When Anne Cates first visited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a senior in high school, she thought it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen.
“It was in the evening in the spring,” the Winston-Salem native said. “You know how pretty that is.”
What she didn’t know then was that she was beginning a lifelong relationship with the University.
More than five decades later, Cates is now best known around Chapel Hill as a respected leader who played many critical roles at Carolina, including being the first woman to chair the University’s Board of Trustees in 1999. Her decades of commitment to the University earned Cates the William R. Davie Award and the UNC General Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Medal.
Most recently, Carolina honored Cates with a Bridge Builder scholarship in her name. The need-based scholarships are named for those whose work, advocacy and personal example helped forge a more inclusive, unified and aspirational Carolina community.
Serving her alma mater
After she graduated from Carolina in 1953, Cates worked in real estate and raised her children with her husband, John. When her children grew up, however, Cates knew she wanted to serve her alma mater.
She called friends at the University and offered to do anything from sweeping floors to answering phones to driving people to and from the airport.
“I wanted to give my time to education because that’s where the future is,” Cates said. “I would just love to do something for the University. And now I’ve done all those things and a few more, too.”
Cates’ service to Carolina began at the General Alumni Association and she eventually became the GAA president. Perhaps her most significant contribution to the GAA was the role she played in helping to establish, design and decorate the George Watts Hill Alumni Center, where the GAA is based.
After the center’s construction, Cates was known to visit daily with her dust cloth to make sure everything looked its best.
Cates then helped found the Alumni Center’s social club — the Carolina Club — and served as the club’s first chair.
She later joined the board of directors for the Educational Foundation Inc., better known as the Rams Club, and served as both treasurer and president over the span of more than a decade. Cates also was vice chairman of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Visitors.
Before becoming a member of the Board of Trustees in 1993, Cates began helping shape the University’s future as chair of the kickoff celebration for Carolina’s bicentennial campaign. That campaign raised more than $440 million to support academics.
After six years of service as a trustee, Cates was named chair of the board in 1999 — becoming the first woman to lead the group in its more 200-year history.
“After 200 years, I was it,” she said.
There wasn’t much time to consider that milestone, however. Instead, Cates quickly had to navigate the passing of Chancellor Michael Hooker, who had died in office. It was during Cates’ tenure as chair of the trustees that the board brought James Moeser to campus as the University’s next chancellor.
Throughout her years of service, Cates paved the way by being the first woman to hold many of the leadership positions at Carolina, but she never thought about it in that way.
“It was never an issue — that this was a woman or a man. We just got in there and worked hard,” she said. “I’ve found if you’re honest with people and you really care and you’re trying to do the right thing, it isn’t a problem.”