Friday, May 9, 2014

Why This Place Means Something To Me

NC State graduation, on a windy day in 1988.

We all have our allegiances. Mine is to NC State, for the educational opportunity it provided me three decades ago and for the job I have now. I suppressed that as best I could for the 20 years I tried to objectively cover Atlantic Coast Conference football and basketball for newspapers, magazines and other national media outlets.

But the truth is, I grew up a fan of the Wolfpack, living and dying with the outcome of various athletic events. I was hooked after watching David Thompson, Monte Towe and Tommy Burleson a few times during the 1974 NCAA championship season, thanks to Castleman D. Chesley and his ACC Games of the Week. That affection was solidified my senior year of high school, after I was accepted into NC State’s mechanical engineering program, when Jim Valvano took the Cardiac Pack on the ride of a lifetime.

Athletics, however, is not the primary reason for my attachment to North Carolina’s largest university. I’ve never really said this out loud, because… Well, I don’t really know why.

The attachment comes from my family, though none of them ever attended NC State. In fact, until my two aunts went to Appalachian State Teachers College in the 1960s, no one on the scraggly limbs of my family tree ever had the opportunity for a higher education. They were farmers, textile mill workers and furniture makers, surviving as best they could in the rural western part of the state.

We come from a long line of pre-Revolutionary German immigrants. Our first ancestor, Anthony B├╝hler (or Biehler), came over from the Palatine area of Germany in on the merchant ship the Robert and Alice in 1738: Rotterdam to Dover to Philadelphia. His two sons, with the Americanized surname Peeler, came to North Carolina shortly thereafter.

Members of our family were in the American Revolution, the Civil War (C.S.A.), World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf war and both Afghanistan and Iraq. They did that not as much out of a sense of patriotism or protection, but as an opportunity to move from our little depressed corner of the state into a bigger world. But few of them ever left the comforts of their ancestral home.

My father was never called for military service, but he was responsible for helping raise his younger two brothers and two sisters after my grandfather, who served as a Marine carpenter in the South Pacific during World War II, tried to recover from whatever stress that caused him to be discharged not long after he arrived on a tiny coral atoll called Enewetak in the Marshall Islands. Dad was born in 1939, so he missed the big war and the two Asian conflicts that followed, but the realities of the Depression were a big part of his upbringing.

His dream was to go to college to become an engineer.

It’s hard for me to imagine the situation he grew up in. Born in a log cabin on top of a mica mine in the woods of Lincoln County, he and his siblings used a mule to plow red mud into cotton fields and sacrificed their fingertips picking it in the fall. He made a little time for the baseball practices and games he could walk to, but the dream of going to college was as far away as that little speck of land where my grandfather landed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

He was smart – I know this because he married my mom, I’ve seen all his high school report cards and I had one of his teachers for sixth-grade English who kept telling me I needed to use the brain my daddy gave me. He dared to apply to State College when he graduated from high school in 1957, and he was never happier than when he received an acceptance letter for the school of engineering. It might have cost him $1,000 a year to attend State at that time, but he surely would have been eligible for a need-based scholarship or financial aid to pay for his education.

But there was a line in the acceptance letter that said he needed to pay a $15 room deposit to save a spot in the class of 1961. There was no chance he and his family could afford that. He stuffed his dream into a locked-up memory. For most of my dad’s childhood, his family didn’t have $15 in the bank and he hardly ever had 15 cents in his pocket.

He married his elementary school sweetheart, went to work and became a father a week before he turned 19. He worked in the textile mills and as a machinist with a family-owned cutting-tool company that had a couple of manufacturing plants in North Carolina. He went to night school at Catawba Valley Technical College in Hickory, though I have no idea how they afforded it, and earned an associate’s degree.

He turned himself into a self-made engineer, inventing machines and processes that turned rolls of raw steel into saw blades, taps and dies. He worked for that same company for more than 40 years.

They moved into their dream home – 900 square feet with a basement – a few weeks after I was born and have lived on that rough acre in the foothills ever since. In that place, surrounded by her family and holding my father’s hand, my mom died after an unwinnable battle against cancer. God, that was almost 13 years ago.

I went to NC State, even though I had other options others in my family never had. I was accepted into Georgia Tech’s engineering program and North Carolina’s journalism school. I chose NC State because my father couldn’t. I wanted the engineering degree that eluded him, until I found I wasn’t cut out for advanced math or physics.

My parents gave me the opportunity for the education and paid for four-and-a-half-years at an affordable state university, the place where farmers, lint heads and machine operators send their kids to move up on the ladder of life. They did the same for my older sister who chose to go to college. I made what spending money I could by umpiring and refereeing intramural games, serving as a dormitory athletics director and working part time at the student newspaper. Three of the four summers, I worked to earn spending money for the school year; one summer, they helped provide the opportunity for foreign travel.

There was not a time I was more ashamed than when I called home one night from the shared dormitory phone to tell my dad I was moving from engineering to English, two majors and career pursuits that shared nothing but their first three letters.

He tried to explain to me that I would never be able to make up the difference in income if I tried to become a writer instead of a maker, that I might never have more than $15 in my pocket. Like most college kids, I was stubborn and didn’t listen. I spent 20 years working in newspapers until that industry fell about and now another 10 at NC State, spending nearly every working day writing about the accomplishments of other people. My salary now, nearly three decades after graduation, is about what an engineer made in 1992.

That’s okay, I couldn’t be happier with my career choice. I’ve tried to make the most out of the investment my parents made, one their parents had no chance of making for them.

NC State’s commencement always coincides with Mother’s Day, and to keep that from being the saddest day on my personal calendar, I try to turn it into a celebration of new graduates, sending them off with an education, a purpose and the opportunity to do what their parents couldn’t.

So here's my  advice for those about to start this new phase in their lives: Make the most of the opportunity you have been given or made for yourself. It means something for those who never had the chance.

Make sure you get your $15 worth.


  1. That was an awesome article. Thank you for sharing that side of your life. I remember your work at the Technician...I was a suitemate of Suzanne Perez (now Tobias) for two years.

  2. I continue to be amazed at how far we have all come from the so little our parents had. I think there is nothing more than love, support and strong work ethic to credit that to. We have good blood!!