Friday, April 28, 2006

Southern Culture, by the books

In 1989, Bill Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson delivered a monumental work. Published by UNC Press, the 1,634-page Encyclopedia of Southern Culture was an armful, literally. Its pages are crammed with all manner of entries about the South.
We professional Southerners especially appreciate learning about things we always wondered about. I picked up the heavy volume the other day and read about the movement to provide postal service in rural areas. Until the advent of Rural Free Delivery, farm families had to travel to small post offices in town to get their mail. With the advent of RFD routes, mail finally came to individual farms early in the 20th century – but there were more RFD routes in the Midwest than in the South. The entry suggests politics had something to do with it.
We’re shocked, but not a lot.
The entries are relatively short and full of information. There’s an entry about how Sears-Roebuck revolutionized the retail business and made getting farm supplies so much easier in rural areas. But merchants in town had a fit, sponsoring bonfires to burn Sears-Roebuck catalogs. They feared Sears would run them out of business – the same fears some small merchants have about big discount houses today, such as Wal-Mart.
There’s also a reminder of what Gov. Eugene Talmadge of Georgia used to tell voters. You’ve got but three friends in this world: “God Almighty, Sears-Roebuck, and Eugene Talmadge.”
UNC Press published that book in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Now UNC Press is engaged in a follow-up – and editors there wisely decided on a different approach. Instead of another massive, all-inclusive volume that takes a long time to publish and a lot of effort to pick up, this time there will be a couple dozen volumes of the new Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
“Observers have pointed out that it took twice as long to complete the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture as it took to fight the Civil War,” Charles Reagan Wilson wrote in The Southern Register, published by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
This time round, readers will find quicker volumes on bookshelves, with more pictures and other illustrations. The first two are “Religion,” edited by Samuel S. Hill, and “Geography,” edited by Richard Pillsbury. They were involved in writing and editing the original “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.” Additional volumes will appear over the next four years, published again by UNC Press.
I sneaked a peek at “Geography” and wound up, as usual, kicking back and thumbing through one afternoon. I discovered, among many other things, that I live in a religious region called the “North Carolina Anomaly” – defined as a “Historic Zone of Mixed Denominations,” unlike other regions where Baptists, Methodists or Catholics predominate.
Over here in the Upper Neuse Basin Drainage District, we’ve been called a lot of things. “North Carolina Anomaly” is pretty high-toned, but we’ll take it. Beats the heck out of Sodom On Crabtree Creek.
I think.

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.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Seven Natural Wonders of North Carolina, and then some

Last week Observer Travel Editor John Bordsen had a fun piece on the Seven Wonders of the Carolinas. It reminded me of a list that Asheville Citizen editor Don Shoemaker wrote half a century ago. I ran across it in Richard Walser’s 1962 book “The North Carolina Miscellany.”
Shoemaker listed these nominees: the Cow Palace at Raleigh (Dorton Arena); the Old Fort-Ridgecrest Southern Railway; the Blue Ridge Parkway; a mammoth textile mill such as Cone; the carillon tower at Duke; the playmakers building at Chapel Hill; the State Capitol Building; the Wright Memorial At Kill Devil Hills.
(The Greensboro Daily News noted the excessive number on April 22, 1956, and interjected: “But wait a minute. That’s already eight, and Don hasn’t even mentioned Dr. Archibald Henderson or Harry Golden.” Henderson was a beloved math professor and eccentric at what is now called UNC Chapel Hill; Golden was a newspaper editor who published The Carolina Israelite and wrote wonderful pieces making fun, among other things, of racial segregation.)
All those wonders cited by the usual lists were built by people. I’d like to start a list of North Carolina’s Natural Wonders, and here are my nominees:
Cape Lookout Bight, a natural harbor behind that dramatic cape that sailors have used for centuries to wait out a storm; Lake Mattamuskeet in Carteret County, an amazing sight especially in winter when its waters are the home to thousands of huge migratory waterfowl that come from the far frozen North; the Neuse River down below New Bern where it makes the big turn at Minnesott and is wider than the Mississippi – and tough to navigate in bad weather; Duke Forest near Durham, any time of year; the rolling hills of Randolph County called the Uwharrie Mountains; Linville Gorge and Grandfather Mountain; Mount Mitchell and Clingman’s Dome... But wait, that’s nine, and I haven’t even mentioned Bland Simpson or Roy Williams!
What would you put on your list?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

One Town, Two Campuses

When former political candidate and businessman Erskine Bowles was sworn in last week as the 16th president of the University of North Carolina – and just its fourth since the modern UNC system was created in 1972 – he picked an unusual place. Not only is Greensboro his hometown, the place his mother still lives and the site where the Bowles name gained political prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s. (His father, Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, served in the legislature, was a cabinet member under Gov. Terry Sanford and was the 1972 Democratic nominee for governor.)

Greensboro also has two university campuses that have changed in significant ways since their founding -- one of them for women, the other for black citizens. (Two other N.C. cities have two campuses: Winston-Salem, which has Winston-Salem State University and the N.C. School of the Arts, and Durham, which has N.C. Central University and also the N.C. School for Science and Math, a residential high school that has been associated with the UNC system and may become a more formal part if the legislature approves.)

The inaugural itself was held at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A dozen blocks or so to the east lies N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University. For much of Erskine Bowles’ life, those two campuses served distinct audiences. UNC-G, as it came to be renamed, was long called Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (and once was State Normal College for Women). Its student body for much of that period included the region’s smartest women, who were not eligible for first-year admission to UNC Chapel Hill unless they were nursing students. Many others wanted only to go to W.C. for its fine academics and had no interest in transferring.

And at A&T (once called Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race), generations of students came there for their college training because they couldn’t attend UNC Chapel Hill or N.C. State or other predominantly white public universities because of segregation. A&T is one of five historically black universities in North Carolina. The others are Winston-Salem State, Fayetteville State, Elizabeth City State and N.C. Central in Durham. The state also had a campus in Robeson County primarily for native Americans – the school now known as UNC-Pembroke.

The university system has changed in major ways since Erskine Bowles’ boyhood days. UNC-G has long been open to anyone and A&T long ago was freed from the rigid practice of segregation that restricted its students and its future. Now Bowles is running a system that, were it still in the design phase today, probably wouldn't contemplate building two university campuses of the same system in Greensboro. The new president may ponder from time to time the money that would have been saved and the duplication avoided had not the state been forced to have separate campuses for women, for black students and native Americans. It is a reminder that the excellent university system we have today came to us by a most curious route through some of this state’s most difficult days.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Trashing North Carolina

For going on six decades now I’ve had a love affair with my home state. I’m biased, I’ll admit right up front, but I think we’ve been blessed with an incredibly beautiful place to live and work. Except for a few years in the Army and newspapering in Northern Virginia, I’ve lived in this old state all my life and cannot imagine a prettier place.

And yet: I know this marks me as a geezer beyond all redemption, but North Carolina is also a dadgum mess.

Amid all this beauty we also see astonishing ugliness in the form of huge amounts of roadside trash that collectively challenge our sense of values. We North Carolinians like to believe that we revere our environment, and most of us do. But many do not, fouling it every day by tossing trash out the car window or allowing it to blow or fall out of whatever it’s being hauled in.

It’s astonishing what you see along our roadsides and waterways. Almost every time we head east of Raleigh on I-40, my nominee for trashiest highway in the state, we see all manner of junk – parts of coolers, strips of tires, the occasional piece of furniture, old 5-gallon buckets and a flood of bottles and cans and the like. I’m reminded of all this by a recent News & Observer package on roadside litter, written by Matthew Eisley (story). There is, he noted, "a startling, some say embarrasing, amount of highway litter."

It’s everywhere. My daughter once pulled a washing machine out of the Swannanoa River when she was at Warren Wilson College near Asheville on a cleanup workday. The last time we joined a river cleanup with the Neuse River Foundation, we hauled in roofing shingles, pieces of lawn furniture, enough beer bottles to have catered a lacrosse team party and a raft of paper cartons, napkins, bags, tissue and, as Andy Griffith would say, I don’t know what-all.

When I head up to Millbrook Road in Raleigh for my early morning walks, the empty bottles, cigarette packs and plastic and paper bags seem to mushroom on weekends. Sometimes I fill up a plastic bag with the mess before I’ve gone two blocks.

A fellow named Elmer Eddy lives near Jacksonville and puts his canoe in the water to hunt trash. He has, I believed, pulled out tons of trash from the White Oak River and other waterways of Eastern North Carolina.

I’ve always thought a bottle redemption law would be part of the answer to messy roadsides. But requiring a refundable deposit on bottles and cans would only get at part of the problem – the stuff folks willingly toss out the window. It wouldn’t get at the stuff that blows accidentally out of construction or debris trucks. The state occasionally writes a ticket for the heavy stuff, but not often – less than once a month, Dianne Whitacre of The Charlotte Observer reported last year (story). Nine of them got off.

I don’t know if the answer is a campaign like the Don’t-Mess-With Texas program the Lone Star State launched some years ago, or a bottle and can redemption bill, or a crackdown by law enforcement, or all the above. Maybe we ought to hold a messiest roadside contest. Send me your nominees, and pictures if you have them. Perhaps we can get folks to understand how roadsides really look.

I do know that there are a lot of volunteer cleanup efforts under way every day. The state spends millions of dollars cleaning up when it might otherwise put that money to use repaving highways or otherwise keeping up with construction backlogs.

And I do know this: For a beautiful state, we’re just a mess.