BOONE — Appalachian State University’s second annual Founders Day was celebrated on Sept. 5 with the dedication of the Lillie Shull Dougherty statue, the ringing of the Founder’s Bell and a panel discussion featuring a former chancellor and former interim chancellor of Appalachian State University.
During the panel, John Thomas and Harvey Durham reflected on their time on campus. The panel was mediated by Andrea Burns in the Grandfather Mountain Ballroom of Plemmons Student Union, where members of the ASU community and other leaders from campus were present to learn about how the campus has changed over the years.
Durham, the namesake of Durham Park just off of Rivers Street on the east side of campus, started his career at ASU in 1965 in the department of mathematics. Durham was and continues to be a leading advocate in diversifying the university’s student community, which included attracting more male students to the primarily female student body in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. One of the programs that Durham helped adapt for this purpose was ROTC, a program that is still active on campus today, that came to ASU in 1969.
Durham also advocated for the university’s outreach when it came to out-of-state and international students, as did Thomas.
“I thought it would be a good idea for the kids from North Carolina to spend some time with the kids from New Jersey,” Durham said. “What I stressed was geographic diversity.”
He retired in 2004 from the position of interim chancellor, and he held many other titles during his 39 years at ASU.
John Thomas served as chancellor from 1979-1993 and is the namesake of the John E. Thomas (JET) building, which is right across from Durham Park, also on the east side of campus. He joined the staff of ASU in 1974 with prior employment history including East Texas State University and NASA.
“Where we grow up affects what we say ... people ask about your opinion on things, they get a snapshot of our culture,” Thomas said.
As a young man, Thomas served in the Navy, ROTC at the University of Kansas and in the Marine Corps. After the Korean War and his stint in the Marines, Thomas used his engineering degree and experience to work at NASA for seven years.
When Thomas landed at ASU in 1974, his first project revolved around the need for transportation.
“I said, we’re going to get a tractor, put a flatbed out and drive it around campus,” Thomas said. “There was nothing to cover it, so if it rained, they got wet, but we could still drag them around.”
With $50,000, ASU bought three buses, and that was the beginning of the public transportation system that we know today as the AppalCART.
Both men were adamant that any of the changes brought about during their time at ASU were not efforts of their own, but instead always involved a team of individuals who all worked together to create a premier university in North Carolina.
At the end of the panel, Burns asked Durham and Thomas what their future hopes for the campus were before opening the panel up for audience interaction.
Durham said that both he and Thomas had struggled to fight to keep ASU a teaching university, not a strictly research facility.
“Teaching is research,” Thomas said. “If you’re teaching, you’re researching the right thing to teach. It’s not a dichotomy.”
“Continuing diversifying the campus,” Durham said, before recounting many instances in which the staff of ASU was profiled or discriminated against because of their race.
During the audience interaction segment of the panel, one individual voiced a sentiment that seemed to be shared by the whole room.
“I’d just like to make a comment,” he said. “I love this place from the depths of my soul, and I thank God every day because it totally and completely changed my life.”
The comment was met with thunderous applause, head nods and scattered “yesses” that could be heard over the clapping.
Following the panel was the dedication of the Lillie Shull Dougherty statue at the new Founders Plaza. Lillie was married to D.D. Dougherty, and her contributions to the university were overlooked for decades.
Doris Stam, great-granddaughter of the couple, spoke at the dedication.
“There were three, not two, co-founders of Appalachian State University,” said Stam. “While the life of Lillie Shull Dougherty simply cannot be measured by her visible achievements as teacher or business manager at Appalachian, or even the decades of entertaining, less apparent and more lasting was her steadfastness of purpose to serve, and the integrity of her character in doing it.”