Traditions are born and traditions die, and while they survive, traditions can take on powerful lives of their own. With their regular occurrence and specific requirements for conduct, “traditions affirm our sense of identity and belonging,” said Richard Starnes ’92 MA ’94, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “They help us connect to something larger and to each other. For a university, they help us to recall pleasant memories and reaffirm our sense of place.” Here, we survey some of the traditions in the university’s long history in an effort to understand a little bit better the ties so many alumni have to this very special place.
For generations of students, two simple words – “The Townhouse” – are enough to evoke waves of nostalgia and affection. Though it changed hands a number of times during its history, from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s, the establishment was a popular gathering spot for students. Betty Allen ’68, former president of the WCU Alumni Association, recalled time spent at her “favorite hangout” as among her fondest WCU memories. Like many others, Allen “checked in before or after most classes, athletic events and meetings,” she said. It was small and lacked polish, but in an era when many students didn’t have cars, the Townhouse was one of only a handful of nearby alternatives to eating in the cafeteria, and its booths, menu and jukebox were a siren call to the masses. “That was like taking another course, even though you didn’t get credit for it,” said Steve White ’67. “You learned so much about what was going on at the university – you picked that up at the Townhouse. It was the meeting place and social place on campus.” Gurney Chambers ’61 recalled that jukebox “going all the time.” Winfred Ashe ’54 MAEd ’59 and his wife, Ellen Ward Ashe, owned the Townhouse from 1957-1973, and lived in an apartment above the restaurant the entire time. While the formal hours were 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., most mornings customers were piling in at half-past six (perhaps, like White, for a fried-pie breakfast) and “it was sometimes almost 1 a.m. before we got closed down,” Winfred Ashe said. The menu certainly contributed to the restaurant’s popularity. Hot dogs were 15 cents, cheeseburgers a quarter and coffee, Coke and ice cream 5 cents apiece. But it was more than that. “A lot of the students hadn’t been away from home before, and they realized they could come there and have friendship and someone who cared about them,” said Ellen Ashe. Some students used the restaurant as a home base to such an extent that they kept their textbooks there, Winfred Ashe said. “They would bring their books at the beginning of the quarter, and at the end of the quarter they’d gather them up again.”
While printed yearbooks faded out about a decade ago, this fall will mark the fourth year that the freshman class has congregated on the football field after convocation for a class photo. While the photo isn’t mandatory, the promise of a new WCU T-shirt draws new students to the field, said Phil Cauley ’83 MS ’90, director of student recruitment and transitions. A team from the Pride of the Mountains marching band outlines the corresponding class year on the field, and personnel from student affairs direct the approximately 1,500 newcomers – in their new T-shirts, of course – to their places. “It’s a huge production,” said Ashley T. Evans, the university photographer who snaps the picture. The photo finds a place online, and admissions staffers use it in promotional materials.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the grassy, west-facing strip of lawn at Scott Hall was the place to be on hot, sunny afternoons. Limbo and “sexy legs” contests kept the crowds entertained; indeed “Scott Beach,” as it was affectionately known, was so popular that the student radio station would set up there for live remotes and some enterprising soul printed “Scott Beach Lifeguard” shirts. A Scott Beach photo on a Facebook page for WCU alums of the 1980s has drawn numerous comments. “Those were the days!” wrote Ricky Deese ’78 MIT ’80. “Used to love hanging out there, skipping class, cold beverage in hand!” Those days mark a different time in Cullowhee, before increased technology and the four-lane, when the campus had a more remote quality, said Bill Clarke ’78 ME ’80, director of WCU’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center. “People were creative about making their own fun,” said Clarke, who would admit only to being in the general vicinity of Scott Beach and flat-out denied ever participating in the sexy legs contest.
Folks in the stands at the first home football game of the season the past two years have witnessed the birth of a new tradition at WCU, the Freshman Run, when hundreds of the newest members of campus sprint with Chancellor David Belcher and the president of the Student Government Association onto the field just prior to play. Belcher won’t take credit for conceiving the idea, but he immediately warmed to it. “It seemed like such a great idea – a way to get the new freshmen engaged in the football experience,” he said. “It’s also impressive to people in the stands. When you see that many students coming at you, you get a sense of just how many students came to the university.” The logistics of the run – which marks fall 2013 as its third year – are no small thing, said Phil Cauley ’83 MS ’90, director of student recruitment and transitions. Timing is everything, as the game is scheduled to start just minutes after the freshmen bound onto the field, and collecting stray students and ushering them into the stands is key. While the event is exciting, said Cauley, who watches from the safety of the stands, he admits to worrying about potential headlines the next day: “Chancellor trampled by freshmen.” Not to fear. Belcher, who calls the event “a blast,” addresses the students in the Ramsey Center before the run. “I get up and I say, ‘There are just a few rules here. Don’t trample the chancellor. It will not really enhance your likelihood of success here.’”
As solid and permanent as rock walls tend to be, the specifics of a certain rock wall at WCU are a bit tricky to nail down. After digging around a bit (and hitting our own rock wall, so to speak), staffers at The Magazine of Western Carolina University have determined that, on a campus filled with rock walls, the exact location of said “rock wall” likely changed with the times. At any rate, the connotations are the same: male students would position themselves at particular spots around campus and hoot and holler at female coeds as they passed. Or as WCU archivist George Frizzell ’77 MA ’81 so delicately phrases it, “It had connotations about dating.” Indeed, a 1974 story in the student newspaper refers to a “Horney Wall” that likely is the one shown here. Gurney Chambers ’61 and Steve White ’67 recall students gathering along the rock wall close to the entrance of the Old Student Union. After dinner at the nearby Brown Cafeteria was “the best opportunity of the day to observe each other,” Chambers said. “As the girls would walk into the student union for supplies or a Coke, they’d hear all kinds of wolf whistles.” (While he admits to admiring the girls, Chambers is adamant he did no whistling.) No word on how the women felt about this. For his part, Chambers doesn’t ever recall seeing a female perched on the wall. According to White, “A lot of the young ladies would try to avoid it, but they couldn’t.”
For decades, students have made use of the nearby Tuckaseigee River for recreation, riding on inner tubes in the waterway’s gentler stretches and tackling its whitewater rapids by kayak or raft. Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity once hosted a popular annual raft race on the river, and countless students have floated down the Tuck on tubes in warm weather months. Even now, Daniel Hooker ’01, assistant athletic director for media relations, will break away occasionally to relive those float trips of his undergrad days. “Finding an escape from the rigors of school work then – and real-life work today – is important,” Hooker said. “I fondly remember trips to the river at East LaPorte and the old rope swing down North River Road – and still to this day float past that bend in the Tuck where it once was. One would be hard pressed to find a more relaxing way to spend a hot summer’s day here in the mountains than on the Tuckaseigee.” On those current-day tubing trips, Hooker is sometimes joined by colleagues including Haywood Community College instructor Greg McLamb ’00, the Catamounts Sports Networks’ roving sidelines reporter. “I fell in love with the Tuck my sophomore year when I lived at Carolina Village. The river was across the street and I could not wait for warm weather to go tube,” said McLamb. “Now, every time I get in the river, it takes me back to my college days and summer school at WCU.” Activity on the river took a more ecological turn in 1985 when WCU began sponsoring the annual Tuckaseigee River Cleanup. “The river was a dumping ground, and we used it all the time for recreation,” said Tim Jacobs ’71 MAEd ’75 MA ’99, former director of A.K. Hinds University Center, who helped convince about 50 volunteers to pick up trash along the riverbanks 29 years ago. “We didn’t make it a third of the way down the river before we were out of trash bags. This made us realize that we needed the event to be even bigger.” Mission accomplished. Today, the event attracts more than 600 volunteers annually, and it has grown to become what Mark Singleton of American Whitewater calls “the largest single-day river cleanup project in the nation.”
Heading into its third year, the Senior Toast is a growing tradition held at the Chancellor’s Residence for graduating students who have made a small financial contribution to WCU (an invite requires a gift equivalent to graduation year, such as $20.13, for example). The toast, made with commemorative glasses filled with sparkling cider, is a way for students to express how much the university means to them. “Western has presented me with so many amazing opportunities. Its faculty and environment have allowed me to succeed and realize my dreams,” said Tess Branon ’13, a recent toast participant. “This is only the first of several gifts I hope to give back to this wonderful institution.” While she initiated the toast as a means of fostering annual giving among new alumni, it’s become more than that, said Natalie Clark of WCU’s Office of Development. “Response has been great,” she said. “What’s really nice about it is that it’s held at the chancellor’s house, because Susan and David are just so welcoming. It’s a nice atmosphere – parents and friends of the students are invited, and everyone feels like they are part of the WCU family.”
Many a graduate speaks tenderly of the Woodland Stage, a sloped, grassy expanse adjacent to Madison Hall. Fashioned in 1926, apparently with dirt excavated from a nearby construction project, the outdoor amphitheater for many years was the spot for formal events from the annual May Day Festival – May Queen Dottie Sherrill ’58 ’MAEd ’70 EdS ’84 and her court shown here – to plays (what better setting for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”?) and even commencement. “Just to see a graduating class march on this stage and, amid laughter and joy, receive their diplomas is enough to make even a small child love better God’s great outdoors,” gushed a 1930 article from the student newspaper. The Woodland Stage also was the place for fun of the less formal and even spontaneous nature. Gurney Chambers ’61 recalls watermelon dished out there every July 4 for students on campus in the summer, and Thomas Lyndon Smith ’61 wrote in to report that when it snowed, “we slid down it on cafeteria trays.”
It was dirty, unsophisticated and a lot of fun. Sigma Phi Epsilon (now inactive) launched an annual mud volleyball tournament in the late 1980s, held on a stretch of land across N.C. Highway 107 from the Ramsey Center. Flooding a pit a few days prior to the weekend-long event (rumor has it the Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department provided that service), students would form teams and compete for first in all its muddy glory, with proceeds benefiting nonprofits (including, in 1990, the CVFD). Athletes, friends, Greek organizations, groups from residence halls – “It was something that everybody did,” said Brenda Gallagher Holcombe ’94, now director of university scholarships. Sadly, this tradition died in the mid-1990s. One contingent probably happy to see it go? The housekeeping staff. “The residence halls would be trashed,” said Holcombe, at the time a resident assistant in Helder Residence Hall. “There was mud everywhere – in the hallways, shower stalls, stairwells.” She reported once seeing a member of the housekeeping staff attach a hose outside Helder so players could spray themselves off before they came in.
“They used to have dances at the drop of a hat,” notes George Frizzell ’77 MA ’81, who wrote about forgotten campus events in a 2011 article in the Hunter Library newsletter. A formal dance always accompanied May Day events, held until the early 1970s, with other dances mentioned in the yearbooks and newspapers from the late ’40s through the ’50s, including dances for Halloween, the New Year and Valentine’s Day. Such dances typically observed a strict protocol, including a dress code and chaperones, Frizzell said. An exception was Sadie Hawkins Day, a particularly popular event perhaps because it encouraged students to reverse the prevailing social norms of the day concerning dating. Based on the popular comic strip “Li’l Abner,” the fall event (sponsored by the campus Women’s Athletic Association) “encouraged participating women to ‘catch’ a dance partner for the evening’s event in a freewheeling afternoon footrace,” according to Frizzell. Participants often attended the dance in costume as their favorite comic strip characters. Indeed as time passed, the formality of the early dances faded; a 1959 Beatnik Ball encouraged students to “abandon the shrouds of society for the mysticism of Beatland.” Nightly dancing remained popular on campus even into the early 1970s, said Steve White ’67. Students regularly congregated at the Old Student Union for a couple hours after dinner to socialize and listen to the jukebox. “That’s where I learned to dance,” he said.
Called “the best football rivalry you’ve never heard of” by Sports Illustrated in the 1980s, the Appalachian State-WCU Battle for the Old Mountain Jug is a tradition with legs, and one that is near and dear to Steve White ’67. In the early 1970s, when White was in the WCU sports information post, he and his counterpart at ASU wanted to create a trophy for the mountain rivalry. They settled on a moonshine jug – “a takeoff on the Hatfields and McCoys” – that a Boone man crafted. App State went home with the jug the first year, in 1976, with the Catamounts bringing it home the second. The jug seesawed through the rest of the decade and into the early ’80s, but it had been sitting in its trophy case in Boone for more than a dozen years when Brad Hoover ’00 (pictured here) led the Catamounts to victory in 1998. The last time WCU possessed the jug was in 2004. “App fans will tell you that it really doesn’t matter to them until they lose it, and then it’s the most important thing on the planet. It definitely brings something to the rivalry,” said David Jackson, Appalachian State’s associate athletics director for public affairs. What will become of the Old Mountain Jug after the Mountaineers hightail it out of the Southern Conference? That all depends on what happens Nov. 23 when the Catamounts travel to Boone for the final game of the regular season. Whoever wins it this year will almost certainly lock up the jug long-term. White, for one, is feeling pretty confident. “I think we’re going to be extremely motivated this year,” he said.
“Ring out the false, ring in the true,” bears the inscription on the Victory Bell, which originally hung in Old Madison Hall (torn down in 1938) and was used to mark class periods. Though its formal role became marking athletic victories, it hung near the Old Student Union when Steve White ’67 was an undergraduate, and he recalls students hijacking it to mark pretty much anything they considered significant. “Say, if it was the last day of class, or the first day of class, or holiday break – things like that,” White said. Now strung safely atop the Alumni Tower, the unauthorized ringing is less frequent. Since 2008, a replica bell has been rolled into Whitmire Stadium to announce the football team’s arrival. A tradition no one seemed to mind crossing off the list? Beanies (like the one shown here), which were introduced in 1957 to strengthen school spirit and died out about a decade later. The rules said freshmen could take off the headwear if the Catamounts won the Homecoming game; otherwise they stayed on until winter break.
What better example of collegiate tradition than Homecoming, with a variety of activities designed to appeal both to current students as well as to alumni sometimes old enough to be the parent, grandparent, perhaps even great-grandparent, of those current Catamounts? The university’s Homecoming traditions trace their roots to 1933 and the re-establishment of the football program, which had been suspended for several years because of a drop in men’s enrollment in the late 1920s, as Curtis Wood and Tyler Blethen explain in their history of WCU, “A Mountain Heritage.” Prior to the rebirth of football, alumni had returned to campus for events surrounding commencement. Over the years, Homecoming evolved to include a barbecue dinner prepared by faculty and staff for campus visitors (an activity still carried on today by members of the Division of Student Affairs), the election of a Homecoming Court, and the presentation of awards to notable alumni. In addition to the standard crowning of a Homecoming queen, the university in 1995 added the naming of a Homecoming king to the mix of activities and revived the traditions of a student banner competition and bonfire. The 1999 tragic Texas A&M bonfire accident, in which 12 people were killed and 27 injured, prompted universities across the country, including WCU, to extinguish campus bonfires. (Similarly, safety concerns after a fireworks explosion on July 4, 2009, at the Ocracoke campus of the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching that claimed five lives resulted in the discontinuation of pyrotechnic displays at WCU’s Homecoming). In 1996, organizers returned the annual Homecoming parade to downtown Sylva for the first time in some 40 years and added a new community service element to the array of activities. “Homecoming is not all fun and games” Joab Cotton IV ’04, then-president of the Interfraternity Council, said in 2003. “We want to take the opportunity to give something back to the community that serves as our home away from home.” In recognition of the unique traditions of African-American students and alumni, the university’s Homecoming events have grown to include “Stompfest,” featuring step-show dances performed by members of African-American fraternities and sororities, and a concert of gospel music by the Inspirational Choir. In 2012, WCU held its first all-sports reunion for former athletes, coaches, trainers and managers, with the second annual reunion scheduled for Homecoming 2013.
The Last Lecture. 2:30 p.m.Coulter recital hall. Burton Ogle, director of the environmental health sciences program, “What is Cool about Environmental Health.” Information: 828.227.7196 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spirit Night. 8 p.m. Central Plaza. Music, food, fun.
Alumni Scholarship Homecoming Golf Tournament. Noon. Waynesville Inn Golf Resort & Spa. Four-person captain’s choice format. $85 per person. RSVP by Friday, Oct. 18: 877.440.9990, 828.227.7335 or email@example.com.
Homecoming Parade. 6:15 p.m. Main Street, downtown Sylva.
Chancellor’s Brunch and Alumni Awards. 10 a.m. A.K. Hinds University Center Grandroom. Honoring Joan MacNeill, Distinguished Service Award; Johnny Carson ’71, Academic Achievement Award; Wes Elingburg ’78, Professional Achievement Award; Manteo Mitchell ’09 MAEd ’12, Young Alumnus Award. $15 per person, business attire. RSVP by Friday, Oct. 18: 877.440.9990, 828.227.7335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tailgating. Noon-3:30 p.m. Parking lots adjacent to E.J. Whitmire Stadium.WCU vs. Elon University. 3:30 p.m. E.J. Whitmire Stadium/Bob Waters Field. Tickets: 800.344.6928.
African-American Alumni Postgame Reception. 6:30-8 p.m. A.K. Hinds University Center’s Club Illusions. RSVP by Friday, Oct. 18: 877.440.9990, 828.227.7335 or email@example.com.
Stompfest. 8 p.m. John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. Annual stepping competition by black fraternities and sororities; sponsored by the Organization of Ebony Students and the Department of Intercultural Affairs. Tickets/information: 828.227.2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homecoming Concert – Country music artist Kacey Musgraves. 9 p.m. Ramsey Regional Activity Center. Tickets on sale at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24. Information: ramsey.wcu.edu or 828.227.7677.
Inspirational Choir Concert. 1 p.m. A.K. Hinds University Center Grandroom. Information: 828.227.2276 or email@example.com.