Chester Bissell, president pro tempore of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, said in an email that doing so was an impressive feat.
He said the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies were the only extracurricular activities available to students in Polk’s time, so most students were members.
In 1844, Polk was elected president.
“Polk is widely known as being an unknown politician who snuck his way into the White House,” Bissell said in an email.
“He was known as stern and stressed because of his dedication to his work, notable because of his death right after leaving office.”
Harry Watson, a retired professor in the UNC History Department, said Polk’s biggest legacy is the annexation of Texas through a victory in the Mexican War, as well as the expansion of the continental U.S. westward to the Pacific Ocean.
And Jacobson said because he is the only president who went to UNC, Polk’s impact on the campus has been significant. For example, Polk Place was named after the former president.
She said when the University invited Polk to visit for the 1847 commencement, he traveled with an entourage led by a band from Raleigh to Chapel Hill. She said it took him nine hours to arrive, and he stayed for four days.
“It was a big deal,” she said.
Watson said UNC commencements were festive affairs that attracted many political figures, especially when a president was invited.
“He probably attracted a big crowd,” he said.
When President Barack Obama visited campus in April, he also attracted a large crowd. But Jacobson said Polk’s visit would have been very different from Obama’s. She said there would have been very little security.
“People at the time had more access to get up close and perhaps even meet the president,” she said.
While in Chapel Hill, Polk stayed at the Eagle Hotel, which was expanded by Nancy Hilliard especially for Polk’s visit, Jacobson said.
Watson said the hotel was located near Franklin Street where the African and Afro-American Studies building now stands.
Polk has left his historic mark on campus, and Watson said the president had reason to be proud of his work in the White House.
“He accomplished what he set out to do,” Watson said.