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A nationally renowned women’s basketball coach, a long-serving FMU administrator and a Pee Dee legislator to receive FMU honorary degrees, May 9


FLORENCE – A nationally renowned women’s basketball coach, a long-serving FMU administrator and a Pee Dee legislator will be awarded honorary degrees from FMU during spring commencement ceremonies at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 9, in the Smith University Center gymnasium.  

Selected to receive honorary doctoral degrees are: University of North Carolina’s Head Women’s Basketball Coach Sylvia Hatchell of Chapel Hill, N.C., FMU’s Vice President of Public and Community Affairs Elizabeth I. “Libby” Cooper of Florence and Rep. Denny Woodall Neilson of Darlington representing House of Representatives District 56. 

Hatchell will also be commencement speaker for the 372 candidates for FMU degrees. Candidates include 340 students for undergraduate degrees and 32 for graduate diplomas.   

Cooper is no stranger to higher education, having spent 29 of her 34 years of state service as an employee at FMU. As vice president for public and community affairs, Cooper is responsible for communicating the FMU story to its various publics - on and off campus - by establishing and increasing awareness of university programs, policies, opportunities, goals and achievements. She has worked with the corporate community, civic organizations, and local and state government agencies on projects designed for the betterment of the university and the region it serves. In addition, she supervises the Alumni Office and provides oversight of the Mail Center, Printing Services and Channel 11, the local government access channel. She coordinates a number of university events including Art’s Alive and the Pee Dee International Festival.  

Before making her way to FMU in 1980, Cooper was a research analyst and editorial assistant for the S.C. House of Representatives Committee on Historical Research in Columbia for five years. 

Cooper earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of South Carolina. Her collegiate awards include Phi Beta Kappa honors, President's Honor Roll, Dean's List, freshman honorary sorority Alpha Lambda Delta inductee, Newcomen Award in Material History and the Hampton in History Award. Cooper’s professional honors include Phi Kappa Phi and Beta Gamma Sigma inductions.

Her community service and professional activities include service on the following boards: Tribute to Women & Industry, Florence Downtown Development Corporation, United Way of Florence County, Florence Regional Arts Alliance, Pee Dee Education Center, Lighthouse Ministries, Pee Dee Education Foundation and Florence YMCA. Professional affiliations include the College Business Management Institute and Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. 

She has also served on the City of Florence Census Committee, American Heart Walk Steering Committee, WBTW News 13 Advisory Committee, Chamber of Commerce Membership Drive, Florence Breakfast Rotary Club, S.C. Executive Institute, Governor's Task Force – S.C. Public/Private Childcare and Junior League of Florence, and she is the national chairman of the Women in Ministry Committee for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The Girl Scouts of Eastern South Carolina recently honored her with the Mary Dean Brewer Women of Distinction Award. 

She and her husband Steve reside in Florence. 

After more than 1,000 career games and 33 seasons of coaching, it stands to reason that Hatchell would belong to some exclusive clubs. The University of North Carolina’s Head Women’s Basketball Coach was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004. The Gastonia, N.C., native is one of only four head coaches in Division I history to reach the 800-win plateau. Hatchell is the third-winningest active coach in the nation. She has been named national coach of the year three times and has led teams to at least 20 wins 25 times, fifth-most nationally. 

While Hatchell keeps impressive company in many categories, she is also part of an exclusive club that features just one member. When UNC defeated Louisiana Tech to win the 1994 NCAA Championship, Hatchell became the first and only coach to lead teams to national championships at the AIAW, NAIA and NCAA levels. Those titles - the first two coming at Francis Marion - are the crown jewels in one of the most decorated coaching careers in women's basketball history. 

Since arriving at Chapel Hill in 1986, Hatchell has posted a record of 512-195 and forged a tradition of excellence at Carolina. Under her direction, the Tar Heels have won a national championship and eight ACC titles, compiled six 30-win seasons and claimed five ACC Player of the Year and five ACC Rookie of the Year honors. 

While that 1994 championship season, which capped back-to-back 30-win seasons, marked Carolina as a player on the national scene, Hatchell and the Tar Heels have surged to the forefront of that scene in recent years. Since the beginning of the 2004-05 season, UNC has compiled a record of 130-13, four straight Atlantic Coast Conference titles and two Final Four Appearances.

In preparation for a career in coaching, Hatchell earned a B.S. degree in physical education and health from Carson-Newman in 1974. While at Carson-Newman, in addition to playing basketball and volleyball, Hatchell coached the Talbott School girls' basketball team to a winning season and a trip to the playoffs. She then spent a year coaching the junior varsity women's team and earning a master's degree at the University of Tennessee. 

Prior to taking over the Tar Heel program, Hatchell guided FMU to a 272-80 mark over 11 seasons. She coached the 1986 Lady Patriots to a remarkable 36-2 record and a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship. Her 1982 team was her first national championship squad, as Francis Marion captured the AIAW small college division crown. 

Hatchell's husband, Sammy, is also a basketball coach. Formerly the all-time winningest coach at Meredith College in Raleigh, Sammy is currently the head coach at Cresset Christian Academy. Fittingly, the couple met at a summer league basketball game and attended a basketball clinic on their first date. They married two years later, in 1979. Sammy helps run the North Carolina basketball camps each summer. 

The Hatchells have a 19-year-old son, Van, a former all-state basketball player who is a sophomore at UNC. 

A member of the S.C. House of Representatives for the past 25 years, Neilson’s political knowledge and engagement is extensive. She represents Darlington and Chesterfield counties. 

When Neilson graduated from Anderson Junior College, she went on to pursue an undergraduate degree from Coker College and a master’s from Winthrop University. While pursuing both degrees, she took courses at FMU. She has also completed post graduate work at Trinity University. Her support of FMU doesn’t stop there. Neilson serves on the House Ways and Means Committee and the Higher Education Subcommittee as a strong advocate of FMU and all educational facilities, fighting many times to prevent funding cuts.

She chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee for General Government and the Joint Legislative Committee on Aging. In addition, she serves on the Education Funding Act, Rules, Women’s Caucus and Rural Caucus committees. 

Neilson is employed with Darlington County School District as the technology student job placement coordinator. 

Her civic affiliations include service as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Governor’s School for Science and Math, Board of Directors for Darlington Chamber of Commerce, Darlington  County Education Association and the Board of Trustees for S.C. Baptist Ministries on Aging. She also served on the City Council of Darlington before being elected to the House of Representatives. 

Neilson’s honors include the Order of the Palmetto, S.C. Association of School Administrators Career and Technology Leadership Award, Citizen of the Year for Greater Darlington Chamber of Commerce Award, S.C. Distinguished Teacher-Citizen Award, S.C. Education Association Education Leadership Award, S.C. Vocational Directors Association Vocational Education Leadership Award, Legislator of the Year Award, S.C. Federation Of Older Americans Association Award and many more. 

Neilson and her husband David reside in Darlington.


Last Published: April 22, 2010 4:17 PM
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