Deborah Elaine Bynum, wife of Jackson State President Dr. William B. Bynum Jr., is seated at a round conference table inside her husband’s office contemplating if there were anything she would change about her life.
“No,” she says after only a few seconds. “Even the mistakes that you’ve made should be teachable moments, so you shouldn’t have any regrets. My life experiences have prepared me for where I am right now. So had I not gone through any of that; I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Born and raised in Atlanta, her family became the 10th black family to integrate the first public housing project built in the United States – Techwood Homes.
“We moved there in 1968. It was my first time being around people that were different than I. My best friend Pam and I enjoyed hanging out after school and attending the Girls Club, which was separate from the Boys Club during that time,” she says.
Raised by her mother, Nellie Jackson, Deborah Bynum was one of eight children who grew up in the three-room unit that consisted of a living room with a bed and sofa, a middle room with two beds, and a kitchen that she vaguely recalls contained a table and chair.
She dubs her mother and mother-in-law, Ma Chris, now deceased, as “sheroes” due to their shared ability to single-handedly raise large families on modest resources.
“They accomplished so much with so little. Now, look at us, we have an abundance of everything,” she says in a tone mixed with admiration and humility.When Deborah Bynum learned that her husband was selected as Jackson State’s 11th president she “had church.” She smiles, revealing the deep dimples in her cheeks, and says: “I just went into praise God mode. And it really took my faith to another level, and I just sat there rejoicing and praising God.”
Some of the backlash that erupted from Bynum’s appointment could have easily eclipsed her elation, and any spouse caught in the crosshairs would have ostensibly bristled over the situation.
But, the couple appears to have navigated the difficult moment with equanimity, and Deborah Bynum offers kudos to her husband, saying: “He handled it well. He really did. It was really hard, but he didn’t waver.”
Bynum would further ease her concerns when he later explained that the dust-up was not so much about him than it was the selection process and that he understood and respected the palpable emotion shown for the university.
“It’s one of those things. You know when people count you out, you work harder to cross that finish line,” she says, noting her firm belief that what is meant to be will be.
When asked which of her husband’s qualities will enhance Jackson State, she echoes his mainstay of student-centeredness and then adds: “Seriously, don’t mess with his students. He is passionate about helping them achieve their dreams and making sure that they are treated with dignity and respect.”
The first lady also vouches for Bynum’s capacity to empower his administration and that he incorporates the school’s heritage, history and mission in his decision-making process.Supporting her husband’s vaulting higher-education career has not stopped Deborah Bynum from being a consummate achiever in her own right. As a 37-year employee of AT&T, she has won numerous awards for her paramount business performance, so many, in fact, that she no longer has the space to house them all.
She pauses momentarily, voices concern over sounding boastful, then slowly says, “I love my job and the relationships I’ve forged over the years as a senior account manager, so it’s nice to be recognized. When you enjoy what you do for a living, and you’re awarded in the end, it makes it even better.”
Service seems to be a calling of the first lady as reflected in the three initiatives – a clothing closet, a recycling program and a food bank – that she is poised to implement at the HBCU.
The clothing closet idea stems from a conversation Deborah Bynum had with a close friend and fellow first lady. It would later materialize at Mississippi Valley State during Bynum’s four-year tenure and prove successful.
“College students, many being first-generation, may not have available funds to go out and buy attire for a job interview or an event where they have to represent JSU,” she says.The initiative will call for a mutual collaboration with alumni, faculty, staff and the local community. “We’re asking for gently used professional and formal attire. We’ll take suits, dresses, shirts, ties, shoes and accessories,” Deborah Bynum says.
Her desire to make the environment a better place for her children and grandchildren is the impetus for her recycling ambition that she describes as “near and dear to her heart.”
Of the Bynums’ six children, three are enrolled in college while the remaining three have graduated with one currently pursuing an advanced degree. So, the career couple is familiar with the increasingly growing cost of meal plans, which is why the first lady is also championing a university food bank.
“A lot of college students are hungry. The meal plans are quite expensive,” she says. “I have to negotiate with our daughter, who is a sophomore, and ask her: ‘Are you really going to eat $1,600 worth of food?’”
Thus, Deborah Bynum would like to offset some of the costs parents tend to suffer when their offspring seek higher learning.
Although the timelines for the launching of the initiatives are still being fine-tuned, she hopes the clothing closest will be online by homecoming. The services will be provided to currently enrolled students for free, and the first lady’s only return request is that the gesture is paid forward.
Despite her growing roster of meetings and good intentions outlined for JSU, in a show of candor, Deborah Bynum says she does not go to sleep each night preoccupied with her title.
Instead, she says, “I go to bed at night thinking: ‘God, please help my husband, cover him as he goes about doing your will and the duties for this great university.’”