As soon as the first guests arrived, memories began to flow during “Reflections: A Look Back at UNC Pembroke’s First 125 Years.”
When retired biology Professor James Ebert arrived, Larry Barnes, a 1971 graduate, recalled a turning point in his college career.
“I was a biology major until I heard how hard Dr. Ebert’s Anatomy and Physiology class was,” Barnes laughed. Ebert remembered the first time he taught Anatomy and Physiology in 1956.
“I came to the university in 1956. In my first class I had a group of outstanding students,” he said. “Two of those young men, Mr. James ‘Buddy’ Bell and Mr. Lycurous Lowry, are here tonight. I had only a handful of bones and a model torso, but they were great students.”
Held during UNCP’s 125th anniversary celebration, the “Reflections” event was on October 22 and kicked off a week of homecoming activities. More than 125 people attended the event held in the University Center Annex.
Joining Ebert, a panel of alumni looked back on their time at UNCP. University historian Professor Emeritus Linda Oxendine gave the keynote address. She celebrated the early years of a school founded in 1887 with one teacher and 15 students.
“This is a wonderful story; the most unique story I know,” said Dr. Oxendine, who was the long-time chair of UNCP’s American Indian Studies Department. “The early history of the school is inseparable from the local community, and we’re not so far from our origins today. There remains a strong cultural ownership of the school by the American Indian community.”
In a roomful of people who are connected by an institution and its history, Dr. Oxendine noted that she babysat for Ebert’s young children. Her father was a faculty member, administrator and namesake of the Herbert G. Oxendine Science Building.
Dr. Oxendine outlined the school’s beginnings and the contributions of founders like W.L. Moore, students like the first graduate D.F. Lowry and long-time trustees, O.R. Sampson, Anderson Locklear and Preston Locklear.
The original state appropriation of $500 was earmarked for salaries. It was left to the Lumbee people to provide land, lumber and labor for the first school building.
“The state gave us two years to build a school or the money would be returned,” Dr. Oxendine said. “W.L. Moore was so committed to starting a school, he gave $200 for the first building. That was a lot of money then.”
Dr. Oxendine recounted the university’s seven names and how the changes mirrored the tribe’s search for its identity. “In 1953, we pushed for the Lumbee name, which is our name for the river,” she said. “It was the first time our name came from us.”
The year 1953 was a watershed moment for the university, which was one the first state institutions of higher education in the nation to voluntarily desegregate.
Harry Mathis, a 1959 graduate, was one of the first white students. Mathis remembered taking a biology class from Ebert and his disappointment in getting a “B.”
“You were a great teacher,” he told Ebert. “There were a whole lot of great teachers here. Thanks a whole lot.”
At a recent Founder’s Day celebration, Mathis recalled eating lunch with Mary Alice Teets, who made him feel welcome. Teets, a 1958 graduate, was a panelist.
The university as a crossroads was a theme all evening. Barnes, who was the first African American to enroll at the university, remembered Teets’ father, Walter Pinchbeck. Pinchbeck supervised maintenance of the school for many years and is the namesake of the modern Facilities Maintenance Building.
“When my family didn’t have the funds to send me to college, Pembroke State University chose me,” Barnes recalled. “People like Dr. Les Murray and James B. Chavis (namesake of the University Center) worked it out for me.
“As a work-study student, I worked for Mr. Pinchbeck,” he said. “He was a mentor who told me wonderful stories.”
Both Barnes and Teets are retired educators. Teets was literally raised on campus and remembered a charmed life surrounded by education.
“Living on campus was wonderful,” she said. “My father was once asked why he stayed in Pembroke after having traveled all over the nation. His answer was that this is the friendliest place he ever been.”
Other panelists recalled life in college and life on the farm. The university opened doors for them to make the transition.
“Being in school meant I no longer had to work in the fields and out in the sun,” said Emma Locklear, who with the class of 1962 is celebrating their 50th reunion this year. “I would stay at school from eight-to-five whether I had classes or not.”
Pandora Strickland of the class of 1957 recalled a trip to a music conference in Atlantic City, N.J., with a group of students, most of whom had never been far from home.
“We left early and we were so excited that by the time we got to Fayetteville, we began eating our lunch,” Strickland said. “We were an excited bunch of college students for a week.”
The alumni recounted life-changing experiences at the university. Nat Tolar of the class of 1971 graduated to work his entire career with AT&T.
“I never even had an interview,” he said. “The placement office worked it all out. It’s the only job I ever had, and they made it possible.”
Tolar has season tickets for Braves football. Like every home game, he will be in the stands Saturday for the homecoming football game.
Asked about his most memorable moment at the university, Barnes responded: “It was graduation day and my mother and father were on either side of me,” he said. “They were both crying.”
Chancellor Kyle R. Carter, UNCP’s fifth chancellor, summed up the meaning of the 125th celebration.
“The current state of the university was made possible by the people here,” Dr. Carter said. “The panel tonight has lived many years of that history.”
For more information about the university’s continuing 125th anniversary celebration, please go to www.uncp.edu/125/.