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.
“Oxford versus Chapel Hill? It was no competition.”
Jan. 17, 2009
When Doug and Randy first asked me to speak today, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t flattered. But I would be less than truthful if I didn’t admit to you that I was also little intimidated … and consequently a little hesitant.
You see, I have been very moved and impressed, like you I feel sure, by the wonderful testimonies that have preceded mine ….
I can’t claim to have gone from the outhouse to the White House, nor did I have the nerve as a student to woo a famous singer and movie star, nor was I the first of my family to go to college, and I haven’t even played basketball in front of tens of thousands.
But when I expressed my hesitation to Doug, it was, as I should have known, a total waste of time. Saying “no” to Doug is one of life’s losing propositions.
Doug promptly told me that I was the only one on the GAA who could express what it was like to come to Carolina from Britain. That was inarguably true.
Unlike for many of you, images and stories of Chapel Hill and the university here were not part of my childhood or adolescent world. They did not inhabit my ambition.
Unlike James Taylor, Carolina was not on my mind.
Instead, I dreamt of the ancient English universities. I imagined that one day I would go to Oxford or Cambridge, that I would eat my meals in a medieval hall, study with eccentric but brilliant tutors and walk the same ivy-draped cloisters that centuries of young British students had walked before.
When I was 18, I was at a traditional English public school … by which I mean (to add to the linguistic confusion) not a public but a private school.
My roommate at the time was an intellectual of alarming quality. He was, though, not a sportsman.
One morning, he came striding into our room after attending a school assembly that I had illegally skipped. “David,” he said, somewhat condescendingly, “there’s a new scholarship on offer, and it sounds like it suits you down to the core. It has a category in it” — and I apologize to the women here today, but the Morehead qualifications in those days left something to be desired — ”it has a category in it about manly sports.”
Well, at the time, I was viewed as something of a runner, and my intellectual roommate who despised all physical activity, decided that this was an opportunity to debate whether “running constituted a manly sport.” Eventually, he decided that it might just “slip by the Americans” — as he put it — and he made me a bet: “Go to London and win this scholarship, and I will buy you a free dinner. Then you can turn it down.”
You must understand, and I hope you will not take offense, that at this time I had never heard of a Morehead Scholarship; I had never heard of a state university, let alone Chapel Hill; and I had to look up North Carolina on a map.
Clearly when William Blake, the Romantic poet, urged us young Englishmen to “build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land,” he forgot to tell us that the southern side of heaven was actually in Chapel Hill.
Well, I went to London and at the final Morehead dinner sat next to the chairman of the foundation, the late Hugh Chatham. We talked about everything but running. But when it came to the final interview, he looked at my resume, appeared positively excited and asked why I hadn’t told him about my high school running records. The level of his interest genuinely surprised me, but he thought I was just being modest. “British understatement,” I think he muttered, and shortly afterwards offered me a scholarship.
It was only much later that I realized the fortunate level of our mutual misunderstanding.
The year before, one of the finest athletes that UNC has ever produced graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was a young Morehead Scholar and today a vice chancellor at the University, one Tony Waldrop. He had just broken the world indoor mile record. But he graduated that year, and Mr. Chatham clearly had visions of finding a successor.
He got me instead. And although I hated to disappoint him, my assessment of my sporting prowess was not understated but, sadly, much more accurate than his. I failed to make the cut for the University team.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. So there I am in Britain, an 18-year-old schoolboy, being asked to give up dreams of Oxford for a place I’d never heard of.
“Now, why would you do that?” you might think, if you didn’t know Chapel Hill.
But, thankfully an 18-year-old’s brain works in wondrous ways.
If you’ve ever seen a British university brochure, you’ll know it’s full of challenging course listings and occasional pictures, usually of buildings, taken at night with no lights on and no human beings in sight. There’s just nothing there to distract you from your studies.
So, there I am … 18 years old … and suddenly UNC bombards me with brochures and yearbooks. And I open them up. And as far as I can tell — and I read them many, many times — no one at Chapel Hill seemed to do any work at all. There were pictures of basketball players, of rock bands, of street festivals on Franklin Street — and there were girls, beautiful girls, hundreds of them, sitting under trees — yes, and that’s where the classes seemed to go on, under trees, as far as I could tell.
Oxford versus Chapel Hill? It was no competition.
And for those of us with teenagers, who sometimes worry about their decision-making abilities, that’s how it sometimes works. That’s what made me decide to come to Chapel Hill, and I’ve got to say — it was one of the best decisions of my life.
I have to admit that at the time, everyone didn’t agree with me. My aunt, who always had her eye on the big picture, said: “How can you go? Now you’ll marry one of those American girls.” She was right, of course. I did.
And my tutor wrote to my parents with these encouraging words of farewell: “We do hope he is not making a ghastly mistake.”
Some mistake. Coming to UNC was a turning point in my life, in so many ways, big and small, as I know it was for so many of you in this room today.
It was the first time I boarded a plane – to fly to America. And the first time I flew in a helicopter – over New York City. It was also the first time I saw a sweet potato. The first time I ate a pecan pie. The first time I saw a policeman with a gun. The first time I’d been clogging and shape-note singing. And the first time I heard a lecture in English and finally understood the phrase “divided by a common language.” In those days, North Carolinians still had accents to be proud of, and I could barely understand a word that was said.
I really did not know what to expect when I came to Carolina, and I was dubious of the value of a Carolina education.
Indeed, what I really intended to do was to race through my degree in as short a time as possible, have a bit of fun and then get back to England for a proper education.
But I had underestimated this place: The lure of the campus, the sound of the cicadas at night, the taste of soul food, the rhythms and cadences of shape-note singing and bluegrass, and yes, the beauty of the women.
And there was something else I had underestimated, and that was the rigor of this place. Yes, it’s true that we hung out under oak trees and idled away evenings in bars, as students still do today, but we also did a surprising amount of work. I wasn’t a particularly good student. But there was so much I was trying to soak in – in what was to me an exciting and strangely magical place.
I had originally planned to study English literature at an English university. Once I came to Chapel Hill, I decided I wanted to learn all about America, and I started reading American literature and taking American studies.
I began a lifelong fascination with African American literature after taking Blyden Jackson’s courses and listening to his recollections of living at the YMCA in Harlem with Langston Hughes and overcoming the indignities of life in a segregated society. And his stories and insights influenced me in a way that went way beyond the bounds of the classroom.
I also took a course on Richard Nixon. It was a seminar, and it was one of the first times I began to grapple with the idea of journalism. It was UNC at it’s best – intimate, personal teaching. And the professor managed to persuade all sorts of fascinating people to address our small group. They included Alger Hiss, the State Department official who was accused of being a spy during the McCarthy era; and David Barber, the Duke political scientist who used psychology to predict the actions of presidents, and who memorably described president Warren Harding as “a wonder of flatulent fellowship.”
And the professor who made all this happen? He was a young UNC graduate, James Reston Jr. Many of you will have recently seen him portrayed in the Hollywood film Nixon/Frost. Reston was the chief researcher for the Nixon interviews, the man who helped give Frost the bite he needed. Such was the quality of the people who taught us.
It would be too much to describe all the courses and experiences that I enjoyed and that moved me.
I went to shape-note singing with Dan Patterson. I had a friend who took me to the Appalachian Mountains to listen to stories about quilting bees and log rolling. I studied astronomy in the Morehead Planetarium and even took in an occasional Carolina basketball game – although I found the rules terribly confusing and mystifying.
Every day seemed packed with exciting challenges, and every day since then I have thanked Carolina for providing me with such a stimulating four years.
Now, although I began my words by saying how little we knew about Carolina in Britain – and that was the case – it wasn’t strictly true that my family had no understanding of this place.
In one of those curious coincidences that belong in the category of the world being much smaller than one imagines and life being full of connections that belie all odds, it turned out that my father had visited Chapel Hill as a young man.
He had come here in 1932, crossing the Atlantic by steamer, as part of the Oxford and Cambridge universities debate team. He came to debate and challenge the virtues of a written constitution. In a packed Memorial Hall, he debated with Joseph Barnett of Laguna Beach, Calif., and Harry McMullen Jr. of Washington, N.C.
And at the end of the debate, and I’m glad to say I don’t know who won, the Carolina debaters presented him with this book: Look Homewood, Angel, which they inscribed: “Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given.”
It was a matter of some disappointment to me that when I was a student here I tried to bring about a reunion. I turned here, to the General Alumni Association, to try to discover how I could contact the two debaters. Sadly, I was told they had both passed away.
But I did get to take my father back to Memorial Hall … to see Sam Ervin.
It seemed fortuitous that Sen. Ervin was on campus during my father’s visit and that I could take my father to see the man — who had built his reputation at the Watergate hearings on his interpretations of the constitution — in the same hall where my father had spoken 45 years before.
But what a disappointment! Ervin was as folksy and entertaining as always, but his Morgantown accent quite defeated my poor father, who confessed afterwards that the evening would have been more illuminating if Ervin had spoken in Latin or Greek.
Allow me to return to the question of women. Chapel Hill, as you know and as Don Curtis’s story illustrated so well, is an impossibly romantic place. Well, John Motley Morehead understood this, too, and it worried him. He thought students should not be distracted, and in his characteristically down-to-earth, practical way he decided to do something about it.
He couldn’t control all the students, but at least his scholars were not going to be derailed by mere romance. So he added a clause in his scholarship. And it was a simple one. Get married, and you lose your scholarship. You’re on your own.
Morehead may have been right about distraction, but he couldn’t save us forever. He could only delay our youthful enthusiasms … and in my case not by long.
I have not only my education to thank Carolina for, but also my wife. I met Lia in an American studies course — a native of Durham and graduate of Jordan High School. I lured her to England, where she lived my childhood dream of eating meals in medieval halls and studying with brilliant but eccentric tutors. Her transition was a fine demonstration of the value of a UNC degree, which she merely embellished with an Oxford one, too.
Now, as I look back, I know that once I boarded that plane to America my life changed forever. There were challenges in coming here as a young foreigner, but you all welcomed me in with a big smile and a warm embrace.
Learning to live in a new country, learning a new way of looking at the world, and challenging my own society’s perceptions and mores was a wonderful educational experience. And it is one reason why I have been so proud of Chancellor Moeser and UNC’s initiatives in offering international educational experiences to as many students as possible. I know what a difference it makes.
There has never been a moment in my life when I haven’t been grateful for the opportunity to come here … and proud of the honor of being associated with all of you. I may not have been born a Tar Heel, but I do believe that my blood now runs Carolina blue.