by George Steel
In the late 1950s, my brother and I rode our bikes from Victory Village, where we lived with our Mother who was a UNC grad student, all over the south side of Chapel Hill, from Purefoy Road down Mason Farm Road, over to and up S. Columbia Street, down Raleigh (or South) Road to Country Club Road, and up to E. Franklin Street. This was our territory. Summers, we headed toward Woollen Gym by cutting across Manning Drive from Victory Village, going around the east side of Memorial Hospital, around the west side of Kenan Stadium, down to the Bell Tower parking lot, up to South Road, and left, past the Bell Tower and Tin Can. Summers seemed longer then.
Woollen Gym – Bowman Gray pool is inside the structure on the right.
Free Swim Lessons
There in the summer at Woollen Gym, or just "Woollen," the University provided free morning swim lessons for the children of Chapel Hill, five days a week, two sessions each summer. A couple of hundred kids crowded the Bowman Gray indoor pool and the Navy (Kessing) outdoor pool. Kids in the beginners swim class sat on the indoor pool deck with their feet dangling in the shallow end. Mike, UNC wrestling coach, swim teacher, and director of the program, stood in the water, jock strap riding up his back, facing the kids. "Kick, kick, kick, kick, kick!!" Dozens of pairs of little legs furiously churned up a small squall into which Mike disappeared from sight.
An old shot of Bowman Gray pool from the deep end. The pool is enormous, 50-meters long. The balcony is in the distance on middle right side of the photo. The bridge that divides the pool into a 25-meter side and a 25-yard side wasn't installed yet. (Courtesy North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill)
Kessing pool – 1945. The Kessing Pool first opened in 1943 and provided aquatic training for the U.S. Navy's pre-flight divisions in World War II. Former presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, and my father, Logan Steel, trained at the center. Kessing Pool is 50 yards long. (Courtesy North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill)
Woollen's locker rooms were on the same level as the pool deck. From the balcony overlooking the indoor pool, my brother and I entered the men's side by going down the stairs to the left. At the beginning of each season, we were sized and outfitted for swim suits. We undressed in a small locker room and with all the other boys, lined up single-file, and walked naked down the subterranean hall, to the main men's locker room. There the workmen behind the "cage" estimated your waist size (24", 26") and issued you, like dealing a playing card across a table-top, a freshly laundered (and pressed) swim suit. They gave you a basket to store your clothes in, which you gave back to the men at the window for storage, before you went to the pool. When swim lessons were over, you returned to get your basket and a fresh white towel, indelibly marked "WG" in black.
You were not permitted to wear your own swim suit. It might be dirty, and polio had not yet been forgotten. The pool was perfectly clean; I have not seen a cleaner pool since. The girls had to wear caps to cover their hair. The boys' swim suits were incredibly ugly and ill-fitting heavy cotton things, usually a size or two too large with stretched waists and strings hanging out, not to mention other things. After putting on the suits, the boys showered just enough to get wet, and stepped through the chlorinated foot baths onto the indoor pool deck about midway between the shallow and deep ends, or out the back way to the outdoor pool. The girls entered onto the indoor pool deck from behind the diving boards.
The swim classes progressed in skill level from the beginners in the shallow end, 3 feet deep, to the most advanced in the deep end, 12 feet deep. There were probably 4 or 5 classes in the indoor pool, likewise the outdoor pool.
The teachers, mostly teen-agers, helped you learn by having you swim out to where they stood in the water. Then, after a little instruction, they pushed you back to the side of the pool. Soon you could swim all the way across the pool. The teacher promoted you to the next class when they felt you were ready. In the more advanced classes, you learned other strokes, or dove off the diving board.
Sometime during my second summer of swim lessons, feeling overlooked by the teachers of the elementary-level class I was in, I promoted myself to the classes in the outdoor pool, skipping past the remaining indoor pool classes. There was no formal certificate for promotion, so the next day I just mixed in with the other kids already in the outdoor pool. My technique and skills were not quite their level, but no one tossed me back. I had bluffed my way to the outdoor pool!
Kids Using The Gym
Use of Woollen by the kids of Chapel Hill was not strictly limited in those days. Maybe it was the times. What was it about those days? Certainly everything has its price now. The Woollen staff had better things to do, and so looked the other way. My brother and I spent hours and hours there. You could enter the gymnasium area from the back side onto the wooden floor. There were basketball courts, climbing ropes, pommel horses, uneven and parallel bars, and gymnastic rings. You could play pickup basketball games. My brother and I and friends played hours of "BB", often challenging the "College Joe's". Woollen was where the UNC Basketball Team practiced and played until Carmichael opened in 1965. It was not unknown to sneak into the Gym for UNC games either. I know I saw Billy Cunningham miss a dunk one time.
After swim lessons were over, you could get a "Dreamsicle" from the lady with the ice cream motor bike parked at the top of the parking lot by the pool. Then you could stay around until "12 to 1", the recreational swim period, when kids and families could swim in the outdoor pool. A pool pass was required, but at a nominal fee. Mother always made sure we had one. The kids played "Marco Polo," dove off the high dive, or practiced their cannon balls and jackknives. Sometimes the indoor pool was open to recreational swimming. A bridge bisected the indoor pool into a 25-meter side and a 25-yard side. You could duck under the bridge and come up inside it. There was another recreational swim period later in the afternoons, and longer recreational swim periods on Saturdays. I absolutely thrived on swimming at the UNC indoor and outdoor pools at Woollen!Comment
What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. or the crisp October nights. No, our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is as it was meant to be, The University of the People.