they need.” Ashby Cook (’71, P ’01)
Bob and his first wife, Jo Hiergesell, had two sons – Robert and Christian – who would have made any parent proud. Because Bob’s work required significant travel and long hours, Jo was often alone raising their boys – a job she did exceptionally well.
“I give Jo so much credit for Robert and Christian developing into the fine young men they became,” Bob said.
As any parent knows, the years pass too quickly, and as boys do, Robert and Christian grew up. Robert pursued a career in finance for nearly 25 years and managed a hedge fund on Wall Street before joining McCreary Modern in 2013. Like his father, Christian had a deep love for the furniture industry, and after working with Bob off and on, the younger son ventured out and started his own furniture business.
“Christian was a budding star in the industry,” Bob said. “He was creating some exceptional product. He was extremely talented.”
But Christian also suffered from bipolar disorder.
“It was so tough,” Bob admitted. “You never knew who you were going to get.”
In the spring of 2009, it seemed to everyone looking in from the outside that Christian had found some peace. He had kind of gotten it all under control.
But things were not as they seemed. On June 26, 2009, at the age of 37, Christian tragically took his own life.
“He battled himself for years and, in most cases, won,” Bob commented. “He was incredibly loving and caring. He was incredibly talented and extremely giving.”
The McCrearys were left to grieve the loss of their son – his life, his enthusiasm, his talent, his potential.
At nearly the same time, a project that Bob was involved with had encountered some significant struggles. Several months earlier, Bob had signed on to produce the film, “The 5th Quarter.” It is the story of Wake Forest’s 2006 football season and the tragic death of middle linebacker Jon Abbate’s (’07) younger brother.
After the loss of Christian, the movie wasn’t just another family’s story about grieving the death of a son. It was now Bob’s life too.
“Not many people knew what was going on then,” Michele revealed.
In the middle of filming, the project was over budget and short on funds. Bob threw himself into the movie. He offered the money needed to finish it and was on set nearly every day making sure it was completed on time. On March 25, 2011, “The 5th Quarter” premiered in Winston-Salem.
“I didn’t know how I was going to get through that premiere,” Michele stated. It was tough and so emotional. But there are so many positive messages in that movie, including any person, family or team can be better than the things we all overcome.”
“The 5th Quarter” shows the strength of a family and the strength of the Wake Forest community. As it turned out, the man who produced it needed both.
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Catawba Memorial Hospital was no bigger than Bob McCreary’s office. As the McCrearys walked through the space, they found premature babies in the hallways; moms, babies and incubators crunched together; and new parents – at their most vulnerable – talking about what they were going to do next.
“It was just the way that it was,” Michele remembers. “I had no idea.”
Walking out to the car, Michele knew that she and Bob had to do something. Summoning her best Holly Hunter impersonation from the 1987 film, “Raising Arizona,” Michele got in the car, turned to Bob and said, “Bob, buy me that baby center.”
Knowing what it meant to lose a child, the McCrearys offered their support in 2012, and the hospital was able to build a space that can accommodate four times the number of babies it could before so families facing unthinkably difficult moments have a place to go.
“My brother Danny and I were down fishing on the Catawba one day in 1963, and I told him, ‘Bob’s going to do well. He’s really going to do well.’ I believed it. I was – and still am – a fan of Bob’s.” Larry McCreary
Just when you think you know a guy, he’ll surprise you. When his brother headed to college, Bob helped him buy new clothes. After his 106-and-a-half-year-old granny passed away, Bob gave a lead gift for a professional center and chapel for Caldwell Hospice and Palliative Care, which had cared for his grandmother so well. And though his high school promised a recreation center when he was a student, the community actually got it 10 years ago – when Bob built it for them. Then, during the recession, Bob wondered what would happen if he had to close the factory; in the middle of one of many sleepless nights, Michele had to remind him it wasn’t his responsibility to employ the entire county.
“We enjoy taking care of the community and our people and their families,” Michele said. “We are very fortunate to be able to give back to our community and make it a better place. Besides, it’s fun!”
“I never thought I’d be in a position to do anything because of the way I grew up,” Bob remarked. “But then I was fortunate to have some success in my life. I like to support the institutions and people that are highly responsible for where I am today. I get great pleasure in being able to help the community that I grew up in – to see people that I know benefit from my help. If I can do it, I want to help, because these people are worth helping.”
Next time you drive down University Parkway and look up at McCreary Tower, think of the small boy who grew up without indoor plumbing. When you pass by McCreary Field House, remember the right tackle who learned how to play football in a cow pasture. When you watch replays on the Bob McCreary Video Board, think of the son who has taken his mother to see the world. When you enter the Miller Center or glance at Bridger Field House, think of the man who loses sleep worrying about his friends and neighbors who are walking through a tough time.
That Thursday afternoon in October, Bob had just revealed to the campus community that he was giving another reality-changing gift to Wake Forest. When the young Deacons carried him off the field, it was a role reversal of sorts, because for so many years, Bob has been the one who has carried us – and many others – on his shoulders.
“I would like to be remembered as a poor country boy from very rural Caldwell County who did not forget where he came from; he gave back so perhaps some others from similar backgrounds might also achieve and share.” Bob McCreary