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Remembering Davidson College president and Rusk

by DG Martin

As we are reminded every Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge was able to revisit his childhood for a brief moment thanks to Charles Dickens.

Next Thursday (January 4) at 8 p.m., thanks to UNC-TV’s popular “Our State” program, I will get to do the same thing by visiting my hometown, Davidson, near Charlotte.

Growing up in this small college town was something I appreciate more and more as I grow older. I bet you share the same kind of feelings about your hometown.

It’s fun to remember some of the stories, isn’t it?

I will share some of mine next Thursday, but I am going to tell a few of them now – just in case you miss the TV program.

My family lived next door to the historic (1837) Davidson College president’s house. Our neighbor was Davidson’s president, John R. Cunningham. Dr. Cunningham was always dignified and proper, so much so that sometimes the students called him “Slick John.” His success in fundraising and faculty recruitment during the 1940s and ’50s put Davidson on the road to national prominence.

Dr. Cunningham kept chickens in his back yard. Once, when he and Mrs. Cunningham took a long trip, he asked me to feed the chickens and clean up after them. For my payment, I could keep all the eggs the hens laid while the Cunninghams were away. But there weren’t any eggs. I thought something was wrong with the chickens. But, years later, Marion Weaver, who had worked for the Cunninghams, explained, “When the Cunningham’s house was empty, word would get around that there might be some ‘free’ eggs in the coop. Somebody was just getting to those eggs before you did.”

Later on I had a more successful job, washing the windows of the Davidson merchants every Saturday morning. Two of the most successful businesses on Main Street were the Johnson and the Norton barbershops. Both were owned by African Americans, and both then limited their clientele to whites. (Today, those shops are gone. But James Raeford, one of the barbers in Johnson’s shop, and his son operate Raeford’s Barber Shop. Joe McClain and Ken Norton, who have been cutting the hair of Davidson College students for more than 50 years, still come in to help.)

The Civil Rights Movement came to Davidson late, but when it did, Ralph Johnson’s barbershop was one of the first targets. The irony of white college students picketing an African-American-owned shop for discrimination makes for a compelling story, which is told with passion in a book written by the late Ralph Johnson called David Played a Harp: A Freeman’s Battle for Independence.

I stayed in Davidson for my college years. Dr. Tom Clark taught my Freshman Bible course, which was two tough semesters about the Old Testament. We called him “T-Bird Tommie” because, as a dashing young bachelor professor, he drove around in a new Thunderbird. Later, Dr. Clark turned a sculpturing hobby into a business that has thrived beyond belief. According to his company, Cairn Studios, several million collectors across the world have acquired at least one of the more than 1,000 statues created by Tom Clark. Most of his work is on display at a museum on Davidson’s Main Street.

In 1962, when I was a college senior, Secretary of State Dean Rusk came back to his alma mater for a visit. Rusk played basketball at Davidson. He was a great player, according to my dad who played on the same team. So Rusk dropped by our basketball practice to congratulate us for breaking the winning streak record (eight games) that his team had made in 1929. We were feeling mighty proud. Then, somebody asked him to “take a shot” and, sure enough, he came on to the court at about where the 3-point line is today, caught the ball that Coach Lefty Driesell had tossed to him, bent his knees, dropped his arms and then flipped a two-handed, underhand set shot towards the basket. And he swished it.

If you want to see this beautiful town and college, watch “Our State” on UNC-TV on Thursday, or check my UNC-TV blog (unctv.org/ncbookwatch/), where I will post a few more stories.

DG Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina “Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.

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