When I went to college, it never occurred to me that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – its institutions, faculty, students and alumni – would come to mean so much to me.
But they have, which is why, for example, I am embarrassed by the academic scandal that has enshrouded the university, and it’s why I mourned the passing earlier this month of longtime men’s basketball coach Dean Smith.
By way of confession, I have not always been a Carolina fan. I grew up near Winston-Salem, so as a kid, I pulled for the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest University. I also attended basketball camp there and did the research for my high school term paper in the WFU library.
And no don’t tell anyone this, but as a high school junior and senior, I followed Duke University basketball because a graduate of my high school, South Stokes, was on the team. Some older readers might remember Kenny Dennard.
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But as a high school senior, I chose UNC over Wake Forest because I could major in journalism at Carolina, and once I arrived on campus in August of 1979, I became forever a Tar Heel.
I suppose that was to be expected to some degree, but what I didn’t expect was how deeply I would feel Carolina’s triumphs and tragedies, especially those that came long after I graduated in 1983.
I was at Carolina when Coach Smith won his first NCAA championship in 1982. I still have the jeans and shirt I was wearing that night, both stained in Carolina blue paint from the celebration on Franklin Street. But to be honest, I enjoyed the 1993 championship just as much, partly because of the leadership displayed by forward George Lynch, who would chastise a teammate for making a mistake, then wrap his arm around that teammate to reassure him.
I feel the tragedies especially hard. I did not know Eve Carson, the UNC student body president, but I felt as though I had lost a family member when she was murdered in 2008. I felt the same way when UNC professor and cancer researcher Feng Liu was beaten to death last year. And now I mourn the loss of three students shot to death this week, apparently in a dispute over parking.
As a youngster and then a young man, I was never much of a joiner – no Boy Scouts, no civic club. But I’m glad I joined the Carolina family, even in times of loss. I suspect anyone whoever attended college knows what I mean.