Twenty years ago at the dedication of the George Watts Hill Alumni Center, I noted that when we first began work on the center our younger son, Brian ’05, was not yet born. By the dedication, Brian was 10 years old. That span of time marked a remarkable path for this Alumni Center, which has meant so much to so many Carolina alumni. Here’s how it came about.
Soon after my arrival in 1982, I was visited by two of the GAA’s former volunteer board leaders — Dr. Jim Davis ’40 and former Durham Mayor Mutt Evans ’28. They shared their expectation that I fulfill their dream by arranging for the construction of a much-needed alumni center. They pointed out that money had been collected and that a fund was set up for this purpose. The balance in the fund was about $35,000.
Several months later, then-Chancellor Chris Fordham ’47 responded to a letter from Ed Rankin ’49, who was head of the GAA Board of Directors, and extended University approval for the GAA to design and raise funds for an alumni center. Fordham indicated that the site for the center would be near the Smith Center and next to the Kenan Center and a new conference center. Fordham requested that the GAA include a dining club for University faculty, staff and alumni.
Then in April 1986, George Watts Hill ’22 paid me a brief but momentous visit in the Alumni House, a former apartment house adjacent to The Carolina Inn. Mr. Hill, whose service to the GAA had included being the association’s treasurer for 35 years, began our conversation by asking, “How much?” I told him that we’d been advised to seek half of the estimated construction costs to name the building and that, since the projected cost was $7 million, a naming gift would be $3.5 million. He quickly responded: “Done, a challenge gift, and don’t tell my wife.”
Several weeks later, at our Annual Alumni Luncheon, we announced that we’d secured a $3.5 million challenge gift from an anonymous donor. (Mr. Hill was the son of John Sprunt Hill, of the class of 1889, who built and later gave The Carolina Inn as a gift to the University.) We also announced a $500,000 gift from the James M. Johnston Charitable Trust. These two early gifts were facilitated by former UNC System President William C. Friday ’48 (LLB). On University Day that year, we announced the identity of our “anonymous” donor.
Soon after completing design documents for the Alumni Center, the University informed the GAA that the site for the planned conference center had changed; instead of near the Smith Center, it would be built off of N.C. 54 on the Mason Farm property, where there would be easier access and abundant parking. The University asked that the GAA focus its design for the Alumni Center on the former site of the conference center, just south of the Kenan Center.
Ralph Strayhorn ’47, a former chair of the University’s Board of Trustees and a GAA board chair, led our fundraising campaign. Additional six-figure gifts were secured from Maurice Koury ’48; Frank Kenan ’35, Tom Kenan ’59 and the Kenan Family Foundation; the Felix Harvey III ’43 family; Margaret and Ed O’Herron Jr. ’38; the Marion “Dyke” Peebles Jr. ’51 family; the Educational Foundation; Ruth Hettleman; the Dowd Foundation; Julia and Kenneth Royall Jr. ’38; John Church ’42; and Deborah ’69 and Johnny Harris ’69. There were additional naming gifts to fund offices and other spaces. Happily, before the George Watts Hill Alumni Center officially opened, more than 14,500 alumni, faculty and friends of Carolina made gifts. (And naming opportunities are still available!)
Plans were underway to begin construction when the University informed the GAA that it might one day wish to build a new business school on the site where the Alumni Center was to be constructed. The GAA agreed to redesign the Alumni Center for a site on Stadium Drive. Without nearby complimentary facilities, the center was expanded to 65,000 square feet — and its costs increased to more than $12 million. It was an influential move: Years later, the exterior design features of the Alumni Center would determine the exterior designs for the Rams Head Center, with its parking deck, dining hall and recreation center, as well as the Loudermilk Center and Blue Zone addition to Kenan Stadium.
The Carolina Club opened in March 1993 immediately after the Duke-UNC men’s basketball game. (Carolina won.) At last, UNC faculty had a social and dining club that continues to attract and retain Carolina’s distinguished faculty.
Among the most notable changes brought by the opening of the Alumni Center has been the remarkable expansion of the GAA’s programming. The center also has been the site of campus appearances by numerous luminaries, including then-President Bill Clinton during UNC’s Bicentennial, the late Charles Kuralt ’55, George Will, Alister Cooke and Maya Angelou.
Carolina’s largest and only permanent constituency, our alumni, were without a permanent home for the University’s first 200 years. After moving its meager early offices from the Alumni Building on McCorkle Place to the second and third floors of South Building to the basement of The Carolina Inn and later the Alumni House, 20 years ago Carolina’s alumni finally opened our permanent home — right in the center of our campus — affirming the enduring importance of all former Carolina students. Please visit. It is your home.
Yours at Carolina,
Douglas S. Dibbert ’70