John Shearer: Seeing Biltmore, UNC’s Hussman Journalism School, And Tar Heel Basketball Games

Friday, November 29, 2019 - by John Shearer

For the fifth year in a row, I recently headed over to Chapel Hill, N.C., to see a University of North Carolina men’s basketball game. 

As I have mentioned before in previous stories, I pull for the Tar Heel basketball team, but also cheer for Indiana in basketball, as well as a smorgasbord of other roundball teams, including my alma maters of Georgia and UTC, and the Tennessee women.

I visited Chapel Hill for the first time in 2012 in the summer, and then started going to a basketball game in 2015 while still living in Knoxville — when the drive was nearly two hours shorter than from Chattanooga. 

The reasons for continuing to go in 2019 have been that the pretty school is in a nice small town similar to my beloved Athens, and I get to experience the excitement of a road trip and watch some usually good basketball.

I also enjoy walking the campus and observing the students.
Most all seem to have an enthusiastic zip to their step and appear to be serious and well-rounded students.

And almost ironically, each time I have visited Chapel Hill, I have found something with a Chattanooga connection to write about, which in ways keeps the long trip from becoming stale or seeming so repetitive. 

In recent years, I visited the University Baptist Church by campus designed by noted Chattanooga architect R.H. Hunt, looked in the Lyndhurst Foundation files at the UNC library and found formerly private letters about alma mater Baylor School’s early integration days, and found out more about Girls Preparatory School’s former May queen Grace Moore’s tragic fatal car accident outside Chapel Hill in 1960.

This time, I had seen where UNC alumnus Walter Hussman Jr., whose publishing company owns the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and his family had recently donated $25 million to the UNC journalism school. So with a simple email that was kindly returned, I received a first-class tour from a couple of students, and met some officials.

I did that on the Friday after touring the Biltmore home the night before.

Since my wife, Laura, is not much of a basketball fan and could not go, I left home on Thursday, Nov. 14, and drove nearly four hours to Lake Junaluska, N.C., near Asheville. This is where my wife and I attend the United Methodist Church’s Holston Annual Conference every summer and have been a few other times, so I felt comfortable staying there rather than a motel along the stretch. It did mean I would have to backtrack about 20 minutes that night, however.

When I arrived at Lake Junaluska, hardly anyone seemed to be there, but I understood maybe a conference had just ended. Somewhat surprisingly, I did not get a room in the Terrace Inn with a view of the nice lake, but was assigned to one of only about two rooms on my floor that had an uninspiring view of the back parking lot and grassy area and a nearby vacation-style home.

I would normally have gone downstairs and asked for a room with a view of the lake, but I knew I was going to head to Biltmore within 30 minutes and then leave the next day about breakfast time, so I did not bother.

I did briefly walk around along the pretty lake, auditorium and chapel before dark. I was thinking that it felt different not seeing familiar faces like I do during the Annual Conference, although I did see a plate from Baylor School on the front of a car. 

No one came out and got in that car while I was there, but I soon headed off to Biltmore for my 6:45 p.m. candlelight tour visit. I had envisioned eating at one of the neat restaurants in nearby Waynesville that Laura and I had frequented. But I realized I did not have a lot of time, so I stopped at a Dairy Queen on the way and enjoyed some delicious chicken strips and fries. A chef’s dining tour this was not shaping up to be!

After arriving in a parking lot at Biltmore, I caught the shuttle to the house from a seemingly new building. I had been to Biltmore probably 12 or so times since I first went there in the fall of 1983 with a college friend and parked only a couple hundred yards in front of the house, so I had seen changes and enhancements over the years.

However, this was actually only the second time I had been there for an evening Christmas/holiday tour, which they gladly start several weeks before Thanksgiving. I normally do not like to do Christmas activities or listen to Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving, but I must admit I was entranced as much as I am in December standing there and listening to some beautiful live Christmas music not long after going inside.

The home also looked neat from the outside at night.

As I toured around with a little more hurried gait than most of the others due to my frequent visits, I realized my perspective of life had changed since first seeing the home in my early 20s. While the mansion is obviously nice and enormous, I started thinking after walking into a few large and ornate rooms and hearing the comments of the other gawking visitors that this home was quite literally over the top and that we were all admiring coveted American extravagance at its most extreme.

But then as I continued walking through the house already decorated for the holidays for more than an hour, I started changing my viewpoint. The original owner, George W. Vanderbilt, had no doubt employed countless artisans and architects for a period to let them demonstrate their talents for people to enjoy. 

And as I read a little later, being able to keep up the home and grounds and other amenities as a money-making operation, as the Vanderbilt descendants have been able to do, has been quite a second success. And it has been a better alternative than letting the home physically decline, or see the grounds sold and developed.

So I was OK with Biltmore by the time I left and saw a running deer or two on the dark grounds.

After getting up the next morning and taking a jog along the lake in the dark, and dressing after pulling the window curtains so no one in that vacation house would see me, I checked out of the inn without telling the two attendants I would have preferred a room with a view of the lake. Yes, I am passive aggressive.

I then went upstairs to enjoy the complimentary continental breakfast, but realized it would not be served until a little later, As a result, I quickly opted for Plan B — going to the nearby Bojangle’s on my way to Interstate 40.

About three hours later, as I neared Chapel Hill and knew I probably would not have time to eat a sit-down lunch before trying to get to the 12:30 p.m. tour of the journalism school, I continued my sophisticated culinary tour by stopping at a McDonald’s about an hour from the campus and getting a Big Mac. I put a little extra ketchup on it while sitting in my car before driving on down the road, and guess what happened? 

Yes, half the ketchup landed on both my pants and shirt. I went back inside, grabbed a few napkins, and went to the bathroom to wipe most of it off. I succeeded but did have a big wet spot, which I hoped would dry before I arrived. I was at least glad I was not on the way to a job interview.

Although in the past I had stayed at the Carolina Inn by the campus, it did not have any basic — or relatively inexpensive — rooms for that night, so I had checked with the Franklin Hotel about three blocks farther away from campus and on the main West Franklin Street. Franklin is the other unique hotel in Chapel Hill.

I knew it had a parking garage, and I was afraid they would have a valet whom I would have to tip, and he would remark that my car sure smelled like ketchup when I arrived to let him park the car. As a result, I threw away my ketchup-covered McDonald’s bag at a convenience store I saw on the outskirts of Chapel Hill.

Luckily, I could hold on to the few bills I had in my wallet, because it was a self-service parking garage. You only had to buzz the clerk in the lobby, and she kindly welcomed me and lifted the gate remotely. 

And after I checked in, I realized the workers all seemed friendlier than the staff during past visits to the Carolina Inn, although the latter has a great lobby that makes the visits there enjoyable.

Anyway, after I got unpacked, I had just enough time to brush my teeth, check my pants again and walk over to the Hussman School of Journalism and Media in historic Carroll Hall on the campus. I had initially emailed Andrew Bresson from the school’s development office, and he encouraged me to take a regularly scheduled building tour led by students and then stop by their offices afterward.

I arrived at Carroll Hall right at 12:30 and found two friendly students, Noah Dolgoff and Annie Booz, who were waiting to lead the tour. Although parents and prospective students often take the periodic tours, I was the only one on this day. But the students still enthusiastically led me through the building, proudly pointing out the various rooms of interest and that the school has had numerous Hearst Award winners, which are like the Pulitzer Prizes for college journalism students.

I was then led upstairs, where associate dean Wendy Gratz Borman and director of development Steve Scott gladly welcomed me and talked to me briefly. Ms. Borman mentioned about how the office had met with Mr. Hussman in Little Rock, Ark., and how he had later during a followup meeting talked about his core journalism values of impartiality, credibility and thoroughness, and she know how important they were to him and that he had thought thoroughly about them.

A temporary form of them are on the wall in the lobby where I met the student tour guides, and an official ceremony on the lawn in front of Carroll Hall and attended by the Hussman family was held in late October. The school has also been renamed after his family, and journalism was also put first in the name to show an emphasis on his and UNC’s commitment to true, impartial journalism.

I actually only crossed paths with Mr. Hussman briefly, when he bought the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1998 before I left the Free Press in early 1999. But I would regularly see him with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses walk through the newsroom when he would come in from Arkansas often to prepare for the merger.

After meeting with the two UNC officials, I told them of my interest in the late former CBS News personality and alumnus Charles Kuralt. Mr. Scott gladly took me down into the “On the Road” and “CBS Sunday Morning” personality’s recreated office that features his former desk, his Emmy Awards and even some reading glasses. There was also a framed letter he had written UNC just two or three days before his death in 1997, saying he remembered his time at UNC fondly and was wondering if the old cemetery on campus had any plots left.

He ended up being buried in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery by the campus. I did not try to find his marker, in part so that I have another place to visit during my next trip to Chapel Hill!

Overall, as someone who still drives up to Knoxville twice a week to teach some adjunct classes at the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media, I enjoyed thoroughly the tour of the Hussman school and was grateful for the opportunity.

With a very slight sprinkle of rain coming down, I then headed back over in the direction of my hotel on West Franklin Street and the Mediterranean Deli just across the street. I was now realizing the challenge of staying three blocks farther away from the campus than when I am at the Carolina Inn.

I got a peanut butter chocolate cake as a dessert/mid-afternoon snack, and enjoyed it — and also relished the unique Mediterranean Deli atmosphere that seems to draw a lot of students and faculty and others.

After taking a little break at the Franklin Hotel, I then got ready to take a stroll/long hike back to campus to attend the first of two games that night — the UNC women’s game against Charleston Southern at 5 p.m. at historic and gently remodeled Carmichael Arena, where the men once played.

It was still a very light sprinkle or mist, so I put my print-at-home ticket in what I thought was a compartment of my rain jacket. But after I walked a couple of blocks and felt to see if it was still there, it was not. I walked back and found it a short distance back. Apparently, that pocket that I thought was secure was not. But luckily the bar code did not appear to have gotten wet, so I continued on my merry way. 

I did stop briefly by the Carolina Inn to soak up the lobby atmosphere — and rest my feet — before going by the mid-century style campus bookstore, which is uniquely called the UNC Student Stores.

Finally, I walked over to Carmichael, and my ticket worked, so I found a seat. 

Although the Tar Heel women had won a national championship in the 1990s, they do not have near the tradition as the men. And this year, they have a new coach, Courtney Banghart, who was hired following a successful stint at Princeton after playing at Dartmouth. She had replaced longtime coach Sylvia Hatchell, who ended up resigning this year after accusations of insensitive remarks and forcing players to play while injured.

I had seen the UNC women play as well in recent years, and this time I could tell there seemed to be a little bit more enthusiasm among the small crowd of fans, which was still about double the number who had attended early season games in past years under the previous regime.

I also noticed that the new coach or someone had decided to put the team benches on the side where more of the fans were, rather than near the stage and small grandstand. That seemed like a good idea to this once-a-year attendee.

The UNC women won easily over Charleston Southern, 85-54, and the Courtney Banghart era has gotten off to a good start. I watched her some, and she seemed to have a more stoic or less-demonstrative style than most coaches. Of course, her mannerism might be different in a tight game against a rival like Duke.

After watching that game and eating some popcorn, I observed the cheerleaders and players all stand as the pep band played the alma mater and the fight song, “I’m A Tar Heel Born.” I always enjoy the latter. It is not as well known nationally as some fight songs, but it has a lot of pep to it, especially when you hear it played at UNC.

It was then time for the long walk back to get a bite to eat at — yes — the Mediterranean Deli. I was getting so much exercise that my step-tracking device might have blown up if I had been wearing one. But I was thankful for the calories I was burning, while beginning to feel like I was training to walk the Appalachian Trail.

The light rain was gone by now, and the heavy downpours I feared when seeing the forecast a day or two before thankfully never materialized.

I got to the Mediterranean Deli about 7:30 p.m. and ordered a Greek salad, trying to squeeze in at least a few vegetables on the trip. It was delicious and the restaurant was crowded with diners socializing and happily enjoying a relaxing Friday night. In fact, I looked around and realized I was the only one eating by myself.

I then stopped by briefly at the Franklin Hotel to change shoes. Yes, I was afraid I was wearing out my newer hiking-style shoes, so I changed into my older jogging shoes for the longest trek of the day to the Dean Smith Center on the southern side of campus and back.

The North Carolina men were playing Gardner-Webb at 9 p.m. I arrived 30 minutes or so before the game, and noticed that there seemed to be a few more people attending than the games I had seen them play against smaller schools in the past. I have usually gone to see them play in early or the middle of December, but this year a mid-November game fit my schedule best.

I took care of first things first and bought a hot dog to enjoy, and was not feeling as guilty about it after having the Greek salad as a first course.

Gardner-Webb had actually played national champion Virginia competitively in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the year before, and stayed close with UNC for much of this game before the Tar Heels won 77-61. A star player this year for UNC is freshman Cole Anthony, the son of former UNLV and NBA standout Greg Anthony. 

I enjoyed it. The students gave coach Roy Williams a standing ovation as he walked to the court, as they have done every time I have been there. Not every coach gets such royal treatment. 

The students, who seemed to be more numerous at this game, also have a unique routine of clapping their hands together only one time before a UNC player shoots a free throw, and then applauding if he makes it. This time I finally figured out that they do the one-time clap immediately when the ball is placed in the shooter’s hands by the official.

And one of the best parts for me of attending a game there is watching the UNC pep band. They do not sit behind one of the goals as is typical, but in the corner of the lower arena a few rows back. It is a large band, and the dance team often comes up and accompanies them.

They also put on a great performance after the game is over, as do a number of college bands, so I snuck down past the usher into the lower section from my nosebleed seat in the last few minutes to watch the band at the end and after the game was over.

And sure enough, they entertained greatly as they played the alma mater and then the fight song, with the students remaining for the most part until it was over.

I then took my long walk back to the hotel — including through the usual tie-up on the outdoor stairway of the adjoining parking lot.

After getting back close to midnight and enjoying my view out the window onto West Franklin Street, I arose around 6 a.m. I wanted to take my usual jog through the older parts of campus as I had often done, but knew I needed to get on the road to make the roughly 7-hour trip back to Chattanooga in time to watch my Georgia Bulldogs play Auburn in football that afternoon.

I took an enjoyable jog, noticing that no trace existed of the old Silent Sam Confederate statue taken down in 2018, and also saw some male and female students setting up for some kind of event that morning. Since I never saw 6 or 6:30 as a college student, particularly on a Saturday morning, I was impressed.

After getting a few gulps of water out of the antiquated Old Well water fountain, I jogged back toward my hotel and stopped at the Panera and ate before taking a shower and getting ready for the long trip home.

Following a stop at a Wendy’s in Asheville and miraculously balancing eating a cup of chili and a single cheeseburger while driving through the curves of Interstate 40, I arrived back home just in time to watch on TV Georgia win a tense game over comeback-minded Auburn.

It was a sharp contrast to the calm and ease with which I had watched some basketball the day before and which I was still cherishing.

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