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Considered by many to be “one of the most beloved men on our campus,” Howard Justus McGinnis was born on April 4, 1882, in Glenville, West Virginia. He was the second of thirteen children born to John Hamlin and Hester Ann (Heck) McGinnis. His parents named him Howard Justus to honor his maternal grandfather, a Civil War veteran who served in Company K of the Tenth Regiment in the West Virginia Infantry Volunteers and who died as a prisoner in Andersonville, Georgia.
Despite McGinnis’ sporadic school records, resulting from his need to work his way through his education, he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology and biology from the University of West Virginia in 1915, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. McGinnis continued his education, earning a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1924, and a Ph.D. from George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1932.
In 1906, McGinnis started his professional career as a teacher and an administrator for twenty-one years in West Virginia. In 1927, he accepted a faculty position at East Carolina Teachers College. From 1927 to 1944, he served as a psychology professor, also acting as the registrar from 1928 to 1947.
From May 1, 1944 to August 1, 1946, McGinnis served as acting president, while the trustees searched for a permanent president. McGinnis reasserted administrative authority over the student body, including appointing new members to the faculty council. McGinnis held monthly faculty meetings, in order to assess teachers’ training and skills as educators. He was well-known for his concern for students’ welfare, and wanted to ensure that they received a proper education. During his short time as interim president, he established faculty and staff committees to work with himself and the Board of Trustees to define goals, objectives, and priorities for the growing post-war needs of campus. Propositions for eight new structures and numerous renovation projects were also brought fourth during his time as president. McGinnis wished to see the campus grow and expansion was set to begin in 1947.
On August 1, 1946, East Carolina Teachers College selected Dr. Dennis Cooke to become the new president. McGinnis continued his duties as registrar for another year. He later became the director of field services, a position he held until his retirement in 1950. On August 26, 1971, McGinnis passed away, funeral services were held at Wilkerson Funeral home.
During his time spent in Greenville, McGinnis was active in local civil affairs, serving as director of the Red Cross, chair of the interracial committee for the local Boy Scouts, and executive director of the Pitt County United fund. He was also a former president of the Greenville Rotary Club and a past Rotary district governor. He was a member of the Jarvis Memorial United Methodist Church and served on the official church board.
McGinnis Auditorium was constructed in 1951 at a cost of $361,775. School officials chose to honor the recently retired McGinnis, naming the new building in his honor. The auditorium was transformed into a modern production facility including the addition of new seating during a major renovation in 1981. Today, the auditorium serves as the campus’ home for both the ECU Playhouse and the ECU Summer Theater programs.