Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Coker connection, arboretum and forest

If you've spent any appreciable time on the campus at UNC Chapel Hill, you've probably strolled through the Coker Arboretum just east and a little north of The Old Well. It was created early in the 20th century by a campus botany professor named William C. Coker, who turned a swampy area on what was then the eastern edge of the UNC campus into a peaceful, quiet oasis of plant life for botany students and a place where students, alumni and anyone who wants to take a stroll can get away from the pressures of academic life for a little while.

So as I drove to work Monday morning while listening to WUNC radio news about a 56-acre protected research forest that Elon University has created on the edge of its campus, my ears caught a familiar name. According to a transcript on WUNC's public radio website, the report went on:

"Biology professor Jeffrey Coker says he's thrilled about the decision.

(Jeffrey Coker:) 'Although Elon Forest itself is small, in terms of where it is, it's actually very significant, and very large even, compared to the types of natural resources that you might find around a lot of bigger schools in North Carolina and across the country.'"

I wondered right away if Jeffrey Coker was kin to the Professor Coker whose work created Coker Arboretum. Elon spokesman Eric Townsend sent my question to Jeffrey Coker, who responded:

"That is an excellent question. I have been asked this many times and it has drawn the interest of historians at UNC Chapel Hill. The short answer is that I’m not sure. Here is what we know for sure...

The Coker at UNC was William Chambers Coker. Our families both originate in South Carolina. Our fathers were both employed by the pulp and paper industry. We both earned PhDs in Botany. We were both professors at N.C. universities. We both helped to create natural preserves at our universities. We both place(d) great value on teaching and educational innovation. He served as the Editor of the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, which later became the Journal of the N.C. Academy of Science, and I serve on the Board of the N.C. Academy of Science and am the Chair of its Education Committee. And so on and so on. So we certainly have a great deal in common. I didn’t know most of this until Bill Burk (historian at UNC) sent me materials about William Chambers Coker, and so the whole thing is incredibly ironic.

Nevertheless, William Chambers Coker had no children, and thus I cannot be his direct descendent. My attempts to figure out my family history have led me to the South Carolina archive, where I was told that Sherman’s march led to the burning of the records that would help me trace my “Coker” roots. It seems very likely that we are related by a common ancestor in the 1700’s or 1800’s, but I can’t be sure.

Best wishes,


Professor Coker taught my father botany at UNC sometime in the late 1920s. As a boy I recall flipping through a notebook my father had kept of Prof. Coker's lectures, and his drawings of the plant life Coker lectured about.

I was also interested to know that there was one more well-known Coker academician born in South Carolina who became a mainstay at a North Carolina university: Zoologist Robert Ervin Coker, who taught zoology for years at Chapel Hill and whom then-UNC President Frank Porter Graham tapped in 1946 to organize the Institute of Fisheries Research in Morehead City. It's now known as the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences. According to William Powell's Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Robert Ervin Coker and William Chambers Coker were both from Society Hill, S.C., and were cousins.

1 comment:

Chuck Till said...

Courthouse burnings in the Civil War are a frequent problem in historical research. Sherman was not the only Union general who had a torch.

I'm surprised that property and other records were reconstructed as well as they were.