Mere months after graduating from the University of North Carolina, Curtis F. Crissman didn’t have the luxury of celebrating Carolina’s 125th anniversary at his alma mater.
Instead, the Siloam, North Carolina native was “somewhere in France” as a private in the 316th Field Artillery, reminiscing about his college years along with dozens of other Carolina graduates fighting in World War I in Europe.
“On this, the 125th anniversary of the University of North Carolina, the mind of every Carolina man is filled with the tenderest thoughts for this alma mater,” Crissman and a group of Carolina graduates wrote in a letter to the University. “Though the far from Chapel Hill, and in the midst of the ravages of war, we consecrate our thoughts and heart to Carolina at this time.”
As Crissman and more than 2,200 other Carolina students, alumni and faculty members put their education and lives on hold to fight in the war thousands of miles away, the University was never far from their minds.
And for many soldiers, one man became their connection to Chapel Hill: Carolina President Edward Kidder Graham.
Dozens of letters World War I soldiers sent to Graham are now housed in Wilson Library’s archive and showcase the relationship the service members strove to keep with the University throughout the war.
“When they left, the students had such a strong attachment to the University and also to Graham,” said Howard Covington, an author of dozens of histories and biographies.
Face of the University
A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Graham returned to the University as a librarian in 1899 and became an English instructor shortly thereafter. Graham earned a full professorship in 1907 and was named president of the University seven years later while he was in his mid-30s.
“He was young, he came in with new ideas, he started the whole idea of extension and service to the state,” said Cecelia Moore, Carolina’s University historian. “He advocated for admitting more women. He was really the person who was going to make this a modern university.”
As a young leader on campus, Graham spent much of his time with students serving almost as a big brother, Covington said.
“Graham was very close to his students and was popular with them,” he said. “At that time, the student population was less than a thousand, so it was a very close knit community.”
But as Graham began his presidency, the war in Europe was changing the way the University operated.
Eager to help the cause, Graham offered Carolina’s support to the Army, ultimately creating the Student Army Training Corps that prepared students for the war. Instead of focusing on traditional classwork, students trained for battle with trenches and mock battlefields on campus.
“They basically turned the campus over to the Army to be a training center,” Moore said. “They suspended the regular curriculum for most students and made it into a military training center.”
And as the students, alumni and faculty members began heading to boot camp and the frontlines, they wanted to remain connected to their alma mater.
“People really loved Edward Kidder Graham,” Moore said. “He definitely related to a lot of people including the students. He would have been the face of the University for them.”
Graham became the ear for Carolina’s soldiers.
Letters from the frontlines
When America entered World War I, Graham prepared a postcard with a photo of South Building and the Old Well — or “The Well” at the time — for the “Carolina men in France.”
The message read: “Your alma mater thinks of you constantly with the deepest pride and the tenderest affection.”
The feelings were mutual.
With the stationery header reading “On active service with the American Expeditionary Force. Somewhere in France,” Crissman and 15 other Carolina graduates sent Graham a University Day greeting from the frontlines in 1918.
“Throughout France, men from the University of North Carolina are doing their utmost to represent their country and their University,” they wrote. “At no other time has the realization for our love for the University and consciousness of its inestimable aid in preparing us to do our duty been to clearly impress on the college men.”
After Graham died of the flu in the fall of 1918, his papers were saved. Among the papers were dozens of letters the president saved from soldiers. Topics in the letters ranged from asking for officer appointment recommendations to asking for copies of the Alumni Review.
Most, though, were soldiers reminiscing about their days in Chapel Hill — and their hopes to return.
Frank Bell, a former Carolina student who enlisted in the aviation corps, wrote to Graham about his desire to be commissioned as an officer and his hope of carrying “the Carolina spirit away with him into such a cause.”
“I never knew, President Graham, until I left, how much I really cared for Carolina,” Bell wrote.
Others, who presumably were complete strangers to the University president but Carolina graduates, also wrote to Graham to connect with a happier time.
“I guess you are already wondering who this letter is from. It is from a Carolina man who is constantly thinking of Chapel Hill and the happy four years which he spent there,” Thomas P. Harrison Jr., wrote from Camp Gordon, Georgia, in 1918. “What Carolina has done for me cannot be expressed. That inexpressible something helps me each day I live to lead a better life and to meet with a happier sense the obstacles which present themselves to me.”
It is unclear just how many letters Graham answered, but Moore and Covington believe he would have responded as much as he could.
The fact that so many letters from soldiers remained in the collection, Covington said, suggests the letters were important to Graham — keeping him connected with his students no matter where they were.
“Students felt a very personal connection to him,” he said. “This was a personal connection that he maintained.