CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University has changed dramatically since its beginning in August 1889 as a one-room schoolhouse, but one thing that has remained constant is the institution’s commitment to Western North Carolina, WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher said Tuesday, Aug. 26, as campus and community came together to celebrate the university’s 125th anniversary.
WCU students, faculty, staff and alumni, and residents of neighboring communities packed the A.K. Hinds University Center Lawn and Central Plaza for the university’s Big Birthday Bash, an afternoon affair featuring food, soft drinks, games, prizes and music, along with remarks from university, county and state dignitaries.
Belcher shared with the crowd numbers that illustrate the university’s tremendous growth, including an increase in enrollment from 18 students in 1889 to an anticipated student body of more than 10,300 this fall.
During the institution’s first graduation ceremony in May 1893, five students received diplomas; during the 2013-14 academic year, a total of 2,349 students earned undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees at WCU, he said.
The university’s physical plant has grown from a single building located on a quarter-acre with a total value of about $800 to a campus consisting of approximately 700 acres and 91 buildings with a current replacement value of about $1.7 billion, with off-campus instructional sites in Biltmore Park and Cherokee, he said.
“Those numbers indicate some pretty dramatic growth, but what’s most important is not the numbers by themselves. It’s what those numbers symbolize. They provide evidence that Western Carolina University is today a major cultural, scientific and educational force not just for this community, not just for this county, not just for the mountain region, but, in fact, for the entire state of North Carolina – and beyond,” Belcher said.
“Despite the fact that the impact of Western Carolina now extends beyond this community and region, the university continues to have a special sense of obligation to this community and region that it is charged to serve,” he said.
“This event today speaks to Western Carolina’s role as an engaged institution, for we invited friends and neighbors to join us in marking this momentous occasion, and I am pleased to see so many from the community and the region here with us today,” Belcher said. “This is your university, and I invite you to come back over and over again.”
Prior to Belcher’s remarks, N.C. Sen. Jim Davis (R-Macon) read a senatorial proclamation honoring WCU on the occasion of its 125th anniversary and chronicling the institution’s growth over the decades and its impact on the mountain region.
“Western Carolina University should be commended on its quasquicentennial anniversary for its commitment as a public university that serves the public good, providing a focused, rigorous, high-quality curriculum that meets the educational and economic development needs of the people of Western North Carolina, the state and the nation,” Davis said.
Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, followed by delivering a proclamation on behalf of the board, citing WCU and its more than 1,500 permanent employees and annual payroll in excess of $90 million as “an economic engine” for the county.
“For 125 years, Western Carolina University has consistently demonstrated its commitment to the people of Jackson County and the entire western region of the state,” Debnam said, proclaiming Aug. 26, 2014, as “Western Carolina University’s 125th Anniversary” throughout Jackson County.
In addition to birthday cake, attendees at the Big Birthday Bash enjoyed a variety of food at a cookout on the lawn of the University Center, and rock ‘n’ roll band the Dirty Guv’nahs performed a free concert at the adjacent Central Plaza.
The yearlong observance of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the institution began back in January as hundreds of people crowded into the Grandroom of the University Center for a kickoff event highlighted by a fashion show of clothing from throughout the university’s history, modeled by students, faculty, staff and community members. The majority of the year’s celebration is designed around traditional highlights of WCU’s annual calendar, such as 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 WNC.
The final quasquicentennial event is 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).
For more information about other 125th anniversary events, visit the website celebrate125.wcu.edu.