By Kimberly PruettStaff Writer
After the Civil War, there was a growing concern about the education of children, as well as the education of the teachers. Up to this point, primary schools were the limit of the southern educational system and even then it was sporadic, usually lasting no more than four or five months out of the year. According to A Mountain Heritage: The Illustrated History of Western Carolina University, “The federal census of 1880 revealed that North Carolina had the highest white illiteracy rate of any state.” Thomas C. Buchanan saw the need for improvements to the educational system in the mountains of Western North Carolina. With this in mind, Buchanan and his Colleagues County came together to found a school in Jackson County that would train students to become teachers, as well as educate teachers in the area. Buchanan was named the first principal of the new school. “Their objective was to create an academy in Cullowhee that offered both primary (Elementary/Middle) and secondary (High School) education.” Most schools at this time only went through the sixth grade. Buchanan’s school would continue through high school and prepare students to go into the teachers program. Buchanan’s plan for the school was to teach those who would be teaching the children of the area in the future. The first classes were held in a nearby Baptist church. By the end of that year, the enrollment went from eighteen to one hundred students. In 1889, Robert Lee Madison came to Jackson County after the school where he had taught burned down. Madison took over the leadership of the school from Buchanan coupling his concern for mountain illiteracy with Buchanan’s dream. He also wrote for the Tuckaseige Democrat newspaper. “For the first time he was in a position to pursue his newfound interest: the improvement of the education of mountain children by creating a school to train teachers.” Madison oversaw the addition of the music and art departments during the 1890-91 school year. Construction soon begun to accommodate these new expansions and growth of the student body. Also in 1891, Madison asked the NC General Assembly for a charter to name the school, Cullowhee High School. State funding was finally gained in 1893. After 23 years of heading the school, Madison was replaced as president by Alonzo C. Reynolds. Reynolds came to Cullowhee ready to make some serious progressive changes and he started by cleaning house. The only three original faculty members that he kept were Frank H. Brown, E. H. Stillwell and John N. Wilson. During his stay, Reynolds increased the amount and variation of curriculum, though there was still an amazing amount of students that came for the teaching program. In a report to the General Assembly in 1916, Reynolds portrayed the inadequate conditions of the school clearly when he wrote that there was no cold storage for food, too few desks and toiletries were inadequate in all respects. There was no men’s bathroom until 1915. There was no running water and electricity had only recently become available in two of the dormitory buildings by use of a gasoline generator. Reynolds resigned in the spring of 1920 and Robert Lee Madison returned as interim president. He relinquished his position as president a short time later and permanently retired in 1937. Hiram Tyram Hunter took his place in 1923 as president. In 1925 the school no longer offered high school curriculum, becoming a full-fledged teacher’s training school. Hunter required church attendance as part of the curriculum and instituted strict rules of behavior. Then, the Great Depression came to Cullowhee. Salaries dropped and tuition costs sky-rocketed. Thanks to the assistance of FDR’s New Deal program, the school experienced a surge of growth unprecedented in its short history. The New Deal gave the school Breese Gymnasium (named for the board chairman William E. Breese), a new Madison Hall, a student union building, an infirmary, another building for classrooms (named for the state senator Gertrude D. McKee) and a new auditorium (named for governor Clyde Hoey). H. T. Hunter took his own life after he suffered a stroke in 1947. Ernest Bird temporarily took his place and was later replaced with Paul A. Reid in 1949. Reid began the immediate expansion of the curriculum and in 1953 he also changed the purpose of the school to public college level instead of just teacher training school. By 1953 Edgar H. Stillwell Building, H. T. Hunter Library and A. C. Reynolds Residence Hall had been added to the physical plant. In 1967, Western was elevated, along with several other schools across the state, to university status. Reid finally retired in 1968 and Dr. Alex S. Pow took his place as the last “president.” From there on, there were only chancellors. In 1974, Harold F. Robinson became chancellor and retired 10 years later. Comparing the overall growth of the school from its beginning to the present is quite interesting. Here are a few trivial facts about Western. The tuition during the 1890’s was from $1.00 to $2.50. The first edition of a school newspaper (first called The Cullowhee Yodel) was printed in 1924. The name was changed to the Western Carolinian during the 1940s. The first African-American student enrolled in 1957, without incident. The student graduated several years later. Today, Western Carolina University still has a strong teaching program and is still a model for other schools. It is also a leading university in several programs. However, there are some things that never change. For example, commencement celebrations have always been popular. At that time, it was a campus-wide affair. The 1890 graduation lasted for three days! If any student is unhappy about those required courses (Spanish, math, etc.) that don’t seem to make any sense for the degree you might be seeking, thank Robert Madison. It was his belief that a well-rounded student needed some “classical elements” to their courses. That sentiment about varied subjects continued on to the present.