Some students exited William Powell’s North Carolina history course after the first day. The courtly, distinguished professor of the old school, who died at 95 last week, would quietly announce what he expected of University of North Carolina students, and one thing he expected was several thousand pages of outside reading.
Some might have figured, “North Carolina history? How tough can it be? Sounds like a nice slide.”
But Professor Powell intended for the students who completed his course to have a depth and scope of knowledge of North Carolina that would help them to understand the state’s strengths and weaknesses, the reasons for them, the progressive times and the times when the state was held back by the same problems that plagued others in the South.
Powell loved North Carolina, and to that no one would offer a disclaimer. He was the state’s biographer, and his work included remarkable detail and insight. His works included “North Carolina Gazetteer,” “Encyclopedia of North Carolina,” “North Carolina, a History” and “Dictionary of North Carolina.”
Consider that in his reference works, Powell managed to include not just the accomplishments of a famous governor and U.S. senator such as Terry Sanford, but also preachers and poets whose notoriety might be confined to a single community over just a few years.
As a teacher, he was soft-spoken, smiling, friendly and helpful. He was everything a great professor of his era aspired to be and everything anyone who wants to be a professor should be. Thankfully, after his retirement in 1986, Powell remained a valued source of inspiration to faculty members and a source of information to students, other historians and quite frequently journalists.
His is a legacy of loyalty to his institution and to all those who stayed in his class, determined to learn even if they did have to work for what he was teaching them.