Harriett Loweth ’82 – My Carolina Story

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

“The road that leads you away leads you home again.”

Jan. 15, 2011

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Harriett Loweth '82

Harriett Loweth ’82

“The road that leads you away leads you home again.” I wish I had been the first one in this room to make that statement. When I heard it last year at a GAA event, I thought, “Damn, that’s my line.”

You see, the last four years I was at Chapel Hill, junior and senior years, and the two years in grad school, the Alumni House was my home. The alumni staff were my “away from home” family.

Order of the Bell Tower, affectionately known as OBT, was launched October 1980. I was the charter vice president and first elected president of the organization. Laurie Norman followed me, and she was succeeded by my brother, Perry Morrison.

But that’s 1980-84. Let me start at the beginning.

I was born in 1960 in Wilson, NC.

I grew up in a Carolina blue family in a Carolina blue town. Although we did not come to Chapel Hill frequently, we followed Carolina sports and named our dog Tar Heel. My father, Brame, was class of ’37 and later received his pharmacy designation. He took over our family’s drugstore from my grandfather. My Uncle Stuart was class of ’32, a chemistry major, who went on to be a principal in Shaw Industries.

The conversations at my house when I began to look at colleges went like this. Though Carolina was a given interest, my mother, having attended Mary Washington, an all-girls school, for a year or two and then ECTC, also primarily female during WWII, tried, “Well, how about Peace or Meredith?” To which I replied, rolling my eyes, “Mom. There are no boys at Peace or Meredith.”

In 1976, however, a sobering circumstance affected my ability to matriculate anywhere.

My family had owned Morrison’s Drug Store in Wilson since 1922. In 1976, with the rise of corporate drugstores like Kerr Drug and Eckerd’s, my father’s business declined, and there was no money for college. Parents did not have college savings accounts in those days, or at least mine didn’t. My dad even cleaned out my “passbook” account to help make ends meet.

Fortunately, I was a very good student. I applied to several in-state schools, including the, I believe I have heard it called, “gravel pit” up the road. Always hoping for a scholarship somewhere. But my heart, and my hopes, were Carolina blue.

I was nominated for a Morehead, but they didn’t quite understand that ballet was my sport. Wasn’t the “four corners” play kind of like ballet?

Eventually, my financial aid application and transcript found its way to Eleanor Morris’ desk. Thankfully, and to the great relief of my parents, I was awarded a James M. Johnston Scholarship, which paid nearly all of my expenses during undergrad.

My years at Carolina began in 1978. It seems appropriate to spend a minute describing the generational shift that had occurred in the mid-’70s. I was too young to remember the Kennedy assassination and knew more about Iran than Vietnam. I had turned 16 during the year of the bicentennial; Jimmy Carter was president. There were no hippies. Preppy was in, epitomized by girls in deans sweaters, ribbon belts and big add-a-gold-beads. We dressed up for football games. We listened nonstop to beach music and talked about boys, safely in our girls dorm. The drinking age was 18.

I lived in Spencer Dorm. I was in the Honors Program and a political science and economics double major. I pledged Alpha Chi Omega my junior year. But mostly those first years I just wandered around going to class, experiencing Carolina and sewing some wild oats. There are plenty of pictures of the wild oats, because by that time there were photographers everywhere, and you could purchase photos with the event and date at the bottom. I spent time in my dorm, in class, at various mixers and in the Union. On Franklin Street, I danced at Crazy Zack’s and Purdy’s and ate at Spanky’s, the Waffle Shop, Four Corners, Hector’s and the Porthole. That is, when I wasn’t cooking on a hot pot in my room, which was most of the time.

I focused on my political and economic studies, thinking I might go to law school. I was an intern on Capitol Hill one summer and an intern in Raleigh for the Department of Agriculture another.

But then, two pivotal events occurred my junior year. Neither had anything to do with my studies but everything to do with the direction my life would take. One day, in October 1980, a friend said: “Come with me to a meeting. Bob Saunders is doing this thing.” And I knew and liked Bob, then student body president, so I did. And in going to that meeting, I found my calling at UNC and the door to my future, though I didn’t know it at the time.

The room that day was full of students who were already active on campus. They liked the idea of a student alumni association, which was the subject of the meeting, though they weren’t really sure what it was. Most of us already had our various passions. I, in fact, was working on a friend’s campaign for student body president that winter and spring, anticipating a student government position.

The second pivotal event was that Joe Buckner lost that race for student body president to Scott Norberg, by a nail-bitingly small margin, leaving a team of individuals, including me, free to become the working nucleus of the new Order of the Bell Tower.

The first elected officers were me, Laurie Norman, David Leventhal and Sharon Lawrence. Yes, “the” Sharon Lawrence.

Start-ups, if you’re lucky, are exciting. And this one was.

There weren’t many student alumni associations at that time. We were blazing new trails, both locally and nationally.

I want to share a draft of a letter I wrote, from my OBT archives. It may have been a letter to The Daily Tar Heel, as it begins:

“To: The Students of Carolina

“The Order of the Bell Tower is the newest and fastest growing honorary and service organization on campus. Sometimes known as the student/alumni association, the Order of the Bell Tower serves as a link between alumni and students at the University.

“Only three months old, OBT, as it is affectionately known, is far ahead of many clubs on campus in that it has 58 charter members, a constitution and an office in the Alumni House. We’ve already held a fundraising service project in which we cleared $2,500 putting together and delivering exam survival kits — and we were able to send four members to the Bluebonnet Bowl, hosting alumni on the bus trip.

“Some of our activities include sponsoring the Freshman Register, holding workshops on “What it’s like to be in college” at N.C. high schools, attending alumni receptions and serving as host and hostesses at alumni events and at meetings held on campus such as that of the N.C. Press Association.

“We also have our own service and social activities.”

… regrettably, the rest of the draft was lost, but you get the idea.

I had a new family at the Alumni House — their names were Clarence and Bo and Gene and Stan and Liddybet and Ann and Alice and Chris and Judy and Ruth and Jane and Roland, and, of course, Spike, to name a few. I pretty much lived there, in the house next to The Carolina Inn.

Just in case you’re wondering, I didn’t leave Doug off this list. He wasn’t here yet, though he would arrive in summer 1982.

I had a new circle of friends, some of whom would be lifelong. (I have to digress a second to throw in that my boyfriend, also OBT, was a basketball usher, so this lucky girl had seats in Carmichael on the rows behind the 1982 championship team.) No, of course, we didn’t sit in those seats we had — we stood.

I was also a member of the GAA Board of Directors and hung out with adults named Ray and David and Pepper and Charlie and Rollie.

I worked in the Chancellor’s Box and mingled with important Tar Heels named Christopher and Ferebee and Lyle, though, of course, I knew to address them each as “Chancellor.”

I traveled for the University around the state to clubs to talk to alumni about what it was like to be a current student. I rode on a bus with alumni to the Bluebonnet Bowl. I attended regional and national CASE conferences for student alumni associations.

By saying yes in 1980 to a chance “come with me to a meeting,” I had my first real taste of leadership as well as the thrill of having a passion for an organization and a place. For that passion and service, the GAA acknowledged me as a member of the Bell Tower Society in 1982.

I want to digress from my story again and use this opportunity to talk about the importance of scholarship and supporting education.

Frankly, I don’t know if I would have been at UNC at all without being awarded the Johnston. Without Carolina’s full support, I certainly would not have had the experiences of this story.

Paying it forward, in 1984 my Uncle Stuart, who was class of ‘32, created two scholarship funds, one in my name and one in my brother’s, in appreciation and recognition. Each of those funds helps support several students every year, and we continue to donate to them. Later, Perry and I, after our mother died in August 2009, created a college scholarship fund in her name. These are my brother’s words:

“We thought that if we could give somebody who was financially disadvantaged a chance, that it would make a difference in their lives. Our experience at Chapel Hill really changed our lives,” he said. “It was self-affirming, eye-opening, broadening.”

Returning to my story, let’s talk about those doors that were opened for me by the GAA.

Order of the Bell Tower led me to two summer jobs in the Office of Development and gave me the connections and display of initiative needed to be admitted straight out of undergraduate school to Carolina’s MBA program. The only other student who did that that year was my classmate, former alumni board member Kraig Holt. In hindsight, had I not been admitted, I’m confident my Carolina family would have opened doors in another way.

On my MBA application, I expressed a belief that not-for-profit management was about to become significantly more sophisticated (and it did), and I wanted the MBA training, hoping to apply it in that area. Well, it didn’t exactly turn out that way — upon graduation I took the for-profit route to Procter & Gamble, a marketing experience there simply is no substitute for. Though I began my training in Cincinnati on established brands, I was eventually and randomly assigned to new product start-ups, and then moved to RJR Nabisco overseeing all new product launches for the Planters and LifeSavers brands, at age 27.

Along the way, I married, moved to Wilmington, N.C., started a family and, concurrently, a Children’s Museum. Finally, I had gotten back to the non-profit goal, and I spent 10 years helping to grow that organization.

See the entrepreneurial trajectory it took me years to see?

The road that leads you away leads you home again.

In October 2007, 25 years after graduation, I am driving near Wrightsville Beach, and I receive a cellphone call from Doug Dibbert. This call comes very much “out of the blue” (no pun intended) as, truthfully, I’ve had little contact with Chapel Hill during these years. “How does he even know my cell number?” I wondered. Of all the things I expected to hear, “We want to put your name on the ballot for the board” was not one of them. “The board?” I asked in disbelief.

My family was clearly delighted with this turn of events, and my children, then 14 and 11, immediately started wearing Carolina blue.

Gratefully, I won the election and was given the chance, perhaps the push, to come home.

The timing was remarkable. My life was at a crossroads. I was 48. I’d recently left the board of the Children’s Museum, which had been my passion for so many years, my children were in middle and high school, and my mother was dying. And a call comes from the GAA, re-opening a door to a place that for me was once family.

You know, relatively, this board is a very, very small percentage of all alumni, and yet being here, I’ve crossed paths with people I’ve known already, throughout my life. I grew up with Eloise Hassell, and our families are very close. I went to Governor’s School with Teresa Artis; Eleanor Morris oversaw my scholarship to Carolina (by the way, we share a birthday). I attended UNC at the same time as Teresa, Elbert Avery and Kraig Holt (who recently left the board); I met Doug Dibbert when he first arrived; I went to business school with Kraig Holt; and I was on the Children’s Museum board with former GAA board member Allen Cobb.

And then, there’s Order of the Bell Tower, celebrating its 30th anniversary. For me, there’s a strong element of pride that it still exists, and I want to express my appreciation to the alumni association for continuing to nurture what we started in 1980.

Start-ups, if done right, sustain. How many people get to re-walk the walk and see fruition of labor done more than a quarter of a century earlier and still recognize it? The spirit of OBT is the same, an infectious passion for Carolina. It’s extraordinary. The students still brim with enthusiasm, still represent the University and still host football games and mingle with important alumni in the Chancellor’s Box.

The sophistication in alumni association management I expected when applying to business school in 1982 occurred, and what I see today is beyond anyone’s dreams at that time. I want to take the opportunity to congratulate Doug and his staff for ably managing that growth. It’s been my absolute delight to come back and observe and participate and see all that you’ve accomplished.

The road that leads you away leads you home again.

Being on the GAA board, for a second time, has been like coming home.

It’s been a place I recognized … a place of comfort during a time of transition, a place to use my mind and my skills, a place to give a little something back to the GAA. A place to ponder the “next door.”

It’s been a place to remember who I am.

I’m from Wilson: I’m a Tar Heel born.

All of my education, from first grade to graduate school, and several summer programs, were funded by the state of North Carolina: I’m a Tar Heel bred.

I’ll be 51 on Monday and hope that I’ll live to 100, but: When I die, I’ll be a Tar Heel dead.

Thanks for the chance to share my story.

Hark the sound.