alumniACHIEVEMENTSDr. Robert Mayo Failing ’51


An adventurous alumnus donates his collection of mountaineering books to Hunter Library


A few weeks after his 80th birthday, Dr. Robert Mayo Failing ’51 left Southern California for a road trip. Traveling solo, he was driving more than 2,300 miles to attend a meeting of the Western Carolina University Foundation board of directors and to deliver a book collection to Hunter Library.

It was late November, five days before the fall session of the board. Since becoming a member in 1990, Failing has rarely missed a meeting. Fellow board members know him as a widely respected forensic pathologist and part-time adventurer. In midlife, he began a quest to climb the world’s tallest mountains, reaching the highest points of six continents and all 50 states before he finally retired.

Now, he says, his favorite expression is a famous mountaineering adage: “There are bold climbers, and there are old climbers. But there are no old, bold climbers.”

But mountains – Rockies, Andes, Himalayas and Smokies – still hold that special allure. And mountains and the world-class climbers who challenge them were in the titles of nearly every one of the 376 books traveling cross-county with him.

As Failing was driving to Cullowhee, George Frizzell ’77 MA ’81, head of Special Collections, was busy clearing shelves at Hunter Library, getting ready to receive what he knew would be a unique addition. “Dr. Failing had e-mailed a list of his books, and I realized this was a collection that had taken several decades to compile, and it was going to be significant for us,” Frizzell said. “Given our location in one of the great mountain areas of the world, there will be a lot of people with an affinity for these books.”

The collection, with an appraised value of $15,040, includes a special leather-bound edition of “View from the Summit” signed by Sir Edmund Hillary and a first edition of “Alone” signed by Adm. Richard Byrd. Virtually all of the world’s famous climbers and mountaineering authors are represented, including Maurice Herzog of France; Antoli Boukreev of Russia; the British climber Chris Bonington; Australia’s Lincoln Hall; and Dick Bass, Bradford Washington, Jon Krakauer and David Breashears of the United States. Many books include notes written to Failing by authors and climbers he knows personally.

Failing is a recipient of WCU’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, and he received an honorary doctorate from the university in 2007. In 1956, he finished medical school at Duke University and began his professional career in California, retiring in 1994. With wife Nancyann, Failing is a longstanding benefactor of the university. Through the years, they have made substantial contributions in cash and equipment to academics, athletics, student recreation and the arts.

“Dr. Failing is a thoughtful, consummate giver. He has said that he felt he had a good experience here and got a jumpstart that took his life in many directions,” said Jim Manring ’74 MBA ’76, senior director of development. “He has a sincere affection for this place and its people, and he knows that his support really means something here.”