“Plain as an old shoe, honest as an old field-hand, tough as a top sergeant . . . ”: A Tribute to Robert Burton House

On August 17, 1987, Robert Burton House, former Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, died.  He was a 1916 graduate of UNC and joined the University’s staff in 1926 as the executive secretary after a brief stint as a high school teacher and archivist.  With the creation of the Consolidated University of North Carolina and the ascension of Frank Porter Graham as its president, House became dean of administration of the Chapel Hill campus in 1934. Eleven years later, his position was renamed “chancellor,” and he served in this role until 1957. That same year, he returned to teaching, joining the faculty of UNC’s Department of English.

Robert Burton House playing the harmonia
Robert Burton House playing the harmonia. From the UNC Photographic Laboratory Collection, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, P0031

On May 27, 1957, at House’s last Board of Trustees meeting as Chancellor, John W. Umstead, Jr., honored House’s service to UNC by reading a tribute, a portion of which is transcribed here:

“…Bob House symbolizes Chapel Hill.  He has seen it grow until there are now more faculty members than there were total students when he entered as a freshman.  New schools, departments and divisions have come and many generations of graduates have gone.  In his own modest words he said, ‘All this I saw, and of some of it I was a part.’  No one has surpassed him in loyalty and devotion to the University.

Once, to a professor, allured by the financial offers of another institution, he said, ‘You may go if you like.  But I have enlisted for life.  And if everybody else departs I expect to go up to Old South Building every morning, ring the college bell, knock the ashes out of my pipe, and lecture to the birds, the squirrels and the trees on the state of the universe and the University.

As Secretary, Dean, and Chancellor of the University at Chapel Hill he has spoken and played his mouth harp in practically every city and town in North Carolina, and in almost every village and country school, and in doing so he has preached the spirit of this intangible University about which I speak.

Albert Coates spoke aptly of Bob House when he described him as ‘plain as an old shoe, honest as an old field-hand, tough as a top sergeant, blunt as the crack of doom, impulsive to a hurt, generous to a fault, wrathful as an Old Testament prophet, ruthful as a sinner brought to penance by an inward grace, overflowing with notes that are always set to music, full of lightning as a cloud in a storm, and full of the calm that follows, an artist with the thunderbolt and a master of the still small voice full of earthiness without a trace of vulgarity, and full of flare as a lightwood knot.’  This is Bob House.”

Source:  Records of the Board of the Trustees of the University of North Carolina System, 1932-1972, #40002, Minutes, Volume 5, May 27, 1957, pp. 208-210.

Thanks to Lynn Roundtree for bringing this tribute to our attention.