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The Daily Tar Heel

University Day Links Past, Future

The University Day convocation held Friday afternoon in Memorial Hall drew students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the University together in honor of the distinguished heritage that UNC has built in the years since Old East's cornerstone was laid Oct. 12, 1793.

Gov. Mike Easley gave a keynote address emphasizing the importance of education and of making the schools a priority of state government, even in less-than-ideal economic conditions. "I believe our greatest days lie ahead," Easley said. "It is the duty of each generation to surpass the achievements of the past."

Carolina has a past longer than any other state university, and it is one of countless achievements. Along with those traditions that make UNC great, we inherit the responsibility of not allowing that greatness to fade.

To that end, Chancellor James Moeser announced that his Carolina First fund-raising campaign already has raised $652 million for the improvement of campus facilities during the next several decades.

Like Easley, other convocation speakers, including Moeser and UNC-system President Molly Broad, took the opportunity of University Day to praise the many achievements of UNC's past and present. "As we turn to our future, I look to our historic past," Broad said.

But while the future -- especially, in the wake of recent international events, the immediate future -- was on everyone's mind Friday, the focus of University Day, as always, was a celebration of the past. A focus on the past can be one of the best ways of informing the decisions of today. Moeser said UNC must "draw deeply from the well of its history to shape its future."

That history is why I am proud to be a Tar Heel -- why I sing along when they play the alma mater, why I cheer at Carolina football games.

As students at UNC, we're not just students; we are participants in a history and a tradition more than two centuries old. When you pass the Old Well as you return to your residence hall after a night of reveling in your youth, you follow the same path that Easley took when he was young and discovering the wonders of new knowledge. It is the same path that Zebulon Vance, N.C. governor during the Civil War, walked during his undergraduate days at Carolina.

Many of the greatest moments in the history of the Old North State were born on this campus; many of its greatest minds were trained right here. For most of the state's history, Chapel Hill has been a focal point of learning, innovation and intellectual growth serving all of North Carolina's people.

And the University is more than the mere location of historic people and events -- it's the same institution. The same classes James K. Polk took about political philosophy still are being taught here. The same debating societies that trained author Thomas Wolfe to speak well still meet, their members connecting generations of students, all the way back to Hinton James and James Mebane, students in Carolina's first graduating class.

UNC's history is bound tightly to all that is beautiful and noble in the history of the American South. One of Southern culture's most enjoyable aspects is the mixture of dignity and relaxation that pervaded the atmosphere of the outdoor reception following the convocation. Gathered on the quad outside of historic New West Hall, attendees stood in groups enjoying refreshments and casual conversation.

The afternoon's events brought a sense of belonging -- of being a part of that grand Southern tradition, of being, moreover, a member of the now 208-year-old society that is, in Easley's words, "the first and the finest public university in the nation."

Later, against a background of centuries-old ivy-covered walls and new construction, the sun set over McCorkle Place, its last rays illuminating Davie Poplar -- still standing tall, still proclaiming that the day the sun sets on the University remains in the very distant future.

Columnist Geoff Wessel can be reached at vrooom@email.unc.edu.

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