Greensboro college stands the test of time

Alumni weekend and 175th anniversary calls for history lesson

Greensboro College’s 175 th anniversary is no ordinary celebration. It’s a celebration of scholarship and persistence. Despite historic fires, financial hardship, and campus tragedy the college continues its unique tradition.

Pastor Peter Doub was the pioneer of the idea for a “female college” in Greensboro. In 1838, after gathering the interest he needed, the idea moved forward and Greensboro Female College was chartered.

Money has always been a key factor in education. The idea to create this college for women was widely approved, but due to the recession of the late 1830s and early 1840s, the school lacked money for construction. However, when the construction finally began and buildings started to emerge on the new grounds of campus, one building seemed to carry an unlucky presence.

The main building first caught fire 18 years after its construction. Ten years later, after another main building was completed, it burned again.

You guessed it, a third main building was built and it burned down as well. Now, here we are in 2014 and the main building still stands strong. I met with communications director, Lex Alexander, and director of annual giving and alumni engagement, Gretchen O’ Shay, who informed me on the unique history of the college. There was no finding of a cause for each fire. According to the Greensboro College Museum archives, it is believed that the fire of 1941 was caused by lightning striking the top of the main building.

However, this fire is one of the more tragic ones because business manager Henry McEntire died in the burning building while trying to save documents Why did these fires occur over and over? Was it caused by accident or was there someone who had sour feelings for the construction? Maybe the answer is unimportant. The purpose of this story is to give a history of Greensboro College’s struggles and emphasize its survival.

The hardships did not end when the flames ceased. As time went on, Greensboro College started to face extreme financial struggles.

“By the early 1880s, the College was in serious financial difficulty, and the Trustees ordered the sale of the College in 1882,” the archives tell us. “A group of prominent Methodist laymen, of whom one was J.M. Odell and of whom several were involved with the North Carolina Railroad Company, purchased the College on June 5, 1882. Through their support and management, the school was able to continue operating.

Two years later, the North Carolina Railroad Company resold the College to the Greensboro Female College Association (Alumni) which was established in 1884. Through “An Act For The Promotion of Female Education,” the College was able to secure the right to sells bonds, a financial move that helped in the short term.”

While finances came to save the day in the 1880s, the years after were not as fortunate. In 1903, the board of trustees decided to sell the college. This idea did not sit well with many people … one person in particular. According to the Greensboro College Museum archives:

“Miss Nannie Lee Smith, an alunma of the class of 1893. Miss Smith took the lead and was the driving force in raising the necessary $25,000 (primarily in pledges) in 30 days to keep the College open. Several years later, Miss Nannie Lee Smith became the first woman to sit on the College’s Board of Trustees.”

Some of the earliest alumni will be at the event to speak and read off the memories of their time at Greensboro College. Buelah Bradley Cameron was her class president in 1938. The year Buelah graduated from Greensboro College, she did something that deviates from many class presidents of our time. She wrote a letter of “good wishes” to the next class … not the class of 1939, but the class of 2038. Most speakers and presidents of a graduating class typically send their good will for the future. For a woman in the late 1930s to be speaking specifically to a class 100 years later requires quite an amount of vision. While Buelah was originally scheduled to speak at the Alumni Weekend, her appearance to speak at this event is now in the air. Buelah is 97 years old and lives in Raleigh.

Another remarkable alumni of Greensboro College is Rachel Gobbel Norment. Her father, Luther Gobbel, was president from 1935-1952. Norment was a freshman at the time the main building burned down. Norment will be at the event this weekend.

While Greensboro College has solidified a historical reputation of persistence and endurance, the school still holds the prestige that it held back in the 1800s and 1900s. Communications director Lex Alexander tries to uphold the tradition of pushing through difficulty to provide a unique learning experience.

“People who come here tend to be devoted to each other. In every graduating class, there has been a core of students that want the school to keep going on and on,” said Alexander.

Like other colleges, Greensboro College has always taken into account the value of personal skills and unique atmosphere that deviates from the typical college experience. Alexander argues for what he calls the “Liberal Arts model.”

“This certain kind of education has been around for 100 years. It’s essential … so essential that many global competitors that have used other models of education are now adopting the American Liberal Arts model,” Alexander said.

“It teaches people to learn to see the picture, promotes leadership, helps develop planning.”

The alumni weekend and the 175th anniversary will include performance of a play by student Mary Elizabeth Lindsey, a reunion reception, and men and women’s alumni soccer games. Greensboro College is still a school dedicated to education and a home to alumnus who have worked vigorously over the years to create an atmosphere of integrity even despite the hard times. When you pass by, you might now vision the rich history that made every building on campus unique. When you look at the main building, let it remind you that this is one college that knows how to keep moving forward. !