Bill Geer: he dared students to join in “the battle of ideas”

Bill Geer photo
Bill Geer, as photographed for the 1980 Yackety Yack

On a clear evening he held forth about the so-called dangers of Chapel Hill–at that time the hub of all things liberal in the great north state. He was sure we had been told by the folks at home not to let all those radical University of North Carolina professors fill our heads with nonsense; and no doubt we had been warned about the dangers of dope smoke wafting across the green and other sensual pleasures that lie in wait for us. His point, in gently mocking the fears we imported with us, was that it was time we tried out some new ideas and new ways of thinking. That college should not be like the education we had engaged in to prepare us to get here. Rather, it was time to think broadly, to talk to people with whom we disagreed, to read authors sometimes banned at libraries back home, and to maybe, just maybe, hatch an original thought or two of our own.

Heady stuff. All presented with humor and the grace that only a 50 something balding man who looked like Santa Claus but talked like Marx (both Groucho and Karl) could pull off. I had to find a way to be in his classes.

An excerpt from a tribute to one-time UNC-Chapel Hill history professor William “Bill” Geer. Geer was a longtime Chapel Hill resident and fixture on the UNC campus. For many years Geer collected material on O. Max Gardner. His biography on the former North Carolina governor had not been completed when Geer died in 1999. Correspondents in the Washington, D.C. and Raleigh bureaus of N.C. Miscellany alerted us to the tribute to Geer. Its author is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of the nonprofit Forum for Education and Democracy, a collaboration of educators from across the country. The tribute also appeared in a recent column in the Washington Post.

7 thoughts on “Bill Geer: he dared students to join in “the battle of ideas””

  1. Oh my, thanks so much for reminding me again of Bill Geer, a man I loved as did so many of us. He would not let us honor him when he died, but I hope we honor him by how we live.

  2. Funny thing about memories. Almost every accolade in the linked tribute is contrary to my recollection. The Mod Civ class had to be divided into a number of sections, because it was a gateway requirement, with hundreds of freshmen in each lecture section at one time. I never saw Dr. Geer at closer than telephoto lens distance, and while he did preach the lecture, his TAs handled all the small group tactical stuff (and every one I ever met was a Marxist, whether they knew it or not). This class, along with a few others, so soured me on the Carolina (and large university) concept that I dropped out after my (miserable) sophomore year. In my two year incarceration, I saw my adviser one time, for five minutes, after an hour wait beyond my appointment time. In all fairness to the university, I was not ready for college, and promptly sank, rather than swam.

  3. Bill Geer was a gifted teacher and, to a young freshman from eastern North Carolina, an important rung in my ladder of education. As I learned more about the contributions of Dr. Frank Porter Graham and Bill Friday, I’ve come to see that Bill Geer was carrying the torch of learning to his many fortunate students. I’m grateful to have been a student of Bill Geer. And as George Wood said, “I hope we honor him by how we live.”

  4. I remember Bill Geer liked Mao. Great guy that Mao. Only murdered tens of millions of his own people.

  5. I can’t tell you how fortunate I was to have Mr. Geer as my Social Science teacher first semester of my impressionable freshman year. He taught all of us how to think. A great man. A truly great man.One of the best of my Chapel Hill experiences.

  6. Yesterday, I responded to a postcard from the UNC Alumni Association requesting that I call to update my listing as a former student. The person who I spoke with first asked me to update my demographics, and then surprised me by asking what my favorite memory was as a student at UNC. Having left UNC for medical school in 1972, I had never before been asked that question. After a few moments, I replied that my favorite memory was attending William Geer’s World Civ class as a freshman. Just now, I searched online for info re Prof Geer, and was not surprised to find that many of my colleagues share this sentiment. His lectures typically started with, “It’s a beautiful day in Chapel Hill!” Yes, and I wish I could thank him now for having reminded me.

  7. I knew Bill Geer as a UNC professor (Mod Civ) and as a boss (Student Aid Office). He became a mentor and was responsible for my admission to the UNC Law School. My undergraduate career at UNC was divided into two parts: (1) party and ignore academics (1.8 GPA); and (2) get serious (4.0 GPA). But, even the 4.0 GPA could only bring the 1.8 GPA up to 2.8 GPA upon graduation — not impressive when attempting to be accepted at UNC Law.

    Bill Geer wrote a letter to the Dean of the UNC Law School explaining my bifurcated undergraduate experience. I also, without direction or supervision, revamped how the Student Aid Office processed initial applications for aid. Bill wholeheartedly accepted my changes, as did the staff because it streamlined the process, making their jobs easier. Bill included this in his letter.

    I was accepted by the UNC School of Law, was on the law review, graduated magna cum laude, and was a member of the prestigious Order of the Coif. My professional career was on the legal staff of a major corporation. At one time 30 lawyers worked for me (total staff of many more — including secretaries and legal assistants (paralegals)). I retired as Assistant General Counsel: one level below Vice President-General Counsel

    Thus, I owe Bill Geer big time, but would bet I am one of many.

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