If there’s one person who knows UNCG’s history, it’s University Archivist Erin Lawrimore.
From the days of McIver to the Woman’s College era to the arrival of men in the 1960s and beyond, she’s uncovered some fascinating stories that don’t often get told – student Lucille Pugh’s dedication to getting an education, no matter the cost; faculty member Mary Channing Coleman’s beloved terrier “Bonnie”; and the gutsy mentality that drove so many students to make a difference across the nation.
In celebration of UNCG’s 125th anniversary, Lawrimore shared some of her favorite stories from UNCG’s 125 years – interesting people, places and moments – and how she sees the university moving forward. Check out the highlights in the Q&A below.
What stands out about UNCG’s archival collections?
When the school first opened its doors in 1892, folks knew they were doing something special. And because they knew that, they kept everything. We have about 140 boxes of materials from founding president Charles Duncan McIver, including really specific items like letters of recommendation for students. They were purposely saving stuff because they knew that a public university for women was groundbreaking, and they wanted to document it.
Who is your favorite student from UNCG’s 125-year history?
Lucille Pugh. She never graduated from the North Carolina State Normal and Industrial College, but she studied here for several years. Pugh arrived in 1899 with no money – she actually wrote a letter to McIver and told him she was willing to do anything to get an education. Pugh got a job on campus and worked her way through school. Finally, one semester she just couldn’t come up with the money. She had to withdraw, and she ended up moving to New York City to live with an aunt and enrolling in night classes at New York University’s law school for women. She graduated with a law degree and became the first woman in the United States to defend an accused murderer in court.
Who is your favorite faculty member?
Mary Channing Coleman, in large part because of her dog. She was the founding head of the Department of Physical Education, and the Coleman Building is named in her honor. Coleman took her dog Bonnie with her to every single class. And she was tough. She handpicked each of her majors – she would interview all prospective students to make sure they didn’t just like sports, but were actually interested in physical education.
What is the most interesting relic in University Archives?
The thing that everyone loves is the death mask of Charles Duncan McIver. It creeps me out – I wouldn’t want to look at it every day. But people love it, so it’s on exhibit all year long.
What is your favorite historical spot on campus?
One thing that people don’t tend to notice is the cornerstone for the old Students’ Building – located in the bushes between the Minerva statue and College Avenue. The cornerstone was laid in 1902, construction finished in 1906 and the building was torn down in 1950. It housed the post office, meeting halls for literary societies, the auditorium and other spaces. It was a beautiful building, but eventually it started to fall apart.
Who was the most famous campus visitor?
It depends on who you ask, but personally I like Eleanor Roosevelt because she came to campus multiple times and engaged with students, faculty and staff. She was the face of progressive women at the time, so it made sense to bring her to campus.
What have you been most surprised to learn during your six years as university archivist?
I think a lot of people don’t realize how forward-thinking this school has been since the beginning. Students here were advocating for change statewide before they had the right to vote. They came in with a purpose. I’ve always admired their ability to make something happen, even when the cards were stacked against them.
Why is UNCG’s history important and relevant to students on campus today?
You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. A lot of what we do, if you look closely, still traces back to McIver’s vision. For example, health and wellness and visual and performing arts – we’ve always been a leader in those areas. Looking back helps guide us forward. With students in particular, it helps them see where they fit in. The stories of former students show current students how they can make a difference.
Knowing where we’ve been, where do you see the university heading in the next 15-20 years?
I think our students, faculty, staff and alumni are really excited about how we’re moving forward. Right now, people feel a lot of pride being associated with UNCG. With Chancellor Gilliam’s mission of “Giant Steps,” we have an opportunity to think bigger. We have an opportunity to make a major impact across the state, and I think we’re doing it already.
Interview by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications