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50 years later, the move that changed Winston-Salem
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Wake Forest has helped weave the city's fabric

50 years later, the move that changed Winston-Salem

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On Sept. 13, 1956, students at Wake Forest College started the school year with the usual speeches, bookstore lines and new class schedules - only this time they were going to class on a new campus, in a new town, one that didn't share the school's name.

"Return to Wake Forest and you realize you can't go home again," one professor told freshmen at convocation. "You can't go back."

It has been 50 years since Wake Forest College uprooted itself from the town of Wake Forest and moved to Winston-Salem, and the once-simple relationship between a school and a city has grown more complex. These days, it's hard to find a part of the city that Wake Forest doesn't touch. The university and its affiliates are now the largest employers, and the school has shaped Winston-Salem's culture and identity, its economy and its future.

"With a university, people think you must have a community that includes people with culture and intellectual pursuits," said Gayle Anderson, the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce - "that you're not just some little sleepy city in the middle of nowhere."

The deal

The idea was so sensational that some people still euphemistically call it "the Removal": Wake Forest College, 19 miles north of Raleigh, was leaving the town that shared its name.

Winston-Salem's money had already lured part of the school. In 1935, Bowman Gray, the president of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., died and left $750,000 to Wake Forest if it would move its medical school, then a two-year institution hungry for funding. The school came to Winston-Salem in 1941.

The offer for the rest of the college came at the right time.

Wake Forest wasn't rich and wasn't big. Pushed to capacity by a flood of returning World War II veterans on the GI Bill, it was already in the middle of a fund-raising campaign for new classrooms and dorms.

The news about the deal broke on the night of Monday, March 25, 1946.

Wake Forest's trustees were supposed to hold a special session the next day, but they couldn't keep a lid on the state's newspapers. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation had offered the college up to $350,000 a year if the college moved to Winston-Salem.

Land for a new campus came shortly after: Charles and Mary Babcock (one of R.J. Reynolds' two daughters) offered the college about 350 acres of fields and woods at Reynolda, their estate. The college would have to find the money to build classrooms and dorms.

Some at Wake Forest thought that a move would be the catalyst for bigger and better things.

There were those who felt that the school, tucked into the forests of northern Wake County, sat squarely in the shadows cast by larger and wealthier institutions nearby, namely N.C. State College, Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

Under the agreement, Wake Forest could keep its name and its ties with the N.C. Baptist Convention.

The Reynolds foundation's assets were then estimated be worth about $10 million - about $100 million in today's dollars. Its offer was a generous, almost overwhelming gift. But it asked a lot in return, and the college's move wasn't accepted without question. One pastor at a meeting of the state's Baptists leaders later in 1946 held up a pack of Camels in one hand, and the Bible in the other. He "said this is what it was all about," said Ed Hendricks, a Wake Forest professor who teaches a course about the school's history.

"If you put it crassly as that, it was about money," said Murray Greason, the vice-chairman of Wake Forest's board of trustees and a 1959 graduate. "The Reynolds family offered all the real estate, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation offered us what was then a princely sum. But the plan was not just to have money but to serve North Carolina better."

Edwin Wilson graduated from the college in 1943. He would go on to be a provost on the new campus, but he first heard about the Reynolds offer as a 23-year-old waiting out the last few months of his Navy duty in California.

"We had a vague idea that it was a very attractive offer," he said recently. "Mainly, my feeling as an alum was that I wouldn't have a campus to come back to."

A new home

In 1946, Winston-Salem was North Carolina's second-largest city. The 1950 Census counted nearly 88,000 residents compared to Wake Forest's 3,700. It was a manufacturing town, ruled by cigarettes and apparel, by Reynolds and the other big companies.

What it didn't have was a major college that could attract the kind of prestige that the city's white movers and shakers wanted in the then-segregated South. Winston-Salem State University was still a teachers' college for blacks. Salem College was small and exclusively for women.

Winston-Salem residents and companies gave $1.5 million to the new campus' building campaign.

City businessmen weren't immune to the economic influence of 2,000 college students, either. Though the college wouldn't move for another 10 years, a new restaurant and a new nightclub planned on opening just a few months after Baptist leaders accepted the Reynolds offer.

For their part, some faculty members worried that they would be moving to a company town, where there were workers and bosses and few others in between.

"There was this idea … rich people lived on Stratford Road," Wilson said, "and poor people worked in the mills, and there wasn't anyone in between. It's an exaggeration. But there was a great deal of wealth and a large laboring class, and I believe in a way we did something that was in between."

Wake Forest's professors would build solid-looking brick ranch houses on Faculty Drive, a winding road bordering the new campus. They would move to Winston-Salem with their wives and husbands, their children and their dogs, along with their books, their academic culture and their expectations of what a city should be. Some credit the school with helping build the city's middle class.

Work began in 1952 on the college's first building, what would become Wait Chapel. Moving day, however, was pushed back again and again. Wake Forest's total bill rose from the initial $6 million proposed by trustees in 1946 to more than three times that amount - $20 million, when the college finally moved 10 years later.

The last graduation on the old campus was on May 22, 1956. By June 18, about 600 students started summer school on their new campus.

"When you look at Wake Forest now," Wilson said recently, "with all the landscaping and all the flowers and all the trees grown to good size, it's only in your memory that things looked scraggly. You'd walk across the campus, and there'd still be ground where the grass hadn't grown in and there'd be mud on your feet."

Winston-Salem marked the college's first September in its new city with an elaborate "Salute to Wake Forest" celebration. A cast of 300 acted out a dramatic interpretation of the school's and city's histories. Wilson, by then a young English professor at his alma mater, remembers walking down a red carpet into Memorial Coliseum, where each faculty member was introduced.

But it would take a while for the city and the college to feel at home with one another.

Even by 1961, the number of Wake Forest alumni in Forsyth County was slightly more than 1,100. "You'd go to basketball games," Wilson said, "and there'd be more people cheering for Carolina than Wake Forest, because

we were not the home team, so to speak, and it took a while for that to change."

Back in Wake Forest, life had orbited around the college. The Old Gold and Black, the student newspaper, reminded readers about town elections. Weeks before the college packed up and moved west, shopkeepers took out advertisements thanking students for their business. The old campus became Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The new campus was more independent, with its own post office, drugstore, bank and barbershop - and somewhat insular.

"Wake Forest was put in a field - a beautiful field - but a field," Wilson said. "There was hardly any place for students to go off campus to eat, so there was a kind of isolation at first."

Town and gown

Through the 1960s and '70s, the college on Reynolda Road had a tendency to keep to itself.

The school was involved in a decades-long struggle for independence from its Baptist ties even as it was growing in enrollment, endowment and programs. Then, too, colleges simply weren't expected to be the economic engines that many of them are today. "It was almost like it was going against their academic mission," Mayor Allen said.

That distance was mutual. The city's manufacturing giants were still humming along, including Reynolds, which had grown from a tobacco company to an international conglomerate, RJR Nabisco.

"Of course, for a long time, Winston-Salem was really a city that didn't need help," Joines said. "I guess we weren't really hungry for other resources."

In the 1980s, everything changed.

The city's self-esteem and its companies were battered in 1987. USAir bought out Piedmont Airlines. RJR Nabisco moved its top executives to Atlanta, then sold itself in a corporate buyout a year later. In 1988, AT&T shut down a 3,300-employee plant.

"You would have thought a bomb had dropped here when Reynolds decided to pull out its world headquarters," said Martha Wood, who was a city alderman, then mayor, from 1981 to 1997. "You saw this happening around you, and when I ran for mayor, I had to ask myself, 'Is this city dying? What does it have going for it? What does it have that it can build on?'"

One answer was education.

By then, Winston-Salem had attracted the N.C. School of the Arts, a public arts conservatory. Winston-Salem State University had become part of the UNC system and changed its name from Winston-Salem Teachers' College.

And Wake Forest was on the rise.

In 1984, Thomas Hearn, a senior administrator at the University of Alabama, became Wake Forest's 12th president, the third one to lead the school in Winston-Salem.

He came with a reputation for reaching out to the world beyond academe. The city's economic doldrums would push Hearn into a more visible role than any Wake Forest president before him.

"I've heard people say Wake Forest had a saving touch when it moved here 50 years ago," Hearn said recently, "but it really wasn't ready to undertake that role until I came here."

Hearn is credited with, in particular, his help in starting Winston-Salem Business Inc. A private-business group, it was focused on recruiting jobs and companies in the wake of the Reynolds buyout and other corporate shuffling. Two years ago, the group helped lure Dell Inc. to Forsyth County. Hearn was the group's chairman during its first three years.

"From one perspective, the success of our economic founding fathers was our undoing. Our economic plight developed over many years, and it is naive to imagine that it will be rapidly solved," Hearn wrote in a guest column in the Winston-Salem Journal in 1990.

As the city struggled to breathe life back into its economy, Wake Forest flourished. After a name change in 1967, the university added a business school in 1969 and a divinity school in 1999, built a soaring student center filled with artwork and comfortable study nooks, and apartments for upperclassmen instead of dorms. It was the first college in the country to give its students laptops, including them in the sharply rising price of tuition.

"You cannot escape that moving was the greatest thing that could happen to Wake Forest College," Greason said.

Wake Forest's endowment grew past $900 million. Twice, presidential candidates debated in Wait Chapel. With its affiliated entities, the university, Baptist Hospital and the medical school became the largest private employer in Forsyth County. Today they employ more than 13,000 people.

In 1994, researchers from the medical school's physiology and pharmacology departments moved into one of Reynolds' vacant downtown buildings, followed by chemists from Winston-Salem State University and an engineering-research center.

More than 10 years later, Piedmont Triad Research Park has added buildings, land and labs, but it is still a work in progress. Some of its coveted biotech tenants have come and gone. Wake Forest officials leading the project hope that the ones who remain are the seeds for what will eventually be a 180-acre park shared by area colleges and scientific startups, with thousands of scientists, lab technicians, researchers and inventors.

Growing more isolated

Even as university administrators became more involved in the city they lived in, there were complaints that in other ways the college - always somewhat removed from the city's core by its location 4 miles from downtown - was growing more isolated and less sensitive to its neighbors.

Through the 1980s and '90s, residents near campus complained about the trash, noise and parking problems caused by their rowdy, college-age neighbors. Meetings between city and campus police and college officials eventually resulted in a strict new policy for students living off campus.

Then there was the 10-year fight to replace the city-owned Memorial Coliseum, where Wake Forest played basketball. City voters rejected issuing bonds in 1976, then again during an especially bitter fight in 1979.

In 1985, city leaders tried again. This time, WFU offered to chip in $4 million for the $24 million complex. Despite some worry that the coliseum would be only a "shrine to Wake Forest basketball," the third time was the charm. The bond passed in a landslide later that year. Wake Forest is now Joel Coliseum's major tenant.

Some city and county leaders think that WFU could pull still more of its weight. One longstanding point of contention between some city and county officials and the university is the large amount of property that Wake Forest and its affiliated hospital own but, as nonprofit institutions, don't pay taxes on.

"I think … there are other aspects of support that Wake could invest in," said Wanda Merschel, the city council member for the Northwest Ward, which includes Wake Forest.

But professors and researchers buy homes and shop, said Nathan Hatch, who became president last year.

Duke University gives Durham a voluntary donation of $300,000 a year for fire services and has a history of contributing other money to the city. There aren't any signs that Wake Forest will reach for its pocketbook in a similar way here, though city officials are talking to leaders at Baptist Hospital about how it can help lower health-care costs for city employees.

Wake Forest is a wealthy institution, but Hatch said that there are limits to what the university can do.

"I wouldn't ever want to say that we're doing everything (we can)," he said. "If an undergraduate pays for their tuition, you have to look at how we spend their money. People don't pay tuition to Wake Forest to invest in Winston-Salem."

City leaders promote Wake Forest as hub of intellect in a new economy based more on brains than brawn. At the same time, they seem to struggle to get its students just to come eat at new downtown restaurants, let alone stay on for internships, first jobs and apartments. There is talk of a shuttle or a bus between the city's colleges and downtown, or of the university taking on a major service project, but those things have yet to happen.

These 50 years later, the college and the city have both had trouble re-creating a feeling of community left behind on the old campus.

"The school doesn't do a great job of offering possibilities downtown or advertising possibilities downtown," said John Reynolds, 22, who graduated with a bachelor's degree from WFU in May.

"Even though there was a fence all around the old Wake Forest," said Reynolds (no relation to R.J. Reynolds), "it is hard to tell where the campus ends and community begins. And that is a very, very clear distinction on the current Wake Forest."

- Laura Giovanelli can be reached at 727-7302 or at lgiovanelli@wsjournal.com.

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