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May 2013 graduate Mary Highsmith is the fourth generation of family members who have graduated from East Carolina University. (Photo by Jay Clark)


Pirate roots span four generations of ECU graduates

May 6, 2013

By Steve Tuttle
ECU News Services

Leona Cox ended up on the front row when the 48 seniors in East Carolina Teacher Training School’s Class of 1915 gathered on the steps of Old Austin for their graduation photo. “There she is in the middle,” said her great-granddaughter, senior Mary Highsmith, as she points to the now 98-year-old photo.

“What I am really hoping to do is to get accepted to graduate school here,” Highsmith said, “because that would mean I get my masters degree in 2015, exactly 100 years after the first one of our family.”

Highsmith, who will complete her bachelor’s degree in health and human performance in May, was accepted into the master’s degree program in speech-language pathology offered by the College of Allied Health Sciences.

She is the fourth generation of her family to graduate from East Carolina, a fact that the university historian said is rare.

The East Carolina tradition that Leona Cox Dexter started in 1915 was continued by her daughter, Catherine Dexter Highsmith, who got her bachelor’s here in 1949 and a master’s in 1958.
"It's rare, even very rare" to have ECU graduates in four generations of one family.
  John Tucker, ECU Historian

She was followed here by her daughter, Janet Blackburn, who got her bachelor’s in 1978 and a master’s in 1985. Pupils in Pender County and Burgaw were taught by those three generations of East Carolina graduates.

Highsmith said the tradition followed by her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother won’t end with her. “One of my children will be the fifth generation,” she said matter-of-factly.

Highsmith said she initially thought of going somewhere else. “In high school I first applied to go to UNC-Wilmington because it was close to home,” she said.

“My mother and grandmother didn’t lobby me to come to East Carolina,” Highsmith added. “They just said they thought it would be a good fit. And they were right. I am so glad I came here for lots of reasons, and one is what this means to my family.”

It’s a bond made all the more tangible by the mementoes passed down to her. Highsmith enjoys looking at her great-grandmother’s 1915 ECTTS graduation program, pictures of her grandmother as an East Carolina Teachers College student in the 1940s, and pictures of her mother as an East Carolina University student in the 1970s.

University historian John Tucker said “it’s rare, even very rare” to have ECU graduates in four generations of one family.

This case is all the more unusual, Tucker said, because the bond between Highsmith’s family and East Carolina date all the way back to the school’s earliest incarnation as a teacher training school. ECTTS was just starting its third year when Highsmith’s great-grandmother arrived. “That person has family roots that date all the way back to the institution as it began,” he said.