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McClernon Scholarship to help students interested in mental health care

By age 57, Robert Ernest “Bob” McClernon had already spent nearly half of his life in the ministry. So his family was understandably a little surprised when McClernon announced in 1987 his intentions to leave the church to pursue what apparently had been a lifelong passion: to help those with mental illness. For almost another decade, McClernon did just that, serving as a psychiatric social worker at John Umstead Hospital in Butner.

“He said it was the greatest job he ever had,” Daniel McClernon recalled of his father, who died eight years ago at age 74. “I just think he realized that there were a lack of organizations and safety nets for people who lived on the fringe of society, and he wanted to help them.”

That call to serve is one reason the late McClernon remains well-respected as a humanitarian and philanthropist. McClernon’s family hopes his contributions might also inspire social work students to give back to those the late minister and practitioner so compassionately cared about. To assist with those efforts, the family is establishing the Robert E. McClernon Memorial Scholarship, which will provide $5,000 annually to support a student interested in pursuing work in mental health.

“This scholarship is about honoring my father because he helped so many different people,” Daniel said.

Born in Springfield, MO, Bob McClernon learned at an early age the value of lending a hand to others in need. “There were many unrelated individuals who reached out and nurtured him during his childhood, and I think that instilled in him a desire to give back,” Daniel said.

McClernon graduated from Drury College in Springfield in 1952 with a BA degree in sociology. He then decided to enroll in the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he earned his master’s degree three years later. During that time, he also served two years in the Naval Reserves.

His ministerial career brought him to Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, where he served as a minister of adult education and then to Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, where he was named senior minister and served for 22 years. During his tenure in Durham, McClernon helped develop several programs to assist individuals during times of crisis, including a shelter for homeless women and a program that provides free or inexpensive housing accommodations for relatives visiting inpatients at Duke University Medical Center. McClernon eventually left Watts Street Baptist to become a member of Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, where he also acted as an interim minister. He stayed until the late 1980s when he decided to pursue social work. He remained at John Umstead Hospital until his retirement in 1996.

McClernon’s family had long hoped to do something special to honor the late minister and social worker. Although his father did not graduate from Carolina, Daniel said his family has many ties to the University, beginning with his parents who became friends with retired UNC basketball coach Dean Smith many years ago. That friendship extended to Smith’s sister, Joanne Ewing, who attended school with Daniel’s mother, Jonell Willhauck McClernon, a retired nurse who still lives in Durham. Daniel’s sister, Elizabeth M. Becker, also received her master’s in education at Carolina in 1984.

Given McClernon’s passion for social work, the family agreed that establishing a scholarship at UNC’s School of Social Work would be a great way to recognize his achievements and to support graduate students academically.

“One of the things we always talked about was that UNC has a well-respected and reputable program, producing high-quality graduates,” said Anita McClernon, Daniel’s wife. “And we wanted this scholarship to be associated with a North Carolina school and what better than one that’s right down the road that we have ties to.”

School officials praised McClernon’s dedication to the profession and his family’s “generosity and commitment to ensuring that MSW students interested in mental health will be supported.”

“Bob McClernon was an extraordinary person who helped many, many people during his career as a minister and a psychiatric social worker,” said Mary Beth Hernandez, the School’s associate dean for advancement. “Receiving the scholarship will be both an honor and an inspiration for MSW students who plan to follow in Bob’s footsteps by serving those with mental illness.”

For more information about the impact of giving to the School of Social Work, please contact Mary Beth Hernandez,