New St. Augustine's president talks life, loss and commitment to vaccinations

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- It has been five months since Dr. Irving McPhail, the president of Raleigh's Saint Augustine's University, suddenly died from COVID-19. For the first time, his wife, Dr. Christine Johnson McPhail, sat down with ABC11 to talk about the loss of her husband, why she chose to be the new leader at St. Augustine's and her commitment to getting the community vaccinated against COVID-19.

"It's not optional for me to take this on, to help get the word out," Johnson McPhail said about her commitment toward expanding access to the vaccine. "I don't have a choice. I have to do this."

She's only been on the job for a few weeks at St. Augustine's. But one of the first decisions Johnson McPhail made as president was opening up the campus as a COVID-19 vaccination site for the neighborhood. And she wanted everyone to know -- she was getting the shot, too.

RELATED: Christine Johnson McPhail succeeds late husband as Saint Augustine's University president

"While I was getting that shot, I felt that if it had been available just a few months earlier, that my husband would still be here," she said.

Her late husband arrived as the newly-minted president at St. Augustine's last summer. He came armed with big plans for the small HBCU. He and his wife moved in to a home across the street from the university for an even deeper connection with students.

WATCH: Extended interview with Dr. McPhail
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Extended interview: ABC11's Joel Brown talks one-on-one with new Saint Augustine's University President Christine Johnson McPhail.

But last October, COVID came calling at the McPhail residence.

"I contracted (COVID) too, at the same time," Johnson McPhail said.

But though she would recover, the complications from the illness proved too much for her husband. He died Oct. 14.

"We had people praying all over the world that he would survive," Johnson McPhail said. "I don't have the vocabulary to even describe the loss that I feel."

In the days after Irving McPhail's death, the college and the community wrapped her in love -- even staging a physically distanced march to the couple's home on Oakwood Avenue to lay flowers at their front door.

And in the weeks after, as the SAU Board of Trustees worked to find a new president, the search committee set its sights on the other Dr. McPhail. Christine, a former college president, respected academic with decades of experience in higher education would become the university's choice.

"Who better than me," she said with a smile when asked why she accepted the position. "I think the board felt that from the very beginning that (my husband and I) were a team ... they knew that I was a kindred spirit."

So, newly-widowed, this 75-year-old grandmother, with no thoughts of retirement, said her husband's mission lives on in her: Educating the young scholars on campus but also in supporting the vaccination clinic -- educating the community that the vaccine is safe and effective; pushing back against vaccine hesitancy.

The clinic was organized by the WakeMed Health Equity Team. It is led by a group of Black female doctors, known as the Sister Circle. They've been working to bring more vaccinations to marginalized communities in the Triangle.

"That's why we opened up these gates and our hearts to the community and said take a chance on the vaccine," McPhail said. "I don't like the alternative. I've seen it and I don't like it. It doesn't feel good."

She's charting a new path from a personal pandemic tragedy.

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