The journey began on February 3, 1834 when the doors opened to Wake Forest Institute with Samuel Wait as principal. These first steps would lead to a crossroad
50 years ago, Wake Forest College took the road less traveled.
Part 1: The Spirit of Wake Forest
ON MONDAY MORNING May 21, 1956, Hubert Poteat stood on the rostrum in the Wake Forest College chapel in Wake Forest, North Carolina, poised to deliver the very last Commencement address ever to be given on the campus. Outside, a fleet of moving vans packed with the belongings of faculty and staff members, and visible to those gathered in the sparely finished chapel, stood parked and ready to roll the following morning one-hundred-and-seven miles to the west-northwest to a smattering of spanking new structures on a field of red soil ringed by woods on the fringes of the mill and tobacco town of Winston-Salem.
Poteat–tall and dignified; an esteemed Latin scholar and beloved teacher; son of the legendary "Doctor Billy" who as college president had defied the Baptist preachers three decades earlier over the teaching of evolution and in so doing asserted the principle of intellectual freedom; a skilled organist who played at college functions; a Grand Mason of national stature–gave an address rich in religious content. Having chosen to retire rather than relocate, he bid goodbye at the end of his talk to his lifelong friends and colleagues, wishing them well as they prepared to embark on their uncharted adventure. Then, as one who was there recalls, the old scholar, perhaps struggling to control his emotions, put his hands over his face for a moment as if to veil his grief.
At that instant, the spiritually sensitive could surely have seen the hosts of apparitions on the dais behind Poteat–the specters of the intellectual giants and kindly townsfolk who had nurtured generations of small-town and farm boys. From outside, borne by shafts of ethereal sunlight, they could hear the mournful wail of the "hoot owl"; the click-clack of pool balls at Shorty's; the tolling of the Wait Hall bells signaling the start of classes or a sports victory; the huzzahs, emanating from the ramshackle stadium seating built into the sides of a hill, hailing another Peahead Walker gridiron triumph; the strains of a Beethoven symphony wafting from an upper room of Wait Hall, where someone–Thane McDonald, probably–had stacked a set of scratchy 78 rpm records on the music department's turntable; the hellos from D.B. Bryan or Elliott Earnshaw or Grady Patterson peeking out from an office in the Wait Hall rotunda, or from Fred or Ben or "Smut" at the College Soda Shop; the stentorian sermons and lectures in churches and classrooms; the pop tunes of the day–"I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," "In the Mood," "Star Dust," and "Moonlight Serenade"–playing for students as they waited for their meals at Mrs. Newsome's boarding house; the genial voices of unacquainted students greeting each other according to the unwritten mandate that one must speak to others he doesn't know when encountering them; the banter of ebullient youth waiting in line for a ride to Raleigh on the "bumming" corner by Miss Jo's–fun-loving but earnest young men who would go on to become North Carolina's judges, principals, and preachers.
On that day, could the prescient among those assembled have foreseen the future–the radical transformation of a small, provincial, sectarian college with modest reach, ambitions, and resources into a secular university of the first rank, drawing students and assets from across the nation and abroad? In the chiaroscuro of the setting, could they have asked: Is all that has been, and all that will come, only a dream?
So far away, yes; but so near. So far ahead, true; but so clear. It was no dream, but a vision.
The story of Wake Forest's relocation–or "removal," as oldtimers in the town it forsook still call it–has many subplots, with a full complement of colorful characters, intrigue, and melodrama. But in the end, it comes down to simple dynamics: the push of an iron-willed man determined to do the job he was hired for, and the pull of a powerful and prosperous family striving to better the community in its keeping.
A 10-part series adapted from the September, 2006 edition of Wake Forest Magazine.
By David Fyten
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