Time to Party Like it's 1889

The university will celebrate the 125th anniversary of its founding
with a yearlong celebration in 2014

By BILL STUDENC MPA ’10

In early August 1889, a young Virginia schoolteacher assembled his 18 students in a simple frame structure in the Cullowhee Valley community of Painter. The building where the school met was designed to have rooms, but as yet had no partitions. It was unpainted and unfurnished except for a few long benches and a blackboard. It was not the teacher’s first class of students, nor was it the first session of the small academy. But in a real sense it was a true beginning, for the teacher had found a home for his vision, a vision of a school to prepare teachers for rural and village classrooms. In later years, he would call it “the Cullowhee idea.”

The teacher described in the opening passage of the book “A Mountain Heritage: The Illustrated History of Western Carolina University,” written by Curtis W. Wood and H. Tyler Blethen, was Robert Lee Madison, the man credited with founding the institution that would become the westernmost campus of the University of North Carolina system. Wood and Blethen wrote their tome on the occasion of the centennial anniversary in 1989 of the founding of WCU. And now, a quarter of a century later, the campus community stands ready to celebrate another milestone in the life of the university – its 125th birthday.

125 logo

Naturally, such an auspicious occasion has a formal name; it’s “quasquicentennial,” a term based on “quasqui” (which means “and a quarter”) combined with the familiar “centennial” (which means “100 years”). Although the word for “125th anniversary” looks like a mouthful, it’s really not that difficult to pronounce. Basically, just add a quasqui (“kwos-kwi”) before the easy-to-say centennial (“sen-ten-ee-uhl”). No matter how one says it, the folks who are involved in planning a yearlong celebration to mark the milestone are not letting themselves be slowed down by an obscure six-syllable word; they are more concerned about commemorating the university’s big birthday in style.

“The year ahead will be a significant and exciting point in our university’s history,” said Kellie Monteith, assistant vice chancellor for health and wellness in the Division of Student Affairs. Monteith and Melissa Wargo, chief of staff, are serving as co-chairs of a steering committee charged with organizing festivities on campus – and throughout the western region of North Carolina that WCU serves. “We not only will be remembering Western Carolina’s legacy and history, but also will be celebrating how far we have progressed as an institution over the past 125 years. And we will be looking forward to the future of this university as we continue our mission of providing quality education to our students and being a partner in the economic and community development of our region.”

The theme for the yearlong celebration will be “Inspiring New Heights: Making a Difference since 1889.” The steering committee and several subcommittees are in the process of finalizing details for the many anniversary events that will take place in 2014, with three major universitywide activities in the works. The festivities are scheduled to begin in January and continue throughout the year with a lineup that includes an old-fashioned birthday party and picnic in August, and a closing celebration next December.

Tentative plans call for the 125th Anniversary Celebration Kickoff to be held from 12:25 until 2:25 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23, in the Grandroom of A.K. Hinds University Center. The event is expected to include a student fashion show of apparel adorned with WCU’s 125th anniversary logo, remarks from Chancellor David O. Belcher, refreshments, prizes and giveaways. Birthday cake and cupcakes also will be available for students, faculty and staff at the university’s site at Biltmore Park. That night, the men’s basketball team will take on Davidson in a Southern Conference game at the Ramsey Regional Activity Center, with special activities and promotions planned as part of the evening.

The official quasquicentennial bash will be held in August, the month in which the school that became WCU was founded 125 years ago. The event is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 26, with a picnic on the University Center lawn, old-fashioned games, music and photo opportunities in historical garb representative of the late 19th century. The final celebration is tentatively set for Friday, Dec. 5, in the Ramsey Center, with music from the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band (which will have just returned from its appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), refreshments, remarks from the chancellor and special recognition for those who will graduate during the December 2014 commencement, the last graduating class of WCU’s 125th year.

The majority of the year’s celebration will be designed around traditional highlights of WCU’s annual calendar, such as spring commencement ceremonies, Mountain Heritage Day, the Spring Literary Festival, Homecoming, alumni receptions across the state and the Southeast, and a variety of events in communities across Western North Carolina. The university is creating a special 125th anniversary website (celebrate125.wcu.edu) where more details about events, along with historical information and photographs, will be shared.

“It’s not every day that an institution turns 125 years old,” said Monteith. “That’s why, to borrow a phrase from musician Prince, we are going to party like it’s 1889.”