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210 Pittsboro Street
Campus Box 6210
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-6210

T 919-962-2091
F 919-962-2279

News Release

For immediate use

Sept.  15, 2004 -- No. 433

Local angle: Greensboro

Stories of Carolina, Durham fill
book on Watts, Hill families

UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL—Business leaders and philanthropists, the Hill family of Durham gave again and again to their city and their alma mater -- the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Now their story is captured in "Favored by Fortune: George W. Watts and the Hills of Durham," a new, three-generation biography by Howard Covington Jr. of Greensboro, published by the UNC Library.

Covington’s tale of three men who founded the old Watts Hospital of Durham, Central Carolina Bank and much more is anything but dull, said Judith Panitch, a UNC research and special projects librarian who helps administer the publishing program.

"It’s very, very readable, almost like reading historical fiction, but it’s all true," she said. Readers will learn about George Washington Watts, one of the founders of Durham in the late 19th century; his son-in-law, John Sprunt Hill; and Hill’s son, George Watts Hill Sr.

Covington will discuss the book in a free public program at 5:45 p.m. Sept. 21 in Wilson Library. UNC President Emeritus William C. Friday will introduce the talk, sponsored by Friends of the Library.

A longtime reporter and editor at The Charlotte Observer and predecessors of the News & Record in Greensboro, Covington created and wrote most of a series on the textile industry and brown lung that won the Observer a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1981.

He has written or co-written more than a dozen histories and biographies. Topics have included the Belks of Charlotte, Nation’s Bank (now Bank of America) and the late N.C. governor and senator Terry Sanford. Covington co-edited "The North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000."

His new book documents that the Hills were part of UNC’s governance for more than 100 years, longer than any other North Carolina family. John Sprunt Hill’s father was on the Board of Trustees after the Civil War; John Sprunt succeeded him in 1905.

George Watts Hill, who was called Watts, served from the 1950s through creation of the UNC Board of Governors to oversee the new UNC system. He and his son, the late George Watts Hill Jr., both served on the Board of Governors.

The book opens with John Sprunt Hill’s birth in 1869, about the time that Union soldiers ended their long occupation of his family’s Duplin County plantation.

In 1878, Marylander George Washington Watts moved to North Carolina and settled in what later became Durham. Watts was a full partner with the Duke family in the creation of the American Tobacco Co. He also built Watts Hospital and gave it to the city. The building is now the N.C. School of Science and Math.

"At the time of Watts’ death in 1921, the hospital was the top-rated facility in the state," Covington said.

Watts’ only daughter, Annie, married John Sprunt Hill, an 1889 UNC graduate. She was in New York City attending school; he, practicing law after earning a law degree from Columbia College – now, Columbia University. After the arrival of their son, George Watts Hill, they returned to Durham, in 1903. There Hill pursued finance, farming and insurance.

He didn’t waste any time getting involved in the affairs of his alma mater, giving the commencement address in 1903. He revived the alumni association and soon joined the board of trustees.

Hill chaired the board’s building committee in the 1920s, when the university got its first big state appropriation for construction since the Civil War. He oversaw the location and building of Manning and Carroll halls and the halls that flank them, as well as Wilson Library and Memorial Auditorium. The university has Hill to thank, in part, for its scenic central quadrangle, Polk Place.

In 1930, with Wilson as the new university library, the Hills donated most of the funds needed to renovate the old Carnegie Library as a home for the music department, then 10 years old. The couple stipulated that the building, renamed Hill Hall, be used for only for music, with frequent concerts and recitals.

Hill bought land for and built the Carolina Inn, completed in 1924. In 1935, the Hills gave the inn to the university, stipulating that its income would help support the North Carolina Collection in Wilson.

Already, the Hills had helped to create the collection. Later, Hill gave the university three buildings on Franklin Street – those in the block now housing the Carolina Coffee Shop – to create a permanent endowment for the collection.

He organized banking companies that later became CCB. Before and after World War I, Hill led efforts to expand credit to North Carolina’s hard-pressed farmers and established rural credit unions, some of which survive today.

Watts Hill earned undergraduate and law degrees at UNC and joined his father in business. He managed Watts Hospital until the 1950s and created the Hospital Care Association, one of the nation’s first Blue Cross programs. He was one of the early organizers of Research Triangle Park.

As a UNC trustee in the 1950s and ’60s, Watts Hill worked to expand the medical school from a two-year to a four-year program. He oversaw much of the early construction for the health affairs area of campus and helped recruit doctors and medical school faculty.

He would entertain prospects at his fine home, Quail Roost farm north of

Durham. If they agreed to come to UNC, Hill helped their families find homes that he financed with low-interest loans from his bank.

His gift of $3.5 million to a campaign for an alumni building was enough to name the George Watts Hill Alumni Center on Stadium Drive. His home in Chapel Hill, known as Quail Hill, now serves as the chancellor’s residence.

"Favored by Fortune" is the third book from the library’s publishing enterprise begun in 2002. Its intent is to provide a respectable imprint for books that neither commercial nor university presses will accept but are important to UNC.

"I think that with this book and our previous books, we’ve really made a contribution by publishing books that might not otherwise find a publisher but tell a valuable story about UNC history," Panitch said.

Anyone unable to find "Favored by Fortune" in stores may order it from UNC Press, distributors for the book, at 1-800-848-6224 or on the press Web site, For more information on the Sept. 21 program, contact Liza Terll at 962-4207 or

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Photo URL (book cover): 

Library contact: Dr. Joe Hewitt, 919-843-5615,

News Services contacts: Print: L.J. Toler, 919-962-8589; broadcast, Karen Moon, 919-962-8595