Teressa D. Wilson had often heard her father, Richard B. Wilson ’53, tell the story of how his father — her grandfather Archie Garfield Wilson — had spent years sweeping and polishing the shiny maple floor of Woollen Gym as a janitor at Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s.
The University job provided a steady income, supporting the poor Chatham County farming family better than their tobacco crop did. He was still working there when Richard came to Carolina to get his degree in education, the only of Archie’s four children to attend college.
When Teressa Wilson happened to see a commemorative plaque in the shape of North Carolina made from Woollen Gym’s original floor, she thought it would be a perfect present for her father’s 90th birthday. But the owner of the local restaurant that had the plaque on display wasn’t willing to part with it. And since the floor had been salvaged in a renovation way back in 2004, no remaining sections seemed to be available.
In her online search for a piece of Woollen Gym’s floor, Teressa Wilson came across Carolina’s Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling and sent a desperate note to program manager BJ Tipton. “Ever since first seeing the cut-out of our state, made from the very wood flooring that my dad’s father took great care of, I have wanted to obtain a piece of the same salvaged flooring to give to my dad. I know it would mean the world to him,” she emailed on Feb. 9. “Is it possible you have any ideas on how to obtain a piece of the flooring — of any size?”
Tipton not only had an idea, but she also happened to have an actual piece of the flooring hanging on the wall of the recycling office on Airport Drive. The 13-by-10-inch commemorative plaque, given to the office by the salvage company that removed the flooring, featured a photo of the entire 1957 Carolina men’s NCAA championship basketball team and a metal plate displaying the autographs of the team’s starting five players.
The more Tipton looked at the plaque, the more she thought it could be trimmed to be able to give Teressa Wilson a piece of flooring large enough for a birthday present. She took her request to Construction Services, where the carpentry shop was able to trim a 4-by-13-inch piece of wood from the plaque.
On March 2, only a few days after Richard Wilson’s birthday on Feb. 28, Tipton presented a 4-by-13-inch piece of the gym floor to the Wilson family at Woollen Gym.
“I’m sure my father put plenty of wax on this,” he said, turning the rectangular piece of wood in his hands.
Importance of education
When pieces of Woollen Gym’s floor, originally laid in 1936, were auctioned off in 2004, the selling point was that it was the floor played on by Carolina’s legendary 1957 team. Coached by Frank McGuire and led by National Player of the Year Lennie Rosenbluth, the team went undefeated that year. The Tar Heels won the NCAA championship by one point, defeating the Kansas Jayhawks — led by Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain — 54-53 in triple overtime.
But that wasn’t what made the floor special to the Wilson family. For them, the floor was part of their history and a potent symbol of the difference education can mean to a struggling family. It represented the shared experience of Archie Wilson, the janitor who had attended school only six months of his life, and his son Richard Wilson, the high school valedictorian who graduated from Carolina and went on to become an education professor at Appalachian State University, where he spent 27 years training a generation of future teachers.
Richard Wilson had been visiting Carolina’s campus ever since he was 12. For years, he had thumbed rides to Chapel Hill to attend Boy Scout meetings, walking over to Woollen Gym afterward to catch a ride home with his father after work.
“My father’s shift was from 2 in the afternoon till midnight, so I would go to the training table and go to sleep till he was ready to leave,” he said.
But he might not have considered attending Carolina as a student if it hadn’t been for two important women in his life, his mother and his eighth-grade teacher.
“My mother only had a sixth-grade education, but she really valued education,” he said. “If I came home from school without any books, she’d say, ‘Where are your books?’ And I’d say I did my homework in study hall. And she’d say she didn’t care, she wanted to see me bring home those books.”
The Pittsboro High School teacher he had a crush on in eighth grade also encouraged him to try harder. “She said, ‘You could be making all As,” he recalled. “No one had ever said that to me before.” He began to take his schoolwork more seriously.
Two years later, he injured his left leg playing sandlot football and, because of complications in its healing, had to have an operation that left it a few inches shorter than his right. The surgery also caused him to miss so much school that he graduated a year later than his original class. But when he did graduate, he was class valedictorian.
Father and son
He applied to Carolina, and, because of his disability, a rehabilitation program covered the cost of his tuition and books. “I was living at home, so I got a free education,” he said. He graduated in three years as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, an invitation he almost ignored.
“I told my counselor I got the letter, but I wasn’t interested in being in a fraternity,” he said.
Meanwhile, his father still came to the job he did at Carolina for 15 years, a job he didn’t even begin until he was in his 60s. The superintendent of maintenance offered him the janitorial job in 1942 because most younger men were fighting in World War II.
“My father drove back and forth to work every day. He did all the things that janitors did, including setting up the bleachers for basketball games. He pushed those brooms that were 4 feet wide. He was here the whole time I was in college,” he said.
The 90-year-old grasped the 85-year-old strip of maple flooring as Tipton explained how the carpentry shop was able to rearrange the items to be able to preserve a smaller plaque for the recycling office and also a piece for the Wilsons to keep.
“I love how this turned out,” Teressa Wilson said.