Hundreds of friends of Western Carolina University from as close as across campus and as far away as Charlotte and Atlanta crowded into the Grandroom of A.K. Hinds University Center in January to kick off the yearlong celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the institution. The informal theme for many of this year’s events is “It’s Time to Party Like It’s 1889,” a reference to the first year of existence of the school that became WCU and a nod to the popular Prince song. Thanks to the talents of Tony Sirk, costume shop manager in WCU’s School of Stage and Screen, and his team of students, some in attendance at the opening festivities looked like they may have stepped out of a time machine that transported them from the late 19th century to the year 2014.
A highlight of the kickoff was a fashion show of clothing from throughout the university’s 125 years of history, modeled by students, faculty, staff and community members. The idea was to provide attendees with a decade-by-decade visual representation of what members of the campus community might have been wearing, from the inception of the institution through current day. The show, which also included apparel adorned with WCU’s commemorative 125th anniversary logo, featured Susan Belcher, wife of WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher, as emcee, wearing a purple 1930s May court dress.
The fashion show included Will Peebles, director of WCU’s School of Music, representing the “Noble Nine” original trustees of the institution and wearing 19th-century vintage overalls; Sylva Town Manager Paige Roberson MPA ’11 in an Edwardian bustle dress; Paws, the Catamount mascot, dressed in a 1940s football uniform with padded pants; L.D. Hyde ’63 wearing his original football letter jacket; and Terry Welch, assistant to the chancellor, and student Brian Gay, decked out in psychedelic garb from the 1970s.
Students Alex Hairston, Dailey Parker, Jonathan Borgia, Emily Lideman, Maddie Hayes and Katie Perez played a part in pulling off the event, Sirk said. “They did everything from pull hats and shoes, alterations and even helped backstage with hair and makeup.”
For inspiration for his creations, Sirk turned to “A Mountain Heritage: The Illustrated History of Western Carolina University,” published in recognition of WCU’s centennial year. The book is full of historic photographs ranging from prior to the university’s founding up through 1989. “I also took time with all of the models to see what they wanted to wear. I wanted everyone to be as comfortable as possible up on stage,” Sirk said. “I then just started looking for pieces in my collection that I thought would be appropriate for the event.”
Creating costumes for the earlier years of Western Carolina’s existence proved the most challenging for Sirk and his crew. “The older decades are always the hardest,” he said. “Thankfully, we have a lot of period clothing that I could pull from. We have three large storage rooms of costumes here at the university. They are filled with a large variety of costumes, uniforms and other accessories.” Among Sirk’s favorites were Susan Belcher’s May court dress, Paws’ World War II period football uniform and the 1910s-era athletics uniform worn by Kellie Monteith, co-chair of the steering committee organizing 125th festivities on campus. “Kellie’s costume actually was re-created from a picture that I found in the 1918 yearbook of the girls’ basketball team,” Sirk said.
Additional 125th anniversary events are being planned for this year. 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 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 (fresh from its appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), remarks from the chancellor and special recognition for those who will graduate during the December commencement, the last graduating class of WCU’s 125th year.
WCU is not alone in having a big birthday in 2014. The Jackson County seat of Sylva also marks its 125th year of existence in 2014, with a celebration set for Oct. 10-11. Also founded in 1889 (quite a year in Jackson County, apparently), the town of Dillsboro celebrated its 125th year with events in March, with a Heritage Day coming up in September. And Southwestern Community College is commemorating its 50th anniversary this year.