Tuesday, April 25, 2006

From Playground to Presidents

Dr. Hope Williams (and not UNC-G Chancellor Patricia Sullivan, as I mistakenly reported earlier, after simply getting them mixed up), president of the NC Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, poked a little fun at her outgoing association chair and new University of North Carolina system President Erskine Bowles when he was sworn in at a formal inaugural on April 12. Williams noted that the president of the N.C. Association of Independent Colleges and Universities – Warren Wilson College President Doug Orr – and Bowles were both Greensboro boys who attended the same elementary school in the 1950s.

She wondered aloud whether Orr and Bowles had gotten together on the playground at Irving Park Elementary School all those years ago to discuss their plan to take over the public and private colleges of North Carolina. It may have been my imagination, but I think I saw both Bowles and Orr, seated in the row behind Bowles, grin but shake their heads briefly.

I think Doug Orr, now retiring from Warren Wilson in Black Mountain, was a few years ahead of Bowles, though they grew up just a couple of blocks apart. As Bowles faces his first legislative session since assuming the UNC presidency, Orr faces accolades from many admirers for his leadership at Warren-Wilson and his campaign to make that little college shine even brighter. It’s one of a handful of work-study colleges in America; students must work at a campus job and they most perform outside community service before they graduate. I’m biased about this, I’ll admit. My daughter went to school there, and my wife and I’ve been on the Board of Visitors there for years.

Orr, by the way, was a vice president of UNC Charlotte prior to becoming president at Warren Wilson. His contributions to North Carolina are notable, particularly his coauthorship, with the late James Clay and with UNCC geology professor Al Stuart, of the landmark 1975 “North Carolina Atlas.”

In 2000, Orr and Stuart produced a new volume of “The North Carolina Atlas: Portrait For a New Century.” There’s an online North Carolina Atlas, too.

Orr’s a delightful guy. He plays with famous songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler and another musician in The Three Elvi – doing a sendup impression of Elvis Presley that is not to be missed. A few years ago, Orr observed that at the time of Elvis Presley’s death 25 years ago, there were a few dozen Elvis impersonators. Today there are an estimated 35,000. "It has been speculated that if that rate of growth sustains itself, one of every four human beings on the planet would be an Elvis impersonator by 2030," Orr laughed.

His writings on growing up in Greensboro – and witnessing Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson’s visit to Memorial Stadium there in 1950 and Elvis Presley’s performance at the old National Theater on Elm Street – are fascinating.

If I were Orr, I’d watch out. Now that he’s about to step down, Bowles may pick up the phone and have that conversation about running colleges and universities. Shoot, he may even put Orr back to work.

8 comments:

anonyMoses said...

A delightful piece of writing! It's always great to find a writer who delights in the art of writing, and also finds great subjects to wring through their take.

The University of Norph Carolina should be proud to have such a tallish man representing their bluer angels.

Cheers!
Dave

Anonymous said...

I need to make one correction to an otherwise nice piece. Both editions of the North Carolina Atlas were produced by the geography (not geology) department at UNCC.

David McKnight said...

But wait, Doug Orr still too young and rambunctious to retire! Why, he should return to UNC Charlotte and get his old Irish band together and start a new fine arts institute: how about, The Merlefest Outreach Center for Celtic and Traditional Music in the Carolinas.

That 1975 "North Carolina Geography" Doug put together with James Clay and Al Stuart became a true source of joy and inspiration for this former Charlottean, who always hopes his fellow townsfolk in the Queen City will take a moment to learn about the marvels of the other 99 counties of North Carolina beyond the beloved Mecklenburg County line.

I was in Eastern North Carolina, writing editorials for another Clay who also shared a love for this heritage, Charles Clay of the Fayetteville Observer, and those were the days when there was time to pack picnics along with the "North Carolina Geography" of course, for weekend excursions to such local festivals as Mule Days in Benson, the National Hollerin' Contest in Spivey's Corner, the Collard Festival in Ayden or the Shad Festival in neighboring Grifton. We would even offer the assessment that Doug's great first-run volume became something like the bible of our weekend explorations provided of course that Franklin Graham doesn't misconstrue the basic context of the situation back then!

Thanks to Doug Orr's great scholarship, writing, teaching, as well as his personal musical outreach, we were enriched in our common pursuit of the understanding and recognition of the magical and mystical threads linking this whole state together from Manteo to Murphy, a journey I hiked in weekly segments ostensibly as part of a U.S. senatorial campaign in 1977-78 but most likely because Doug Orr and his colleagues had sparked the curiosity of one whose former personal frontiers had been the cross-town Charlotte city bus ride from Midwood to Wilmore: yes, from one corner of the city through downtown and beyond "to the end of the line."

Yes, Elvis took leave of us during that Summer of '77, when I had made it about as far as Taylorsville, but alas, even the fabulous Orr-Clay-Stuart "N.C. Geography" didn't show any "Heartbreak Hotels" between Duck, N.C., and Ducktown, Tenn.

And to think that this quest for appreciation for local geography, history and culture in our state started, for me at least, back in schooldays at Charlotte's Eastway Junior High School, when we were asked to pick out one North Carolina county to "study up on" and report about to our classmates.

Well, naturally, I leaned to such a locale as Cleveland County, where my fasther had been born in Shelby, and where Clyde Hoey ran an impressive sprint from journalism to politics, racing as a young man from the editor's chair at The Shelby Star to the nearest open seat at the N.C. legislature in Raleigh.

Now many of us are learning how the challenging life journey and rich professional boxing legacy of Floyd Patterson all began with his birth and first year-plus of life in the Waco community in that same county of Cleveland. Why, it all goes to show you how rich the heritage of North Carolina has truly become decade after decade.

So they ought to pass a law providing that Doug Orr can retire from the helm of Warren Wilson College only if he agrees to make another scholarly, scientific and musical barnstorming tour--with his guitar and band of Carolina pickers at the ready--of his favorite corners of The Old North State, "where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great."

Doug Orr settling for a front-porch perch with no intentions of hitching up the wagons anytime soon? Somebody turn the next page, please!

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