Orange County

NC historian William S. Powell dies at 95

William Powell portrait among the stacks in UNC's Davis Library.
William Powell portrait among the stacks in UNC's Davis Library. 2003 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Renowned North Carolina historian William Stevens Powell died Friday. He was 95.

Described by colleagues as “the dean of North Carolina history,” Powell edited or wrote more than 100 books and articles on the topic of his state’s history, including “The North Carolina Gazetteer,” “Encyclopedia of North Carolina” and the “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.”

UNC-Chapel Hill history professor William Ferris said Powell was a staple for understanding North Carolina.

“His work was considered the very best in North Carolina history,” Ferris said. “I think every North Carolinian is indebted to William Powell for helping us understand the sense of place and the power of place.

“For all of us who live here and call ourselves Tar Heels, we have a much more grounded sense of who we are because of the life and legacy of the publishing and teaching that Powell left here.”

Powell was recognized with the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2000 and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2008. He taught history at UNC-Chapel Hill for 13 years, from 1973 to 1986, teaching more than 6,000 students throughout his time there.

Born in Johnston County, Powell grew up in Statesville and graduated from Mitchell Junior College in 1938. In 1940, he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and entered the U.S. Army to serve during World War II for the next five years.

After his service, Powell returned to academia, earning a master’s in history from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1947.

Throughout his career, Powell served as a researcher for the N.C. Department of Archives and History, edited History News and worked as a librarian for the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Robert Anthony, curator of the North Carolina Collection, said that in Powell’s seven decades of research and writing, he inspired many volunteers to pursue their own interest in history.

“His work is sort of literarily encyclopedic, with every aspect of the state’s history,” said James Leloudis, history professor and associate dean for honors at UNC-Chapel Hill, who worked with Powell briefly in the 1980s. “He’s left quite a remarkable imprint about the way we remember the state’s history.”

Leloudis added that Powell’s collection of writings has been so valuable toward historical literature that North Carolina tends to be “over-represented,” in part due to Powell’s work.

D.G. Martin, host of UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” had Powell on the show and said he was “gracious, and generous,” sharing knowledge with anyone who asked.

Powell, the son of Isaac Millard Powell and Ada Belle Perry Powell, is survived by his wife of 63 years, Virginia; three children, John Powell, Charles Powell and Ellen Feild; 11 grandchildren and one great-grandson.

A memorial service will be private.

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Twitter: @karabettis

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