How Bill Powell Challenged Me to Be a Better Tarheel
April 28, 1919 - April 10, 2015

It hardly seems possible that 40 years ago next month, I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism and a reporter’s job awaiting me at The Messenger in Madison, NC. A “Navy brat” with no real hometown, I had made the decision to remain in the Tarheel state after arriving for college from Northern Virginia and being introduced to BBQ, sweet tea, Southern hospitality, and William S. Powell’s HIST 366 – the History of North Carolina to 1865.

William S. Powell

A Statesville resident from the age of three and a proud graduate of what was then called Mitchell Junior College, Bill Powell made his way to Chapel Hill and received an undergraduate degree and served in the U.S. Army in World War II before earning a master’s degree, and then a few years later, landing a job in the University’s library. His own love of history led him to make use of the abundance of research available, and soon he was writing the more than 1,000 books and articles about the state that brought him the well-deserved-though-unofficial title “dean of North Carolina history.”

I knew nothing about Professor Powell’s illustrious background when I enrolled in his course, only that in deciding to live and work in North Carolina, I probably needed to know a bit about its history. While my maternal grandmother was born in North Carolina, and that line of my family goes all the way back to Jamestown, my knowledge consisted mainly of family stories, not facts and figures. That is what Professor Powell could provide.

For 50 minutes each Monday, Wednesday and Friday of Fall semester of my senior year, I listened to him lecture on North Carolina’s history, throwing out dates –the Halifax Resolves were signed April 12, 1776 – and tidbits, such as the names of the four busts found on the second floor rotunda of the state Capitol are John Motley Morehead, William A. Graham, Samuel Johnston and Matt Whitaker Ransom. The midterm and final exams were filled with the information he expected us to learn, as well as an essay question. On the mid-term I wrote, “I don’t know this answer, but here is what I do know,” then wrote an essay on that topic. I failed it, the final exam, and the course.

Never a failure, however, I registered again for HIST 366 -- Spring semester when I was to graduate and for a Pass/Fail grade. But the mid-term and final exams went no better the second time around, and while I can discuss the heck out of just about any topic, remembering those names, dates and places Professor Powell believed important wasn’t a skill I’d mastered, even after four years of college. In a week, I was due to graduate, but only if I passed HIST 366. My entire family was coming for the ceremony – Mom and Dad, and two sisters and four brothers who all were younger than I and expecting me to be the first of we seven to graduate from college. Though I did have that newspaper job waiting, not having a degree would not go over well with my dad.

In the days between exams ending and graduation, I called Professor Powell four times, in each call asking if I’d passed. Now, for the past 12 years, I’ve been an associate professor of English at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh. Any student who contacted me after exams wanting to know a final grade was told I’d send out email when grades were posted. Yet Professor Powell politely told me the first three times that he didn’t have the grades ready. The fourth call brought an exasperated “Yes, yes. You passed, you passed.” Had I really, or did he not want that fifth call? I’ll never know.

It wasn’t until years later when I began researching a book about a UNC family that I learned the extent of Professor Powell’s knowledge of North Carolina history. Time and again, queries directed me to his work. I discovered that he’d loved history from the time he was an elementary school student in Statesville, and that 40 years later, when he was to be named a UNC professor of North Carolina history, the appointment was scrutinized because he didn’t have a doctorate. After someone wheeled in a library cart overflowing with the books he’d written, the discussion ended, and when he retired in 1986, it was with the title “Professor Emeritus.”

I also learned that I was one of some-6,000 students passing through his courses during those teaching years that began in Fall 1973, just two years before my entry into HIST 366. Perhaps as a new professor, he hadn’t yet found the heart to tell students to wait for final grades to be posted!

Sometime in the early 1990s, when I called on him for research assistance with my book, and asked about the possibility of me writing an entry for the Encyclopedia of North Carolina he was compiling, he graciously said yes to both, and added that he recalled me as a student, but not the four phone calls. The Encyclopedia was finally published in 2006, nearly 30 years after its inception. It was a thrill to find my name alongside his and the 550 volunteer writers who produced more than 2000 entries and provided 400-plus photographs and maps. Its online version is an ongoing project and today boasts 6,842 entries and 7,134 images.

As with Professor Powell’s writing projects, mine was in the works for nearly 20 years. But nine years away from publication, I had enough information for what I hoped was an interesting presentation on former NC Governor and UNC President David L. Swain and his daughter’s marriage to a Union general at the end of the Civil War.

That first program was scheduled for a cold Valentine’s Day in 2000 to members of the Chapel Hill Historical Society. As I was introduced and approached the microphone, who did I spot in the middle of the last row but my former teacher. I knew I’d soon be laughed off the podium, for my facts would be inaccurate and Professor Powell would jump up and cry, “No! No! She’s wrong! She’s wrong!”

It never happened. Instead, I watched as he nodded approvingly time and again. My facts were correct. At program’s end, he congratulated me, and I was elated, feeling finally like the successful student I’d wanted to be so long ago.

Oftentimes Professor Powell and his wife Virginia were in the audience for my programs, and when Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General was finally published in 2009, it was he who I thanked in the Acknowledgments for instilling in me “an abiding love for North Carolina history.”

His death last Friday, April 10, leaves a void of anyone with immediate recall of names, facts, places or events about North Carolina. Anyone needing information on the state should look to his North Carolina: A History (1997) for general readers, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (1989), a well-used undergraduate text, or The North Carolina Gazeteer (1968), listing the names and founding dates and a short essay of every noteworthy place in the state.

I want to believe his leaving this earth on the day after the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Virginia to Union Gen. William T. Sherman has some sort of significance, for Professor William Stevens Powell from Iredell County was a true lover of North Carolina and Southern history.

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