That time Johnny Unitas deflated Randall Jarrell’s ego

Poet and critic Randall Jarrell, one of the most prominent American intellectuals of the mid-20th century, taught a seminar in Russian literature at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the fall of 1964. I was an MFA student in fiction at the time and a member of Jarrell’s class—the last he saw through to the end before his death at the age of 51. One night in October 1965, Jarrell was killed by a car when walking along a highway in Chapel Hill…. Jarrell’s biographer William Pritchard has pointed out that although the circumstances of Jarrell’s death will always remain unclear, something in him evidently ‘gave way’ during his final years.

“I saw that giving way in Jarrell’s seminar. Though his lectures, most of them about Nikolai Gogol, were mesmerizing, he sometimes seemed agitated and depressed. He occasionally veered into obsessive talk about Johnny Unitas, the quarterback nicknamed the Golden Arm, who was leading the Baltimore Colts to the NFL championship game that year. Jarrell, an avid football fan, told us of a recent encounter with Unitas on an airplane. Jarrell greeted his hero rhapsodically, but—to his dismay—Unitas had never heard of him, one of America’s most celebrated poets….”

— From “The Gogol Notebook” by Angela Davis-Gardner in American Scholar (Dec. 5, 2016)


Woman’s College alum paved way for ‘Hidden Figures’

“Woman’s College alumna Virginia Tucker ’30 [was] a trailblazer for the female mathematicians — known as ‘computers – highlighted in ‘Hidden Figures.’

“Tucker was one of five women to join the first human computer pool at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1935.

“When World War II broke out, more women were recruited as computers to conduct wind tunnel testing and other critical research. Tucker recruited heavily at institutions across the East Coast. According to Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book that inspired the movie, what is now UNC Greensboro graduated one of the largest cohorts of women who went on to work as human computers.

“By the early 1940s, Tucker was the head computer…. Shetterly writes:

“ ‘Over the course of twelve years, Virginia Tucker had ascended from a subprofessional employee to the most powerful woman at the lab. She had done so much to transform the position of computer from a proto-clerical job into one of the laboratory’s most valuable assets. … Between 1942 and 1946, four hundred Langley computers received training on Tucker’s watch.’

“In 1947, Tucker left civil service for a position as an aerodynamicist at Northrop Corporation, [but] her legacy continued to pave the way for female mathematicians, including the three African-American women whose stories are told in the movie.’ ”

— From “UNCG shares unique connection to movie ‘Hidden Figures’ ” in UNCG Now (Jan. 5)

How an archivist struck gold while sifting through class notes. 


Cotton pickers’ strike exposed rift in populism

“Leonidas L.  Polk, president of the Southern Alliance and a former Confederate colonel, best expressed the white Alliance leadership’s perspective regarding…  the proposed cotton pickers’ strike. Not for one moment, he declared through his paper the Progressive Farmer, did he ‘hesitate to advise our farmers to leave their cotton in the field rather than pay more than 50 cents per hundred [pounds] to have it picked.’ Polk went on to accuse the organizers of the strike of trying ‘to better their condition at the expense of their white brethren’…

“[Polk’s] double standard reveals just how divorced white landowners were from — indeed in direct opposition to — the mostly landless African Americans who comprised the base of Black Populism.”

— From “In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900” by UNC Greensboro historian Omar H. Ali (2010)

Polk’s house, restored circa 1890 and most recently resituated to Blount Street in Raleigh, opened to the public this week.

Dylan Thomas gave a reading to remember

On this day in 1953: Fred Chappell, a junior at Canton High School, hitchhikes 250 miles to Duke University to hear his hero, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

Chappell will soon enroll at Duke and study under writing professor William Blackburn, whose students over the years also include Reynolds Price, William Styron, Josephine Humphreys and Anne Tyler.

Later, as a professor at UNC-Greensboro and the state’s poet laureate, Chappell recalls Thomas’ reading: “They poured him on stage over at Page Auditorium. And you thought, ‘Oh geez. This is not going to happen.’ And he gave a magnificent reading. An impossible reading. And then they poured him off stage.”