Approaching Western Carolina’s centennial year in 1989, the university was in transition and transformation. Following the powerful years of former Chancellor H.F. “Cotton” Robinson’s administration, when the state’s political stars aligned in WCU’s favor, Chancellor Myron L. “Barney” Coulter took the helm of an institution with changing campus agendas and renewed energy to enhance its teaching and bolster its academic programs.
A seasoned leader, having served for a decade as chancellor at Idaho State University, Coulter realized the importance of significant focal points, perhaps even one that might become a campus icon. Construction of the Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center was underway and to be completed during his tenure. Coulter suggested that the arena have such a focal point – a huge American flag that would dramatically drop from the ceiling or be lowered, to serve as a striking backdrop at events. That flag is still making a lasting impression
a university commencements.
In March 1987, two years before the centennial year, Coulter brought up the idea of a tower/carillon, which might become a campus landmark. He described his vision as something distinctive, dignified and collegiate. Would the Alumni Association be interested in taking it on? Two colleagues in that 1987 meeting – James E. Dooley, vice chancellor for development and special services, and Jim Manring ’74, alumni director – took it from there.
The Alumni Association not only embraced the idea wholeheartedly, but set forth to make the creation of the Alumni Tower the organization’s centennial gift to the university. It was the biggest project the association had ever undertaken.
Manring recalls an early outing with then-Alumni Association President George Hood ’69. “He took me on personal visits to 10 of his Delta Sigma Phi fraternity brothers, and each and every one of them contributed $1,000,” Manring said. It was a heartening start to raising the nearly $360,000 that would be required.
Max Hopper ’69 chaired an Alumni Tower committee and alums near and far contributed. Ten gave $5,000 or more, another 13 provided gifts over $3,000, and 50 contributed at least $1,000, and more than 300 others made donations. The names of major contributors are inscribed inside the tower’s passageway.
At the tower’s dedication Oct. 28, 1989, Alumni Association President Bill Dodgen ’70 presented the structure to the university at a Homecoming event. Special thanks went to Ed Allman ’49, Dodgen, Hood, Hopper, Arnold Issacs ’59
(president of the company that constructed the tower) and Charlie McConnell ’66 for their efforts to create an accompanying memorial to Coach Jim Gudger as part of the tower project.
So idea became brick and mortar. The Alumni Tower incorporated a place for the institution’s Victory Bell, walkways that intersected from six directions, a clock, a carillon, and a time capsule. But most of all, it carried the hopes, as Manring said in 1987, that it would become a tie that binds all alumni, meaning as much as older buildings and campus places did to earlier generations.
Today, the Alumni Tower has undeniably become the icon of a sparkling, vibrant and impressive central campus. The new fountain, the brick walkways and Central Plaza, the renovated A.K. Hinds University Center, the Courtyard Dining Hall, Campus Recreation Center, Blue Ridge and Balsam residence halls, and the Alumni Tower fit together to give the university a place of pride.
Orientation groups meet there on their first visits to campus, seniors gather there with their parents for photos at graduation time, and alumni visit at Homecoming and throughout the year. In between, countless students, faculty and staff pass through and pass by daily. Groups congregate – some organized, some unorganized – to enjoy its warmth and the setting. It has become a gathering place and has claimed its place in the memories of thousands.
The Alumni Tower has, indeed, become a tie that binds.
Jim Rowell ’72, retired director of public information at WCU, was associate director for news services during the university’s centennial year.