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Marjorie Spruill ’73 – 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. As our Carolina family seeks ways to stay connected during these challenging times, board members are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.


“Having taught at public universities and being an administrator at a private one, it became very clear to me that being at a public university exactly suits my personality and the values learned here. “

June 21, 2008

Marjorie Spruill ’73

Marjorie Spruill ’73

I want to tell you what Carolina has meant to me before, during and after my four years here. I am 57 years old, and Carolina has meant a lot to me for most of those years.

I entered UNC in 1969, but the desire to come to school here was an inspiration for me for many years before that. Like Randy Jones ’79, I came from a small town in North Carolina, a beautiful town, Washington, a town that I am very proud of, and from the best possible parents. My mother is still living at age 87 and still lives in the house I grew up in. My sister, Carol Spruill ’71, also graduated from UNC, overlapping with me, and was a friend of Doug’s.  She and I moved out of that house when we went off to school, and my room is exactly as I left it. The mugs from various sorority and fraternity formals, the books and notes from college courses are still on the shelf.  My husband calls it a museum from the ’60s and ’70s.

I was moved and inspired by the Carolina story told by Randy, and I’m not trying to rival him for the prize for the “most unlikely to have gotten to go to college” story. But I, too, am a first-generation college student, the product of a family without a lot of money or education. My late father would kill me for saying this to such an august audience, but his father, my Spruill grandfather, was literally “a bastard out of Carolina.” I am a historian, a specialist in Southern women’s history, and am constantly asked if I am kin to the illustrious Julia Cherry Spruill, author of Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies, whom I was honored to meet when I was here as a student. I don’t usually tell them, “No, my grandfather was a bastard, and I have no idea where he came from,” but since we are all family here, I will freely tell you that he was born on Christmas Day 1865, the son of Emma Spruill, who turned up in Washington during the closing years of the Civil War. All we know is that she ran away from home pregnant, and my grandfather was raised by foster parents. We don’t know where Emma Spruill came from, and despite the fact that I am a professional historian and the extensive efforts of my sister and my brother-in-law who are both lawyers, we have still not figured that out. If anyone can give us a hand, we would appreciate it.

At the age of 30, my grandfather married into the Whichard family from Pitt County, and I am curious to know if I might be related to my colleague here, Jordy Whichard. So, my grandfather and Lucy Whichard proceeded to have 11 children, and that is just the ones that survived to adulthood. They lived on a farm a few miles north of Washington, N.C., and struggled to hold onto it during the Great Depression. My father was lucky to finish high school. He was quickly shipped off to World War II after Pearl Harbor and served abroad through Operation Torch, the invasion of northern Africa and then fought in France and Germany. He finally came home months after the war was over because he was one of the unmarried guys, and they shipped all the married ones home first. Despite the GI Bill, he needed to get to work: college was not an option.

My mother’s early life was much harder. She grew up very poor during the Depression. Her father was a tenant farmer for most of her childhood. She moved 11 times before she was 13 but never missed a day of school. My mother was really smart — is still very smart. A high school teacher who realized this helped her figure out how to apply to college and get a work study job at WC, it was then called. I learned recently that she came with her high school debate team to Chapel Hill for a tournament, and that that teacher arranged for her to have an interview with the director of admissions. He then talked with associates at WC and helped set things up for mother to work and go to school there. At 16, she left home with a cardboard suitcase and 50 bucks and worked herself through two years of college worked in the dining hall. She knew she would not be able to stay the whole four years. She studied bookkeeping and stenography and then went back to live with her parents who by then, were doing better — after my grandfather learned carpentry skills during the war and got out of farming.

Their stories sparked my interest in history. Even more important, they shaped the political consciousness of myself and my sister, a law school dean who teaches poverty law. Their stories are about good but hardworking people who nevertheless were poor. These sharply contradict the political message one hears so much: that people are poor because of their own faults or laziness. We had heard the family stories and knew better.

By the time I was in high school, my parents were doing pretty well. With mother as bookkeeper, my dad operated a successful moving and storage company. My dad became a member of the housing authority during the 1960s. I’m proud to say that he and others on the board came to UNC for training from the Institute of Government at Chapel Hill. They learned about all the new money the new federal department of Housing and Urban Development was granting and how to apply for it. They got those grants and proceeded to tear down every slum in Washington, N.C., and replace them with beautiful, well-landscaped public housing that is still there. (Later, when we brought friends home to Washington, we’d go out to dinner and then my dad would say, “Let’s go see the housing projects!” Kind of surprised some people.) He later ran for city council, got the most votes and became mayor pro-tem. Both of my parents taught us that you never just live in a place; you must give back to that community, lessons that were reinforced here in Chapel Hill. Both regretted the chance not to get more education — and there was no question that my sister and I would be going to college. They had high expectations, and we were not only encouraged but expected to meet them.

I cannot remember when I first started dreaming of going to Carolina. I think it was because long ago, the only college graduate in my family, my great-uncle Mitchell Taylor, the son of a blacksmith and oldest of 10 children, ran away from home to come to Chapel Hill and work his way through college. His roommate was the famous playwright Paul Green. He went on to become an Episcopal priest, married a wealthy heiress in his first church and lived happily ever after. He founded an Episcopal church in Miami Beach.

That all sounded pretty good to me. When I heard that Carolina didn’t take girls, or at least not very many of them, that made me more determined. I have always had very little patience with that kind of thinking and a great deal of confidence that somehow it should and could be changed. Trying to get the grades and scores to get in, when it was far harder to get in as a girl, helped motivate me as well as that desire to make my parents proud. When I found out that I had done really well on my SAT test, the only thing I could think was “hot damn, I can get in.”

I applied only to Chapel Hill — for early admission — and was accepted. On the day that I graduated from high school, a lot of people were weeping and I was grinning from ear to ear, dreaming about going off to Carolina in August.

The four years I had here lived up to my expectations and were truly my formative years — and some of the happiest years of my whole life. UNC in 1969 was kind of strange though, in one sense — social life — when there were such skewed gender ratios; there were 250 girls in my freshman class and 2,500 guys. In high school, I had been very serious as a student, and more liberal than most on politics and race. I thought the segregated society I was raised in was terrible and change was long overdue. My high school was desegregated by court order in 1969, weeks before my senior year began, and it made we weep literally that so many of my white friends thought that was a bad thing. I was very serious about life, and I was not very popular with the boys. I was super-busy with AP classes and extracurricular activities. I was state president of my church youth group. I wrote a column for the Washington Daily News — the “Talk of the Teens” column every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for a whole year! Generally speaking, I worked too hard and probably took life way too seriously. But when I arrived in Chapel Hill with 250 girls and 2,500 guys, my social life picked up dramatically. I have to admit I kind of enjoyed that.

I recently heard about Anson Dorrance’s autobiography. A friend was reading it while on a treadmill and was surprised to see my name mentioned. I did not remember meeting Anson Dorrance, now the famous women’s soccer coach. In the book he talks about these tough years and tough days — for the guys — and that he had invited Marjorie Spruill out and she had turned him down. This is in his autobiography! And I could not believe it — my name there in print. I think it must have really been tough for the guys.

I joined a sorority, Pi Beta Phi. Susan Saunders was such a great help to us all there. And I more or less joined the Chi Psi fraternity, because I fell in love with a guy I met at the beach just as I was coming to Carolina and persuaded him to join the Chi Psi’s. We were together for most of my four years here, which is why I turned down Anson Dorrance.

At Chapel Hill, I was determined not to work so hard and demand so much of myself. I expected that at this large university, I would not do so well as I did in high school. And unfortunately, I was initially assigned to an adviser who looked at my record and predicted that I would be an average student, at best. But then I sort of accidentally got a 3.0 without a lot of effort my first semester, and was right back to my old ways: ambitious and involved in student legislature and extracurricular activities. And, during my junior and senior years, I fell in love with academics.

I loved my classes and was an American studies major. I loved studying the history of very important issues of my day. I developed a strong interest in race relations, in women’s history and Southern culture, subjects I have continued to study as a scholar for all these many years. (I later got a Ph.D. in history and am a college professor.) I loved Sam Hill’s class on religion in the South and the comparative religions class with William Peck; one thing that stuck with me especially was how he taught it. He spoke about each religion so positively, saying, you can never truly understand a religion until you appreciate it enough that you almost reach the point of conversion. I loved Jim Leutze’s military history classes, Doris Betts’ contemporary fiction class, and Southern politics with Merle Black, where I did a paper during the 1972 campaign with Nick Galifianakis and Jesse Helms. I predicted that Galifianakis was going to trounce Helms. I got a B on the paper and a stern warning not to let my hopes interfere with my scholarly judgment.

I was one of Joy and John Kasson’s very first students when they arrived at UNC with their newly minted American studies degrees from Yale. I learned so much from them including how to appreciate true interdisciplinary scholarship and small discussion-oriented seminars. One of the most important things that happened to me careerwise was that Peter Filene taught the first women’s history class that had ever been taught here, and I was in it, and that just caught fire with me. I did my honors thesis on the woman suffrage movement in North Carolina and became deeply interested in women’s history and how things got to be the way they were.

The women’s movement was going on all around me and affected my life profoundly. There was that article in the Carolina Alumni Review last year about the changes regarding women at UNC in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so I won’t talk about that except to say that Joyce Davis was one of my heroines. She was head of the Association of Women’s Students, and before I had arrived on campus, she wrote us all and said, “You must read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique if you have not read it: If you need to get a copy and your little town bookstore does not have it, here is an order form.” Under her leadership, my freshman year the AWS threatened that all girls would stay out all night and camp out on Polk Place if they didn’t end our nightly curfews — “closing hours.” We thought it was absurd that all these women students with their way-above-average SATs were locked in their dorms at certain hours while the men were allowed to run free! We did not like that.

Professor Don Matthews of the history department teased me about my “marginal” identity as a student, and I didn’t like that either. He meant that I was both a sorority girl and a campus activist, the “Maid of Chi Psi” and a charter member of the National Women’s Political Caucus and lobbyist for the ERA. When the Chi Psi’s nominated me, as a joke I think, for the homecoming court, the procedure was for all the nominees to be screened by a committee of coach’s wives and professors. When I got to the interview, I saw Jim Leutze and Don Matthews sitting there along with the coach’s wives. Don Matthews immediately said to me, “So, what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” I said to him: “I was going to ask you the same thing.” I see him at history conferences sometimes, and we joke about that.

He was right, I guess, that I had ambivalent feelings about being traditional and somewhat revolutionary, especially when a picture was posted all over the state of all of the homecoming candidates, posing with linked arms and Bill Dooley in the center, with our short skirts and kind of kicking out our legs — with the caption “Dooley and the Dolls.” That was very embarrassing. I felt really conflicted, but over the years, I have become more comfortable with the idea that we can be feminine and feminist at the same time.

The Vietnam War protest figured very large in my experience at UNC. Buck Goldstein, who you all know is now head of the entrepreneurial group that encourages social responsibility in entrepreneurship at UNC, was head of the antiwar movement.  After Kent State, the campus erupted in a strike led by Tommy Bello ’71. The protest remained orderly, but I will never forget how we marched one day, 2,000 strong, around campus and surrounded the faculty while they were in a meeting in which we demanded amnesty for going on strike. Some fool set up a microphone and speakers to broadcast their discussion to the students — the 2,000 camped out on the lawn! Every time someone spoke in favor there was roar of approval, and vice versa. I’m sure it was very intimidating. And they gave us amnesty. It was a very memorable experience. My sister composed a letter to the editor of the Washington Daily News, my former boss, Ashley Futrell, signed by quite a few of the students from our town who were attending UNC as “concerned students for peace.” All hell broke loose in Washington, and for a solid month the paper was flooded with letters. They were either condemning us as having been communists all along or in some cases, expressing support, including several letters from our former teachers saying these were some of our town’s best and brightest kids and this is okay. Ten years ago, I published the letters in a textbook in a section about Vietnam and generation gap in the 1970s.

For me personally, outside of academics, one of the most influential figures here was Anne Queen, head of the YWCA. She was my mentor. She was a wonderful person, from humble origins, and she taught us to be proud of that. It meant so much that she was eager to meet our parents and wanted us to be proud of them. In fact, it kind of made more sense to be proud of overcoming obstacles, rather than be proud of never having had any in the first place. For so many students and over so many years, Anne Queen was a truly inspiring figure, an example of a reformer who was leading UNC and its students and loved to bring people together. She cared deeply about race relations, and one summer sent me to represent UNC at a national conference racism higher education. I also learned to appreciate arts and crafts through the fabulous international bazaar. I have always remembered helping her host receptions at her home — where every single eclectic item had a story behind it: who made it, where it came from, who gave it to her, and I started to believe, that’s the only kind of thing you should have in your house. I also learned her recipe for Benne Biscuits and Sangria. I have since organized countless receptions for visiting speakers on the various campuses where I have worked and tried all through my life to create the mixture of warm southern lady hospitality and intellectual exchange among people that she taught me. She also helped me after graduation to find a job as an assistant director and instructor in the Residential College at UNC-G, which gave me the opportunity to find out that college teaching was exactly what I wanted to do.

Finally, Carolina meant so much to me after those four years. Personal friendships like with Buddy Jenrette ’73, who I missed today as his term has expired, was one of my closest friends. I’ve kept up with lots of people who I met during those years, and love talking with them about our salad days at Chapel Hill.

I went on to get a master’s degree from Duke. I had to confess that because I told some people about it last night at dinner. I went on to UVA to get a Ph.D. in Southern history and intellectual history and ended up becoming one of the earliest people to carve out a field for myself in women’s history because the field was just being invented at the time. I returned to the topic of my undergraduate honors thesis when I got around to doing my dissertation, expanding the study from just North Carolina to the whole South, and it was published by Oxford University Press as New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. 

Above all, my experiences here left me with strong views of what universities ought to be that I have carried with me to Virginia, Duke, UNC-G, University of Southern Mississippi, Vanderbilt (where I was associate provost) and now at South Carolina. Universities must promote thought and discussion. They must challenge students to introspection, to examine the sources of their own values and convictions as well to be both responsible critics and supporters of their society. Universities must provide both intellectual stimulation and cultivate leadership skills. And they in turn should help guide and lead their states and nation. Having taught at public universities and being an administrator at a private one, it became very clear to me that being at a public university exactly suits my personality and the values learned here.

I have also learned we must measure ourselves as a university by the quality of our research, by our service to society, by our ability to help students reach their own potential and be thoughtful, joyful and compassionate citizens of the world and not by what some magazine (U.S. News & World Report) has to say. We at Carolina should judge ourselves by the standards we have set for ourselves, and be — as I know we already are — models for other universities.

I love being a university professor.  My goal is to give to my students what I got from UNC.

I am honored to be on this board and serve this University, which has meant so much to me.