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Carl Conner Oral History<hr>
This oral history was conducted by Dr. Mary Jo Bratton on October 21, 1981 as she was conducting research for her book, East Carolina University: the Formative Years, 1907-1982. It has been edited for presentation here.

Citation for this article is: Record Group FS0000, Series 1 Mary Jo Bratton Papers, Sub-series 1 Oral History Tapes, Rev. Carl Conner Oral History, October 21, 1981.

Carl Conner was a student at East Carolina Teachers College between 1947 and 1951. He became editor of the student newspaper, the Teco Echo and was very active in the Young Democrats Club during his time at ECTC. Excerpts from his oral history are presented below.


 
CC: I took my entire freshman English under Lois Grigsby. I had gotten into, I had always been interested in journalism, historic information in Bertie County, my home county. I had started doing some research on some things there that noone had ever written on and started doing a number of historic articles, feature articles. In fact, somewhere in my files, I've got stacks of these. As I Look back on them now, they seem very amateurish, but I was just a freshman and you wouldn't expect one yet that they would publish. So during that period of time, I did some relating to East Carolina, and one of the things I got into was Slay Hall. Nothing had ever been done about Slay, so I suggested to Dr. Messick that the new dorm be named Slay Hall, and it was.

MB: You were an English major?

CC: I was an English major and a History Education minor.

MB: Then you went into journalism?

CC: I went to the University of Minnesota for my master's. I actually took it in the School of Journalism, but I took the major in public relations and a minor in political science. Then I studied modern Hebrew and went to Israel and spent an entire summer studying the industrialization of the kibbutzim systems.

MB: Was this back in the early fifties? CC: This was in the fifties, 1952, the summer of 1952. I just returned from Israel again in November, but the first time I took a six-month concentrated conversational course in Hebrew at the University of Minnesota, modern Hebrew. Then I studied for three months in Israel modern Hebrew plus the industrialization of the kibbutzim system.

MB: That is very interesting, a diverse background. And then you went into the ministry?

CC: From newspapers, yes.

MB: Do you do any writing anymore?

CC: I do a tremendous amount of writing.

MB: Other than sermons?

CC: Yes, I've done, I would say, probably the largest amount of my writing, this is copies of it, is what I call "how to" type things. How to do this and how to do that. I recently did an article on church purchasing policies, for example.

Now I went to East Carolina from Bertie County and arrived with the influx of veterans in 1947, the fall of 1947.

MB: You were a freshman?

CC: Yes. And at the time, there had been such an influx of veterans, they had only one dormitory called Wilson Hall for men and by the time I got there and had gotten my application in, it had been filled. So I lived on Holly Street. I think it was 405 Holly Street which is right across the street from the campus. We thought at first that this was going to be a temporary situation and that I would move into the dormitory, but the Willards, who lived there, were very, very kind folks, and they had the entire upstairs of their home that they turned over. There were two large bedrooms and a small bedroom and a bath. There were a number of boys who rented the whole upstairs. I graduated in three years and two quarters.

MB: You went two summers?

CC: I went one summer. I just took extra heavy loads with everything else. So we spent the entire time in the private home which was just a half block off campus.

MB: It was probably a lot more convenient.

CC: Yes.

Then there was a notice on the bulletin board regarding the newspaper and Miss Grigsby came to me and said, "Mr. Conner, I notice in your themes and all that you have a flair for writing. Why don't you go down and join the newspaper staff?"

Well, having come from a small high school and a small county like Bertie, I figured well, I couldn't do it. I know there were many kids here that had come from large schools. I just couldn't do it. So I didn't go. So a few days later, she saw me and she asked me, "Did you go to the staff meeting?" I said, "No, I didn't." She rather insisted that I really ought to do it. So I went to the staff meeting and met Mary Greene, who was the supervisor and taught a couple of courses in journalism that they had then. I started in it and to my amazement I discovered that there weren't many there who had much in journalism. That I probably had as much if not more in terms of experience. So I got in and worked real hard.

Amos Clark and Eller, I forgot her last name, but I can look it up in the annual, I've got the annual right here, were the co-editors. And to my utter amazement, and I made no application and had no dream or aspiration or anything else, when the publications committee met in the fall of 1948, Amos Clark came back and said, "You have been elected editor."

MB: You were a junior?

CC: I was a freshman, a rising sophomore. I was dumbfounded because at that time, I think, all the editors had been juniors, rising seniors. He said, "Well, you were the only one that had the ability to handle the layout of it." Now Charles Williams, who is now an attorney in Harnett County, was the managing editor at the time, and he was running for it and he didn't get it. He was very disappointed. I was shocked because as I said, I was just a freshman when I was elected. One or two of the faculty members were very opposed to it. I remember Miss [Louise] Williams, who taught math, was very much opposed to it. Marguerite Austin wasn't very happy about it, and Ellen Rion Caldwell was a little unhappy about it. These three faculty members who knew me felt like it would, and it probably did, jeopardize my academics, well in what I had started out because I had started out as a math major.

And Miss Williams was very unhappy about it. But I di dnot have the background for the math. Again, I had come from a little school with very limited math and I was in here with kids that had had two years of algebra and a half year of trig[onometry], and I just couldn't cut it, so I dropped out of it.

Getting into journalism, the nearest best thing for me was to major in English and take all the journalism they had and all the creative writing, so I went in this direction. I became very involved in the coursework with Martha Pingel, Dr. Pingel, and she taught me creative writing. She was very young. She had just finished her doctor's degree from Columbia University at twenty-four years of age. She had her master's and doctor's from there and she was very good in creative writing. And she took an interest in me and pushed me. I took all the courses she taught. She was a very challenging teacher. She inspired everybody that took courses under here. So I went into the direction of creative writing and journalism.

I actually assumed the editorship the last week of my freshman year which was the first time in history, I guess. Then I served my sophomore and junior years and could have had it my senior year which would really have broken the record. I was the first to serve two years.

I ran for student president. There was a big bunch that ran that year and I did not make it. So I just dropped out and concentrated my last two quarters on my academic studies and stayed out of politics pretty much that last year.

MB: You were in there [newspaper editorship] three years?

CC: Yes, three years and two quarters. The newspaper office was in the basement of the old Austin Building right in the corner. If you faced the Austin Building, it would have been in left-hand corner downstairs in the basement. Across the hall was a big room. I guess it was twice as big as this office. It head the addressograph equipment in it, and the Alumni Office used the addressograph equipment in there and we used it for staff meetings. So it was used by the Alumni Office and by the newspaper office for staff. During that period of time, I gathered a lot of historic pictures.

You may find some of the negatives that I took in 1949, 1950 and even in 1951. I owned my first camera at the time and had gotten into it. And I had a cousin who taught me photography and developing.

MB: You did your own developing?

CC: Yes.

So, as I started to tell you, I came there with the influx of veterans in 1947 and Dr. Messick, that was his first year. We met, as I told you, at church and he would call me up, usually late afternoon. Agnes Barrett would call me and say, "Mr. Conner," she was always very formal and never called me by my first name. "Mr. Conner, Dr. Messick would like to see you, please." She would call the Alumni Office, because, if I remember correctly, we didn't have a telephone in the newspaper office. So the Alumni Office would come down and tell me that Dr. Messick's secretary was calling and I'd go over there and we would sit and talk. During this period of time and I think this was my second year as editor, I wrote the editorial about changing the name to East Carolina College, and he called me in and wanted to know what my criteria was and why I had written it. When I explained my thought, he agreed with me, and that following spring he took it to the legislature and got it changed.

I never will forget also writing an article about the, I had a little column in the paper, and I had gone over one morning for breakfast and the toast was awful. It was so hard. It had been cooked in the oven because in those days they didn't have toasters and they put big trays in the oven, and when it came out in a few minutes time, it would be so hard that you could break it and it would shatter in every direction. I had written an editorial about the poor food, which of course every student editor has done at one time or another. And I'm trying to remember the business manager's name.

MB: Fitzhugh Duncan.

CC: Yes, Mr. Duncan. Well, he called me over and was always very formal and very austere, and he said, "Mr. Conner, we saw the editorial in the column you wrote about the food and were wondering what the problem was." I said, "Mr. Duncan, it's very simple. I went over for breakfast and the toast had been cooked in the oven and it was so hard that you could break it and it would shatter in every direction." Well, in a matter of days, they had a huge big toaster installed in the cafeteria.

MB: You were impressed with the power of the pen, I bet.

CC: There were a number of things that I pushed through over the years. It was really funny.

MB: It is impressive what the written word does . . .

CC: It has the power. I'm sure that in the several years there besides suggesting the name of Slay Hall and having the suggestion accepted, and suggesting the change in name and having that accepted and little things like getting a new toaster in the cafeteria is real funny. I was the one who got the annual dedicated to Joyner as a result of getting into blank that year. Let's see, what year that would be. Here is 1948 and 1949.

MB: I've been studying the annuals, but I haven't got it down.

CC: Here it is, I wrote that.

MB: You worked on the annual too?

CC: No, I went with Fields, who was the editor, to take that picture of him. As you can see, he was quite an old man.

MB: It is quite a nice picture.

Had things settled down by the time you were a freshman? Were you aware of the problems that they had had with Meadows?

CC: Yes. It was, your older faculty members still carried a tinge of feeling about this. In fact, two or three of them discussed it with me. I remember Miss Grigsby was very, very much touched by it. She sort of felt that he was not a thief, but that he was a man who made the terrible mistake of keeping very poor records and that he had misappropriated it perhaps in terms of record keeping, but that indeed he was not a thief. She would tell me about it and cry. She felt very deeply about it.

I remember one time she would sit and talk with me about it. We were very close to her. She seemed to like me and got me pushed toward journalism. When I got interested in the history as a result of her work and started working on it, she shared with me her relationship with him. She had served on some of the executive faculty boards and she talked about it. But the older faculty members that were there during that period of time still held a real strong torch for him that he had been, I think some of them felt he had actually been framed.

Among other things, Miss Grigsby felt that he had taken the money and used it for improvements on campus, particularly for shrubs and sidewalks.

And incidentally, this is something that you can probably still check on and it is very interesting. All over that campus there are holes bored in that concrete in the sidewalks where, during the state investigation, they came out there and actually bored holes in the sidewalks and took up samples of the concrete to analyze it to see if he had actually spent what he claimed he did for the concrete. So if you'll look, that is an interesting historic sideline. Of course, Miss Grigsby pointed these out to me. Several places on the sidewalks you could still see, I'm confident, today, holes bored. And no one else would probably even know what they were for and think they were nothing but holes bored in the concrete in the sidewalks. I can remember some of these things so vividly and talking brings them back to me.

MB: Dr. Messick, then, when you came and all the time you were there, I guess he made a very good impression.

CC: Dr. Messick was always very suave and he came in like oil on the water. He had a tremendous amount of charisma.

MB: He still does.

CC: People were swept off their feet by him. And of course, he had had training as a minister, so he was a very eloquent speaker.

MB: I didn't know about that.

CC: Yes. On e of the first chapels, in fact, I think the very first chapel. He read in the chapel from John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son," etc., etc. He spoke almost like a sermon on God's love. This was the first chapel services. This was over in the old Wright auditorium, and people were just swept off their feet by his charisma, and he talked as smooth as silk and had a very winning smile. You never saw him when he wasn't smiling. He had quite a bit of charisma. Dr. Jenkins was the formal, austere, quiet, sophisticated one.

MB: Really?

CC: Oh, yes.

MB: Isn't that interesting? I have seen him only in the later years and he was . . . I guess he has gotten much more relaxed.

CC: Well, he was always a little austere. He would call me in occasionally about something related to news stories and he was always very formal.

MB: He was the Dean when you were there and I guess that he was very busy with the daily operation.

CC: Yes. Dr. Messick, of course, very shortly got on a first name basis with me, but Dr. Jenkins rarely called me by my first name. He was always very formal and very austere and a little lofty, I thought. But he would call me in occasionally, "Mr. Conner, we would appreciate your putting an article in the paper about such and such." You see, and of course it didn't originate with me by any stretch of the imagination, but the student editors there carried a lot of power and authority because of the fact that they were the ones that got these charges brought up against Dr. Meadows. And I think there was always a little suspicion and fear of the student newspaper editor because they had seen that it was a very powerful position.

MB: What they could do.

CC: Yes. It was a very powerful position even as a student editor.

Incidentally, my graduate study, I did my graduate thesis on the censorship and control of the forty-two daily college newspapers. There were forty-two at the time in the United States. I don't know how many there are now, but I got interested in this study.

MB: That is a very interesting topic, censorship. Did you find that they were pretty well . . .

CC: Well, I did a correlated study of administrators and editors, and the editors said "Yes" and the administrators said, "No." That was interesting. Of course, we define censorship, prior censorship and post censorship and so on and so forth.

But I think there was a little apprehension about what an editor would do that might stir up. And incidentally, Miss Greene always took the attitude that if it is truthful and you can back it up, then you have the right to publish it. She gave this extremely wide latitude. She was never a censor. She told me when I came in, "Now Carl, you do what you want to, and I am here to help you." She was a very humorous person. She would curse a blue streak and yet she would never do it publicly. And she would only do it around me when she would be, I worked with her in the News Bureau, typing away on a news release and she would make a mistake and she would say, "Hellfire!" She would laugh and say, "Pardon my French," and she would go on. But we were very close to her. Finally, she took a summer's vacation. The only summer vacation that she had ever taken and I served as director of the News Bureau that summer. First time that had ever occurred.

MB: Was that during your junior and senior year?

CC: Yes, during my junior-senior year. I served as the full director of the News Bureau for that summer, the first time a student had ever served. She took a summer's vacation and just turned it over to me. I had her office, daily conferences almost with the dean and the president, so forth and so on, which was very interesting. We were very close. She just took the attitude that "I feel like you know what you are doing, and as long as it is the truth and you are not getting into yellow journalism and muckracking, I'll allow you do to whatever." So I had extremely wide latitude under her. She never read the material. She put out a great deal of news and she would always furnish me with her news releases. And sometimes I would edit them or reduce them in length and use these. So she was very helpful.

MB: So you feel like you got a good education at East Carolina?

CC: A lot of it was not in the classroom.

MB: No, but the whole experience.

CC: I took advantage of a lot of things that many students probably didn't. I was interested, I had taken piano and organ, so I took in all the concerts, and so I got a pretty broad background in cultural things from the concerts more than some students did.

Then I was interested in politics. I was in the YDC [Young Democrats Club] and as a sophomore was elected president of my home-county club, which was a little unusual. I served two years on the state board with Terry Sanford when he was president. In fact, it was predicted that I would be the next, not after Terry, but would be governor in the area because I was so interested in politics and really had quite a wide acceptance among the "wheels" of that day and time. Then when I left the state and went on for a graduate program and went more into the journalism and such, and then I took my first job as editor of a daily newspaper at Niles, Ohio. I guess I was the youngest daily newspaper editor in the country at the time, I was twenty-four. So leaving the state, had I stayed in the state I would probably have stayed in politics, but that was my swan song in politics. I took a turn and ended up in full-time ministry.

You might be interested in a little bit of the difference, some of the changes. You see Dr. Messick and the Board at the time would never allow fraternities, so there were no fraternities there as such when I was present. There were no social fraternities. The only fraternities were the academic fraternities. The moral standards of the college were extremely high when I was there. In fact, interestingly enough, several years later I taught in one of our denominational schools, liberal arts college, and I made a comment to the fact that East Carolina had stronger and higher moral standards as a state college than some of your church related schools did by some years later.

I can remember, for example, in my junior year that I had gone to church and had met a young lady that I subsequently married. I was coming back from church on a Sunday morning during the summertime, and she and I were walking along hand-in-hand, swinging hands. This was on Sunday. Monday morning I got a call from Dr. Messick, "Would I please come over?" again Agnes Barrett. So I went in and he said, "Mr. Conner, an acquaintance of mine saw you coming home from church." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yes. You know I don't think it looks nice for our young men walking along holding hands with the girls in public. I think you probably would do well to cease that practice." Which I thought was a little extreme.

So the things that went on, any problems that went on or any deviation from this or even drinking was very, very hush-hush. Of course, they would have sent a kid home for drinking. My wife, for example, came in five minutes late at Cotten Hall, and she was vice-president of the dormitory. She had gone to church and they had had a social or gone out for coffee or refreshments after church and she got in five minutes late after the dorm closed. It closed, I guess, at eleven o'clock on Sunday night. She came in at five minutes after and she got ten demerits. Fifteen would ship you in those days.

MB: Your wife graduated from East Carolina?

CC: Yes.

MB: What is her name?

CC: Sarah Hege. Through me, she got interested in, I served two years on the student government and two years on the executive council, and she ran my last year for student secretary of the student government and was elected and served on it. Bot of us, of course, were in "Who's Who."

So anything of this type that went on was always extremely hush-hush, because again, the moral standards, the drinking and otherwise, were extremely stringent. They would send you home for almost anything in those days.

MB: You said you minored in history?

CC: Yes.

MB: So you had, I guess, Dr. [Arthur] Frank?

CC: No. Strangely enough in all of the history that I took, I never had Dr. Frank. I had [Lawrence] Brewster and [Howard] Clay and [Paul] Murray. I remember Brewster and Clay. I never had a course under Dr. Frank. He was still there, but for some reason or another. I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't nearly have a major in history. I concentrated in U.S. and American history, so I didn't have Dr. Frank.

MB: He taught European history?

CC: He taught European history, I think.

MB: He must have.

CC: Dr. Clay was extremely brilliant lecturer. I don't know if you knew him or not.

MB: I went there in 1967 and he was there a year or two before he retired.

CC: Dr. Clay never used notes. He would walk into his room and he would sort of throw his hands behind him like this and go around and start walking off the other way and start lecturing just a mile a minute and they just spilled out like that. He was an extremely easy person to take notes under, and as a result, and his tests followed his notes implicitly. He was very easy to make good grads under because he told you exactly what he was going to test you on. And when I say, told you, his notes were exactly what you got tested on. If you sat and listened and took good notes, you had no problem. And he was an extremely, extremely brilliant lecturer because he knew the material and he could just stand there and without referring to a note or book just spill it off by the yard. And sometimes he would lecture for thirty-five or forty minutes in a forty-five minute period, and just turn around and say, "Class dismissed." You would go and that was just the end of it for the day.

Now I took a lot of my work from Miss. Greene.

MB: Did you have Miss [Emma] Hooper?

CC: No, I never had Miss Hooper. IN the English Department I had Miss Grigsby. I took all my Freshman Composition under her. I had Dr. [Alice] Turner for World Masterpieces. I took all of the Age of Reason and this type of thing under Dr. Pingel. I took Advanced Grammar under [Edward] Rutan.

I took Poetry Forms and Journalism under Miss Greene. We started off in Shakespeare under her and I would have much preferred to have Shakespeare under her, but her class was full and they had to divide it and they had to put part of us under Dr. [George] Knipp. Dr. Knipp was hard. I think we covered fourteen plays in one quarter.

MB: That's quite ambitious.

CC: In the final examination, he would give you long quotes and you had to identify the play and the person who said it and what the occasion was. When you are dealing with fourteen Shakespearean plays in one quarter, it was . . . I made a "B" on the course and considered myself extremely fortunate. It was extremely hard the way he tested. You take again, fourteen plays!

MB: That is one a week.

CC: It was not easy.

I took an interesting course under a Miss Rice in Biology and she was teaching, I took three quarters of Biology, the quarter that dealt quite a bit with trees. I had been reared in eastern North Carolina and my dad was in the lumber business, and I knew every major tree that grew. She found this out and she called me one day and she said, "Mr. Conner, would you wait after class?" I stopped, and she said, "Do you know the common names of most of the trees around here?" I said, "Sure, I know them all." She said, "Would you go out with me one day and walk across campus and identify them for me?" I said, "Yes."

So we spent an afternoon and I identified all the common names of all the trees. She had a project where you had to gather, I think, fifty or one hundred leaves and had to identify them. She said, "It would be plumb foolish for you to even do it. Ignore it. I'll give you an 'A' on the course anyway because you already know the material." So I didn't do anything except help her. I'd walk out with her and help her to identify them. She had a chart that she could use to look them up, but she didn't know all the common names. So that was interesting.

MB: Did they have the arboretum then?

CC: Yes.

MB: Behind Graham?

CC: Yes, it was still there.

MB: Did they have a lake there when you were there?

CC: There was. It was almost gone. It was almost a mudhole. It was practically dried up and there was very little of it left.

MB: I guess this was an earlier annual that had pictures of that looked very impressive.

CC: There was a laundry down there on the edge of the arboretum. Of course, the arboretum was not really kept up very well after we got there. It was falling into disrepair. They were putting the money into other areas, particularly buildings.