Alumna Edna Lewis recalls an institution of years past


At 107, Edna Davis Lewis ’22 might not get around like she used to. While Lewis has “an amazing cognitive ability for her age,” said cousin David Powell ’04, she stays close to the Jackson County home she shares with daughter Carolyn Lewis Buchanan. In her day, Lewis was full of sass and vinegar. “I was the first to do it,” Lewis declared recently. “And two weeks later so did every other girl in Cullowhee.” What they did was have their hair cut into bobs – something of a scandal for the time.

A native of Jackson County, Lewis is Western Carolina University’s oldest living graduate on record, although the institution’s name was Cullowhee Normal and Industrial School when she attended. She studied education and lived on campus, walking “over the mountain” to get to home if she missed her family. In her last year at school, she bought a Ford Model T. “There were two in the county, and I got one,” she said. (Her mother was one of the “few women who knew how to drive” at the time, Buchanan said.)

In ways, Cullowhee Normal in the 1920s was much as WCU is now. The students studied, ate cafeteria food and relaxed with music and dancing. But there are differences. While the number of male and female students was about even, Lewis had no female teachers. The student body now is far-flung, coming from across the United States and other countries; in Lewis’ day, the school drew mostly from surrounding communities.

Edna Lewis ’22, with pup Ellie, attended Cullowhee Normal and
Industrial School in the early 1920s.

Lewis attended Cullowhee Normal when it was led by some of the biggest names in WCU history. She took classes from professor William Ernest Bird ’15, who would twice serve as institution president. He was a “sweet man,” Lewis said. She also took courses from history professor E.H. Stillwell, a relative of hers. Stillwell, for whom a campus building is named, was an imposing man from Lewis’ recollection: “He made me so nervous. Even if I knew the answer to a question, I couldn’t answer it.” And when Lewis graduated in 1922, her diploma was presented by Robert L. Madison, who twice served as the institution’s president and who guided WCU’s early growth. (Lewis took piano lessons from Madison’s wife.)

After graduating, Lewis taught school throughout the county. She and her husband, the late Ernest Lewis, settled in the Little Savannah community and built a home there. Lewis left teaching to tend the household and family farm while her husband established two gas stations and a heating oil distribution business. The Lewis family continues to operate Lewis Oil Co. today. Lewis, mother to three children (including the late T.C. Lewis ’56, former mayor of Sylva), is a lifelong member of Webster Baptist Church.

Kara Burian is a junior communication major from Waldorf, Md.