High School and College

After finishing the sixth grade at Carolina Beach Elementary School, my next two school years (1941-43) were spent at Winter Park Junior High on the eastern outskirts of Wilmington.  The school was about 15 miles distant from the beach, and a school bus picked us up every weekday morning.  Because of the distance from home and related transportation issues I did not become involved in extracurricular activities, and this became a pattern for the remainder of my school years.  Upon completing the eighth grade, I moved on to New Hanover High School in the fall of 1943.

New Hanover High was located on Market Street in the city of Wilmington.  Under North Carolina’s centralized high school system existing at that time it was the only high school for whites in the county, and students were bused in from every part of New Hanover.  When I entered the school, there were about 1800 students in the four high school grades.

New Hanover was a well-run high school.  No nonsense was permitted.  The principal’s name was T. T. Hamilton (naturally he was dubbed T square by the students), and the rumor was that he had formerly managed a reform school.  I was inclined to believe it.  There was no drug problem in those days, but the school’s anti-smoking policy illustrates the general strictness with which it approached every potential problem.   No student could smoke within three blocks of the school, and this was in a time when more than half of senior male students smoked.  The prohibition was rigidly enforced, and a first violation resulted in a three-day suspension after which the offender’s parents were required to accompany the student back to school for reentry.  There were few offenders.

In addition to being strict, New Hanover High was a place of learning.  The teachers were generally excellent, and they taught their subjects well.  Despite that fact, I was a rather indifferent student, shining in the classes I was interested in, but just getting by in some others.  Nevertheless, the school prepared us for college.  My future wife Ann later went to the same high school, and when she went off to Appalachian State in the fall of 1951 she discovered that many of her classes were more or less repeats of courses she had taken at New Hanover High.  It wasn’t quite the same for me at the University of North Carolina, but I did find myself well prepared.  Things that were particularly helpful were New Hanover’s requirement for term papers in many courses and the comprehensive examinations that ended every school year.  Like Ann, graduates of New Hanover High School often found their freshman college classes easy in comparison to how graduates of other high schools felt about their early college courses.

During my first two years in high school the war was still raging in Europe and in the Pacific.  All the wartime restrictions (gas rationing, etc.) continued in place.  My home at Carolina Beach was about 20 miles from the school (by a circuitous route), and with the 35mph speed limit and frequent stops it took us about an hour to make the trip.  The school bus picked us up in the main part of town between 7:15 and 7:30, and we were usually in front of the high school by 8:30.  Classes started at nine.  Students who lived in Kure Beach or on the northern extension of Carolina Beach had an even longer time on the school bus.  Under these conditions, it was very difficult for outlying high school students to participate in school sports or other extracurricular activities. With war’s end in the late summer of 1945 the travel restrictions were gradually lifted.

Public schools in those long-ago days were quite different from those today.  During school assemblies, a brief devotional and scripture reading was standard fare.  Our school even had an elective course on the Bible that was openly evangelical.  The school had its fair share of problem students and trouble makers, but there was virtual unanimity as to what activities were right and wrong and what constituted “proper” behavior.  Dissenters were either silent or under tight control.

My dear niece Sara Katherine Jordan was in the same class that I was, though by some circumstance we never actually shared a classroom.  After brother Clement and family moved from Carolina Beach to Wilmington, Sara K became quite active in school affairs and was very popular.  She was elected student body president in the fall of 1946.

Graduation came in May or June of 1947.  There was an inspiring baccalaureate service in a local church followed by the actual awarding of diplomas at the football field, both ceremonies being accompanied by the stirring strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance.

I entered the University of North Carolina in September of the same year. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was and is very special to me. The campus is beautiful, but the beauty of the place goes much deeper than the buildings and the lawns and the trees. I thoroughly enjoyed each of the five years I spent there.

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The Old Well at Chapel Hill

The University had almost doubled in size from its pre-war days, and in 1947 veterans on the GI-bill made up a goodly percentage of the student body.  By today’s standards, however, UNC remained relatively small.  The student body was less than 8,000 in 1947.  Fewer high school graduates went to college in those days.

With the large number of military veterans sprinkled throughout the several classes, the student body was more mature than is typical at colleges today.  Most of them appeared to be serious about getting a good education.  Of course, there were a fair number of non-performers among veterans and non-veterans alike, but they usually dropped out of school within a year or so.

When I began my studies at the university I had a vague idea about following in my father’s footsteps and becoming a physician, but I really had no serious career aspirations.  I started in pre-med, but in my second year a certain chemistry course changed my mind.  It was a course on qualitative analysis.  The professor was a very good man – a Christian gentleman.  Unfortunately, his lectures paralyzed my brain.  Within a few minutes of his beginning a lecture I would be fast asleep.  I just could not help it.  The class started at eight AM, so I thought that might be the problem.  Unfortunately, that was not it.  When I attended the professor’s afternoon lab lecture, I was asleep within three minutes of his beginning to talk.  Horror of horrors, it turned out this professor had also written the textbook for the course, and the book had the same soporific effect as the lectures.  Within moments of picking up the book I was off to la la land.  I literally slept though that entire course.  This experience affected my entire future life.  I grew to hate chemistry.  I even hated the smell of the chemistry building.  I wanted nothing more to do with chemistry and the pre-med curriculum.  That was foolish, I know, but I was immature, a bit soft, and I was really not that much enamored by thoughts of a career in medicine.

At that point I began looking around for a different direction.  In words of Lewis Carroll, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”  Gradually, over the next few years, I tried a number of roads. As I look back on that period of my life, I realize how terribly unprepared I was to make the important decisions that I needed to make about education and career.  I had no basis of knowledge upon which to evaluate the opportunities that were before me, and I was foolishly hesitant about seeking wise advice. As a consequence, I generally chose the path which seemed natural to me – the path of least resistance.

I did discover one thing very early in my college studies. I had a natural talent for academic studies at the university level.  I did very well in all my courses (except qualitative analysis), and in some of them I positively shone.  One thing that helped me immensely was an ability to cut through a mass of detail and get at the core of things.  Also, because of my extensive reading and love of literature, I had learned to put my ideas on paper in a very organized and logical way that people could understand.  Anyway, this specialized talent made me the academic star in many of my undergraduate classes and enabled me to win a Phi Beta Kappa key by my junior year at the University.  Subsequently, during my career in the Government, this ability to organize information and to communicate facts and ideas in an understandable way was of great benefit to me.

Gradually, while at the University, I concluded that the academic life was the life for me.  I wanted to be a college professor.  In pursuit of this goal, I worked for and gained the degrees of AB and MA in history with the full intention of obtaining a PhD someday.  In the meantime, however, there was the slight matter of the Korean War standing in my way.  The war had begun in the summer of 1950, after my junior year in college.  Even before that time I had attempted to enroll in the Naval ROTC at UNC, but I couldn’t pass the visual acuity test for either the Naval or Air ROTC program.  I therefore understood that the military draft awaited me upon graduation.

In July after my freshman year at UNC,  I began dating Ann McGuire.  I will write more on that is in another post. During the school year, I would hitch a ride to Carolina Beach every second or third weekend to see Ann and visit with Mom and Dad.

During my first three years at Chapel Hill the university had an outstanding football team that ranked among the best in the country.  I saw many great football games.  On the other hand, the basketball team was struggling.  It was the only period after World War II that UNC’s basketball squad was not nationally ranked. The year before I arrived UNC had been in the NCAA finals.  A few years after I left the team went 32-0 and won the national championship. Even though our basketball team was mediocre while I was there, I did have the opportunity to see some excellent Duke and North Carolina State teams.

In late May 1951, I received my baccalaureate degree in a ceremony at the university’s Kenan Stadium.  Governor Scott gave the commencement address, and Branch and Branch, Jr. were in attendance along with my parents.  As I returned home for the summer my plan was to marry Ann and then enter military service.  Over the next few weeks Dad persuaded me to postpone the marriage for a bit and go back to college and obtain my master’s degree.  I would need it for my planned college teaching career. Thus, in September I was back at Chapel Hill in graduate school.

My first weeks in the graduate program were not happy ones.  In fact, I was miserable.  Ann was at Appalachian State, and it was difficult to visit her there.  Also, my studies were very demanding, and it was hard to concentrate.  My heart wasn’t in it.  I fell seriously behind in my studies.  Shortly before Thanksgiving Ann and I decided that we would get married during the Christmas vacation.  That decision changed everything.  Beginning at that point I went after my studies with real passion, and I managed to pack the equivalent of many weeks of work into that short time before Christmas break.

By January 1952, Ann and I were married and happily ensconced in a small cottage on Church Street in Chapel Hill.  It consisted of a kitchen, a bathroom, and an all-purpose room that served for sitting and sleeping.  Half of our bed slid into the wall, and the other half served as a couch.  There was a small table in front of a window which I used for study and writing.  We ate in the kitchen.  Ann and I had devoted part of our brief honeymoon looking for that place.  Soon after we settled in Ann began working at a small college hang-out/soda shop called the Scuttlebutt, and I was hitting the books hard.  The next seven months were wonderful.  We were poor as church mice but superbly happy.  We had no automobile, so we walked everywhere.  Television was in its infancy, and we had no set, so we depended on radio and a record player for entertainment.  Radio at that time had not been ruined by the nascent television industry, and there were many excellent programs — drama, comedy, music, and news.  For example, in February 1952, Ann and I listened with great interest to the stirring music and the colorful descriptions of ceremonies accompanying the funeral of King George VI.  Even though we couldn’t see it, the music and the words burned an indelible picture in our minds.

Ann proved to be a wonderful cook.  Our meals were perforce inexpensive and simple, but she managed to make them delicious.  The problem for me was that I hated to see anything left over, thinking that somehow it was a waste, so I got into the bad habit of finishing up leftovers.  Over the next few months I gained twenty or twenty-five pounds.  The following photograph, taken in September 1952, shows the result:

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Overstuffed in September 1952

Despite our lack of an automobile, Ann and I were able to go out occasionally thanks to our good friend Don Phillips.  Don was my best man at our wedding, and he was a frequent visitor at our apartment.   Don occasionally gave us a ride and accompanied us to a theater in Durham to see a just released movie.  One such film was Quo Vadis, which had come out with much fanfare a few weeks earlier.  We enjoyed it immensely.  Don also took us to the Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh to see the Ice Follies.  Barbara Ann Scott, the Canadian Olympic ice-skating champion, was the star of the show that year and we were very impressed.  Several times while at Chapel Hill Ann and I managed to get a ride to Carolina Beach to see Mom and Dad.  We have warm memories of those days at home together, and those breaks from the books were much appreciated.

During all these months, I was working diligently on my studies.  Many hours were spent in the library doing research required for my master’s thesis.  By agreement between the two universities, UNC and Duke, each of their libraries had concentrated on certain foreign collections, and graduate students at either school had access to their combined resources.  Thus, I spent much time in the Duke library as well as virtually camping out in the one at UNC, Chapel Hill.  Finally, in August 1952, I completed my master’s thesis and was ready for my comprehensive written and oral examinations.

The written examinations weren’t too bad.  The orals were another matter.  Even today, almost 67 years later, I can still remember some of the stupid answers that I gave in response to questions from the professors who examined me.  I had nightmares about it for some weeks afterwards, but somehow they had mercy and passed me.  What a relief!  A few days later Ann and I packed our few belongings and headed for Carolina Beach. Our college days were over.

 

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