It was a bright, sunny April afternoon in 1986 when George Watts Hill ’22 presented himself at the Alumni House. Mr. Hill sat proudly in a University captain’s chair with his cane and top hat close at hand. He asked me one question, “What will the construction costs of the new Alumni Center total?” To which I responded, “$7 million.” Mr. Hill quickly indicated he was willing to pledge $3.5 million as a challenge gift with the balance of the $7 million to come from donations from Carolina alumni.
While UNC System President Emeritus William C. Friday ’48 had encouraged Mr. Hill to make a naming gift to the Alumni Center, I had no reason to believe that this sunny April day would brighten even more with this exciting news. A short three weeks later, with Mr. Hill looking on, Alumni Association Past President and Alumni Center Campaign Chairman Ralph Strayhorn ’47 proudly announced that in addition to an earlier $500,000 gift from the James M. Johnston Trust, an anonymous donor had made a $3.5 million challenge gift toward the construction of a much-needed and long overdue Alumni Center.
Mr. Hill served for 35 years as treasurer of the General Alumni Association (GAA). He was well aware of the Association’s decade-long efforts to provide an appropriate home on campus for our growing alumni family. More important, he understood and appreciated the important role that Carolina alumni have played in the history of our University, and he recognized the growing opportunities to further involve alumni in the life of our University.
During University Day ceremonies in 1986 we announced the identity of our anonymous donor, preceding our announcement with a luncheon hosted by the past presidents of the GAA who have championed efforts for an Alumni Center.
The University’s desire to build a business school on the site originally designated for the Alumni Center necessitated our relocating and expanding the center with a resulting delay in construction of two years and an increased size and higher construction costs. Throughout the process Mr. Hill was a thoughtful, patient and interested patron and adviser. On more than one occasion he reviewed plans, volunteering that he was at heart “a frustrated architect.” Mr. Hill’s entire life was one of building, not just facilities, but also programs and institutions.
Mr. Hill personally selected the brick for the Alumni Center. He approved the exterior architectural design. And in 1989 when we had the ground-breaking, although he had a mild stroke the day before, Mr. Hill was present to speak a few words, greet friends, turn the ceremonial shovel of dirt, tip his hat, wave and nod his approval.
Mr. Hill wanted the building to have traditional furnishings and to be inviting to visitors. He hoped that it would serve as a home — an active home — that was lively with the full involvement of alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the University.
I gave Mr. Hill a complete tour of the building, every room, soon after his 91st birthday last fall. It was just the two of us. Again, it was a bright and sunny day. As we went through each room, he nodded his approval, his eyes brightly sparkling. At one point I asked him whether he thought it was big enough. He nodded a quick affirmative. I asked him whether it met with his approval. Again, he smiled broadly. While there were not yet furnishings in the building, Mr. Hill’s vision, coupled with Alumni Center Committee Chair Anne Cates’ ’53 continuing updates on interior design features, allowed him to imagine a completed, furnished building.
Mr. Hill was particularly anxious for alumni to be reminded that they are a vital part of the University, that their sense of the traditions, values and history of Carolina are essential if UNC is to sustain our legacy of service and excellence. He knew better than anyone that as nicely furnished and as well constructed as the building might be, programming in the Alumni Center would be critical.
Mr. Hill was delighted to know that more than 14,000 alumni, faculty and friends of the University made donations matching his generous gift, not one to one, but three to one. He was particularly pleased that there was within the George Watts Hill Alumni Center a first-rate, private dining club, one that reached out not only to alumni but also to faculty and staff, one that could help add a sense of community to our campus.
George Watts Hill led an active life. It was my personal pleasure to work closely with him pursuing a dream that he and others first shared. When later this spring we dedicate the center that bears his name, while unfortunately he will not personally be present, his spirit will envelope all that we do, for he enriched our lives, not only through his generosity of financial resources but also by his generosity of spirit, vision and enthusiasm. George Watts Hill loved North Carolina, he loved his family, he loved his community, and he loved his University. This was his legacy, and it is our challenge. Together we must see that the building that bears his name reflects his spirit and fulfills his vision.
Yours at Carolina,
Douglas S. Dibbert ’70