When UNC Professor Emeritus William Powell died last week at the age of 95, North Carolina lost its dean of history. With constant help and support from his wife Virginia, he authored countless books and articles, including the preeminent history of our state, “North Carolina Through Four Centuries,” all 670 pages of it. Even though it is now 25 years since its publication, it is still the best.
Then, there is his six-volume “North Carolina Biography,” which entries about almost 4,000 prominent or important North Carolinians present and past.
Of course, the book that every lover of UNC should own is “The First State University: A Pictorial History of The University of North Carolina.” On every one of its pages there is something about the university and surrounding village that we did not know before.
For his “Encyclopedia of North Carolina,” he and Virginia recruited more than 500 contributors. They assigned topics and helped the contributors develop and write more than 2,000 entries about important people, places, and events that shaped our state. Then they selected more that 400 maps and illustrations, which became a part of the 1,328-page classic volume.
When I am asked, as I often am, whether or not I read every book that we feature on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, I always say, yes. Then, I bite my lip and admit that I have not yet read every page of Professor Powell’s “Encyclopedia.” But I know that on every unread page there is waiting for me something rich and interesting, something Powell would say I should not miss.
My favorite of his many books may be “The North Carolina Gazetteer,” a book that sets out to identify every town, county, road, mountain, gap, hill, lake, creek, river, and every other feature that is a part of the North Carolina landscape – and how it got its name. That book, revised and updated by Michael Hill, was reissued by UNC Press in 2010.
Here is one of my favorites of Powell descriptions the “Gazetteer,” one that shows his sense of humor. See if you catch on.
Coldass Creek in Caldwell County.
“Both it and Pinch Gut Creek,” wrote Powell, “were named by two men hunting in the area. They followed the stream until it came to a fork. There they separated, each following one of the forks; they agreed to meet later and name each stream according to their feelings toward it. One man carried the food and the other the sleeping equipment. They became lost but finally met the next day, when they named the creeks.”
OK, I will help. Pinch Gut Creek came from the man who had the warm sleeping equipment but no food.
Coldass Creek from the man who had food but nothing to keep him warm overnight.
Just a little of Powell’s wry humor. If you got it, he is smiling with you.
For many of us Bill Powell was a special gateway and guide to North Carolina’s rich history. Gracious, and generous, he shared his knowledge and insights with everyone who asked for help. And he inspired all of us to do our own part by discovering new facts about our past and using what we learn to deal with the challenges of today.
This fan of Powell will always be grateful.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.