Decades later, alumni still remember an old college

Staff reports

Seven women who gathered at Warren Wilson College for a reunion Aug. 5 are among the last graduates of an institution that now exists only in their memories and through the college’s legacy-preservation efforts.

On July 20, 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Asheville to get a closer look at a summer program being housed at Asheville College, the latest iteration of a school started by the Pease family in 1887 and funded by the Presbyterian Church until 1940. Thousands of students passed through its doors, obtaining two-year teaching certificates or going through a four-year program that also included a bachelor’s degree in education. To this day, the school is most often remembered as the Asheville Normal and Teachers College.

At the reunion, Miriam Plexico, a 1942 graduate of the college, recalled Roosevelt’s trip. Despite graduating, Plexico continued working at the campus post office that summer. “Every day she would get a letter from the White House, and I would take it over to her,” Plexico said.

The final night of the First Lady’s trip, Plexico and others joined Roosevelt in the living room of Pease Hall. “I’ll never forget it,” Plexico said. “She got down on the floor with us, and we sat around talking. She was terrific, absolutely terrific.”

The Asheville Citizen at the time noted the topics were “everything from colleges to politics to gardenias.” When Roosevelt left the next morning, students leaned out of dormitory windows yelling, “goodbye, Eleanor. Come back and see us,” according to Plexico.

The summer of 1942 was different for Asheville, and Roosevelt’s visit was a bright spot in an uncertain time. It was less than a year since the U.S. joined World War II, and some locals were fighting overseas or related to someone who was deployed. All the while, Asheville Normal and Teachers College was inching closer to its end, despite attempts to survive without primary funding from the church.

Roosevelt took notice of the college’s financial problems. After her trip, she penned a newspaper column for United Feature Syndicate in which she discusses the college’s history, educational model and struggles. At one point in the column, she makes an indirect appeal for “new support” to fund building repairs and the hiring of additional teachers. She believed help could come from those who wanted “young people (to) get a more liberal education.”

By the time the First Lady traveled to Warren Wilson Junior College in March 1945, Asheville Normal and Teachers College had been closed for seven months.

With each passing year, the number of living ANTC graduates drops, but the ANTC Alumnae Association continues to hold annual meetings at Warren Wilson College. The 95th consecutive gathering was Aug. 5. The seven attending graduates, all in their 90s, were Margaret Stamey Royster, class of 1940; Sarah Robinson Lowery and Frances Tomblin Mann, class of 1941; Helen Anest Hampton and Miriam Clark Plexico, class of 1942; and Marie Enskey Ledbetter and Ruth Clay Moore, class of 1943.

“It was such a wonderful school,” said Mann, who is celebrating the 75th anniversary of her graduation. “It was a wonderful place to be.”

Asheville Normal and Teachers College’s former students, who Roosevelt called “pure American stock,” spent the last 72 years preserving the school’s memory. The alumnae association endowed a scholarship and built a memorial residence hall, with an endowed fund for maintenance, at Warren Wilson College. In the last year, two students have received more than $30,000 through the ANTC Scholarship.

As Plexico once said in an interview with Owl & Spade, the Warren Wilson College magazine, “I think (ANTC) had a real spot in everyone’s heart, and it had to for us to still be doing this.”