As I have stated previously in travel stories, I periodically enjoy visiting college campuses and walking around them to examine and critique their buildings and landscaping.
I also enjoy trying to spend enough time on a campus simply to imagine what it would be like to be a student or professor there.
Last weekend, I finally visited for the first time two well-known universities that had long been at the top of my list of colleges to see – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.
I thoroughly enjoyed them both, although they were each beautiful in a different way, just as the two schools are different in equally appealing ways.
One obvious similarity they have, however, is that they both have rich basketball traditions featuring national championships won in honorable ways. I, of course, included the basketball stops as part of my itinerary.
The first campus my wife, Laura, and I visited was the University of North Carolina.
I had called ahead to see if the school offered tours to the general public. And to my pleasant surprise, it did. When we arrived at the visitors’ center at the Morehead Planetarium on Friday afternoon, a nice and upbeat student named Truman Vereen was on hand to give us a tour.
Many colleges offer tours only if you are a prospective student, donor, or big-time athletic recruit, so I was touched that UNC gladly offered a tour to Laura and me free of charge.
As soon as we began walking around the historic part of the campus, I felt right at home. This is partly because that area looks as if it could be a first cousin of my alma mater, the University of Georgia, with its expansive, tree-covered quads of different-looking 19th- and early 20th-century buildings.
Mr. Vereen enthusiastically told us stories about the Confederate Civil War soldier statue and the old tulip poplar tree – nicknamed Silent Sam and Davie Poplar, respectively – and then we went from the McCorkle Place quad to Polk Place and learned that former president James K. Polk had been a student at UNC.
As a Volunteer State resident, I was surprised to hear of the Tennessean’s Chapel Hill connection.
We then looked at the Wilson Library, and Mr. Vereen told us how benefactor John Motley Morehead had wanted a bell tower built on the top of it. Library director Louis R. Wilson did not, however, so Mr. Morehead helped construct the Morehead-Patterson Clock Tower behind it with a turret roof.
As a result, the Wilson Library looks as though it has a dunce cap on it when seen from certain angles. So the last laugh was enjoyed by Mr. Morehead, whose chemistry developments laid the foundation for the giant Union Carbide company.
Mr. Morehead must have been an interesting person, as Mr. Vereen told us during the tour that the Morehead Planetarium came about as a result of a conversation in which an acquaintance of Mr. Morehead told him that North Carolinians were astronomically ignorant. Mr. Morehead became riled at the slight and dared to build in the late 1940s what became one of the South’s premier planetariums. NASA later used the facility.
I had heard of Mr. Morehead previously because of the prestigious scholarship he helped start, a scholarship that a number of Baylor, McCallie and possibly GPS students would receive almost yearly when I was at Baylor in the 1970s.
We walked around some more and then we stopped at what is probably the most famous UNC landmark – Old Well. The structure, which was the campus’ sole supply of water for years, was rebuilt in 1897 and patterned after the Temple of Love at the Gardens of Versailles, we learned.
It now has a water fountain that supposedly brings good luck to those who drink from it on the first day of classes. For me on this hot afternoon, it simply brought satisfaction.
But as I sipped on the tasty water after walking through the pretty campus, I was beginning to think I was in heaven – or, more specifically, Blue Heaven.
After dinner at the popular college hangout, Top of the Hill, which has a unique third-floor outdoor veranda, I left our room at the nearby Carolina Inn the next morning and jogged around the UNC campus, covering a larger area than we had on the Friday walk.
This time I saw the outsides of Kenan Stadium and Carmichael Arena (formerly auditorium), which was where the UNC basketball team played from 1965-86.
After breakfast at another popular Franklin Street eatery – Ye Olde Waffle Shop – Laura and I went and saw the UNC basketball museum at the Ernie Williamson Athletics Center next to the Dean Smith Center – where the Tar Heels play today.
The museum was interesting, and I found an autograph from former Baylor schoolmate Jimmy Braddock on a 1982 basketball used during coach Dean Smith’s first national championship season. Mr. Braddock’s writing was next to the signature of a rather familiar name – Michael Jordan.
The museum also included a 1980 letter from the coach of another college to Mr. Jordan after the latter decided he did not want to go to that college when he graduated from high school in 1981. But the coach did wish him well and said he would be a success in whatever he attempted. The coach was Mike Krzyzewski, who was in his first months as head coach at Duke.
Later that afternoon, I walked around the UNC campus again and took some pictures of places I had missed the day before. Near the end of my jaunt, I went by the Carmichael facility and, to my pleasant surprise, saw a door open.
And what is a curious newspaperman to do but go inside. I walked through the recently remodeled outer hallway into the basketball gym and seating area and thought I had gone back in time.
It was a fascinating-looking building with an unusual seating configuration in the style of Stokely Athletics Center at Tennessee. It was not as spacious as I thought it would be, but I was impressed to learn that UNC lost only 20 men’s games in the more than two decades that the Tar Heels played in the building.
And the coach the entire time was one man – Dean Smith.
I felt a sense of satisfaction finally to know where schoolmate Jimmy Braddock played and practiced after being such a star in Chattanooga.
I soaked up the atmosphere for about five minutes and then left, knowing I would have gladly paid for the experience.
After a nice Saturday night dinner at the Mediterranean Deli, I climbed out of bed early Sunday morning and took another hour-long jog around the campus. By then, I was starting to develop strong feelings for the UNC campus. I even took an extra sip of water from the Old Well as I neared the end of my run.
But I could not linger too long, because my wife and I had another place to go before we headed back to Tennessee – Duke University.
After eating a quiet breakfast at the Panera on Franklin Street, we turned on Highway 15/501 and took the roughly 15-mile trip to the Duke campus. On the way, we passed the modernist-style Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, which for years has been known among Chapel Hill residents as the church where Dean Smith, who now unfortunately suffers from dementia, has been a member and deacon.
When we arrived on the outskirts of Duke, all I saw were a bunch of wooded areas. It was not what I expected.
Somehow we ended up down a road looking for a visitors’ center and stumbled upon the backside of the massive Duke University Chapel on the West campus. Since we were going to worship there, we parked in a parking lot and hoped no one would give us a ticket.
We walked up by the chapel and I thought I had landed outside a European abbey and castle all in one. It was simply a gorgeous Gothic jewel.
Laura noticed how the steps leading up to it were worn in an interesting geometric pattern, showing the route people had walked.
The weather was misty, making me definitely feel like I was in a Bronte sisters’ book about Britain of old. We walked around briefly, looking at such places as the adjacent Duke Divinity School and the statue of benefactor James B. Duke, before going into the Duke chapel approximately an hour before the 11 a.m. service was to start.
Laura does not share my deep love for campus exploration – especially on wet mornings. So I decided to go back out and walk around some of the campus before the service while she stayed and heard the choir warm up with its beautiful music.
My destination was primarily one place, the Cameron Indoor Stadium basketball facility, where the Cameron Crazies have helped make it one of the toughest places for a visiting team in all of college basketball.
After checking with someone at a visitors’ desk at the back of the chapel, I was surprised to learn that it and much of the rest of the West Campus were within easy walking distance.
As I walked toward Cameron, taking pictures of all the similar-looking buildings and unusual fraternity benches, I began to think I was not at an Ivy League school, but at somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge. Or maybe I was a character in one of Jane Austen’s romantic English novels about the landed gentry.
The Duke campus was definitely pretty, but in a different way from the UNC campus.
After walking under one or two arched breezeways, I went through a parking lot and saw a sign that quickly became easy to read. “Krzyzewskiville” it said. This is the area where students camp out to get into Duke basketball games, I realized.
And behind it was the basketball shrine itself, Cameron Indoor Stadium. I took pictures of the unassuming building, which had stone like the Duke Chapel but not nearly the ornamentation.
The building was unfortunately locked, so I then walked back to the Duke chapel to get ready for the service. I am a United Methodist and know Duke Divinity School is Methodist-affiliated. But I think the Duke chapel tries to have interdenominational Christian services, even though the Sunday morning service seemed to have a strong Methodist slant.
I was surprised how big the crowd was, as several hundred were in attendance. Some falling plaster, concrete or stone from the roof had necessitated the installation of indoor scaffolding just a few days before.
After the service, we took a guided tour of the building, learning it had been built in the early 1930s and was designed by an African-American, Julian Abele, although no one in Duke reportedly knew his race at the time. The chapel had a variety of significant people carved or depicted artistically on its walls, from Jesus to Methodist movement founder John Wesley to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
I wish I would have had more time to explore Duke, but Laura and I needed to get back to Tennessee. So we enjoyed a nice lunch at Francesca’s dessert café along Ninth Street – which is kind of Duke’s equivalent of “the Strip” – and then headed back to Tennessee.
But we did not go before I ran across the street to buy a Duke T-shirt. By then I was starting to become enamored with Duke – just as I had been with UNC.