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Thomas Wolfe - UNC's Certified Genius

by Charly Mann

Thomas Wolfe, one of the greatest writers of all time, entered the University of North Carolina at the age of 15 in September of 1916. When he was a senior he was editor of the Daily Tar Heel. During his college years he was also an editor of the Yackety Yack and a member of the Playmakers. Like many other UNC students, at the time, he often paid for the services of prostitutes in Durham brothels.

Thomas Wolfe 1918 Debater and Orator for UNC Dialectic Society

Thomas Wolfe College Student at University of North Carolina

Thomas Wolfe (center) on the porch of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity 1919

Wolfe loved Chapel Hill more than any place on earth, and shortly before graduating in June of 1920 wrote his girlfriend in Asheville the following: I hate to leave this place. It’s mighty hard. It’s the oldest of the state universities and there’s an atmosphere here that’s fine and good. Other universities have larger student bodies and bigger and finer buildings, but in Spring there are none, I know, so wonderful by half. I saw Carolina graduates when I was home for Christmas who were doing graduate work at Yale, Harvard, and Columbia. It would seem that they would forget the old brown buildings in more splendid surroundings, but it was always the same reply: “There’s no place on earth that can equal Carolina.” That’s why I hate to leave this big fine place. (May 17, 1920)

UNC campus 1919 when Thomas Wolfe was a senior

UNC Campus, Old Well, South Building, Chapel Hill 1916

UNC campus 1916 when Thomas Wolfe was a freshman

Thomas Wolfe’s honors and activities at UNC, listed here from the 1920 Yackety Yack, far exceeded those of everyone else in his graduating class. Note it is said, “He can do more between 8:25 and 8:30 than the rest of us can do all day, and it is no wonder that he is classified as a genius.”


Thomas Wolfe's  UNC senior yearbook photo and accomplishment list. (Note the reference to Gooch's where Wolfe would often eat his meals late in the evening - see previous article.)

Thomas Wolfe, University of North Carolina Diploma

Thomas Wolfe's dipolma from UNC, June 1920 

Wolfe is most famous for four lyrically eloquent autobiographical novels. The first, Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1929. The second, Of Time and River was published in 1935. His last two great novels, The Web and the Rock and, You Can't Go Home Again, were published after his death. Wolfe came down with a highly unusual case of pneumonia in September of 1938. He was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where it was finally determined he had tuberculosis in his brain. The best brain surgeon in the country operated on him, but found the entire right side of Wolfe's brain was covered with tubercles. Nothing could be done, and he died at age 37 on September 15, 1938. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville.



Zebulon Vance      10:53 PM Fri 1/7/2011

Virtus et Scientia!

M Evans UNC Class of 94      9:50 AM Fri 5/29/2009

I can't believe all the organizations and extra-curricular activities Wolfe was involved in, - and at such a young age!

Ricky Brandis      10:47 AM Thu 5/28/2009

I highly recommend LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL to get a good look at Chapel Hill from 1916 to 1920. In the novel the name of the town is changed to Pulpit Hill. By the way Asheville is Altamount - and as I recall North Carolina is called Catawba.

Trace Roberts      3:13 PM Wed 5/27/2009

I was surprised to learn how common it was for UNC students to use prostitues back then.

Karen Philbrook      1:34 PM Wed 5/27/2009

I don't imagine UNC has had too many other 15 year old freshman.

Marshall Pettis      2:54 PM Tue 5/26/2009

Thank's for the piece on Wolfe. I just finished two weeks of sublime pleasure re-reading his novel "You Can't Go Home Again."

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Chapel Hill is located on a hill whose only distinguishing feature in the 18th century was a small chapel on top called New Hope Chapel. This church was built in 1752 and is currently the location of The Carolina Inn. The town was founded in 1819, and chartered in 1851.



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.

-- Charles Kuralt



Dark Side of the Hill -- Pink Floyd, the creators of the most popular album in history, Dark Side of the Moon, took the second half of their name from Floyd Council, a Chapel Hill native, and great blues singer and guitarist. He once belonged to a group called "The Chapel Hillbillies".



Check out Charly Mann's other website:
Oklahoma Birds and Butterflies


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There would probably be no Chapel Hill if the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees in 1793 had not chosen land across from New Hope Chapel for the location of the university. By 1800 there were about 100 people living in thirty houses surrounding the campus.



The University North Carolina's first student was Hinton James, who enrolled in February, 1795. There is now a dormitory on the campus named in his honor.





The University of North Carolina was closed from 1870 to 1875 because of lack of state funding.





William Ackland left his art collection and $1.25 million to Duke University in 1940 on the condition that he would be buried in the art museum that the University was to build with his bequest. Duke rejected this condition even though members of the Duke Family are buried in Duke Chapel. What followed was a long and acrimonious legal battle between Ackland relatives who now wanted the inheritance, Rollins College, and the University of North Carolina, each attempting to receive the funds. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and in 1949 UNC was awarded the money for the museum. Ackland is buried near the museum's entrance. When the museum first opened, in the early sixties, there were rumors that his remains were leaking out of the mausoleum.



The official name of the Arboretum on the University of North Carolina campus is the Coker Arboretum. It is named after Dr. William Cocker, the University's first botany professor. It occupies a little more than five acres. It was founded in 1903.



Chapel Hill's main street has always been called Franklin Street. It was named after Benjamin Franklin in the early 1790s.



We need your help. Send your submissions, ideas, photos, and questions to CHMemories@gmail.com.



Chapel Hill High School and Chapel Hill Junior High were on Franklin Street in the same location as University Square until the mid 1960s.



The Colonial Drug Store at 450 West Franklin Street was owned and operated by John Carswell. It was famous for a fresh-squeezed carbonated orange beverage called a "Big O". In the early 1970s, I managed the Record and Tape Center next door, and must have had over 100 of those drinks. The Colonial Drug Store closed in 1996.



Sutton's Drugstore, which opened in 1923, has one of the last soda fountains in the South. It is one of the few businesses remaining on Franklin Street that was in operation when I was growing up in the 1950s.



Future President Gerald Ford lived in Chapel Hill twice. First when he was 24, in 1938, he took a law couse in summer school at UNC. He lived in the Carr Building, which was a law school dormitory. At the same time, Richard Nixon, the man he served under as Vice President, was attending law school at Duke. In 1942, Ford returned to Chapel Hill to attend the U.S. Navy's Pre-Flight School training program. He lived in a rental house on Hidden Hills Drive.



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