Happy Birthday, UGA!

About twenty seven years ago I walked beneath the black iron arch marking the north entrance to campus at the University of Georgia, my Alma mater, for the first time. Legend has it no student should walk beneath it until they have graduated. That was a significant day for me because walking under that arch marked the end of my career as a student at UGA and the beginning of my life with a college education. As the years have passed, I have become even more proud of my degree and my school. I am proud to be a Bulldog, proud to have attended and received my degree from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and proud to have been a student when Herschel Walker played football and took us to two Sugar Bowls. Most of all, however, I am proud to have been a part of the historic tradition of excellence at the University of Georgia.

The University of Georgia is the first ever Land Grant College founded in the United States. Founded by the state of Georgia in 1785, it was located in 1801 on a tract of 633 acres on the Oconee River in Athens, one of the greatest towns on the planet. Like all land grant institutions, it was established using the funding from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 to teach agriculture, science, engineering and military science, a reflection of the concern people had at the time to respond to the industrial revolution, but still retain a classical education. Since its inception, the university has grown to include seventeen colleges, the first of which was the Franklin College named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, which carry on the work of teaching, research, and service for which the university has become known.

My paternal grandmother, who became a teacher as I have, attended the State Normal School located in Athens in the area known as Normaltown, made famous by the B52’s in their song “The Deadbeat Club”, and the Normaltown Flyers. The Normal School’s function of training teachers was later incorporated into the university. After that the university’s Department of Education began training teachers, so the State Normal School became Coordinate College and later was used to house freshmen and sophomore women. During the 1950’s the Normaltown campus was taken over by the Navy for their Supply Corps School, a development which would later directly affect my life. During my last quarter of school at UGA, I went out with my friend Laura Wyatt to O’Malley’s Bar on the Oconee River and met my husband who was in Athens for a three week class at the Navy’s Supply Corps School. There is an odd sort of symmetry about those connections that I find immensely appealing, like our finding each other was somehow preordained.

Since I graduated in the 1980’s the university has continued to grow. I’m sure north  campus remains very much the way it looked when I was there—at least Park Hall hasn’t changed—but the last time I went to Athens a new bypass(which is old by now) greeted me as I entered town from Highway 15. I couldn’t find the little gas station where I used to buy boiled peanuts on the way into town on football weekends. The road bypassed where I used to turn to take a shortcut to South Milledge Avenue via Five Points to get to the Tri Delta house where I lived, and new buildings and the bypass completely disoriented me. Growth and change is good, however. It could be a metaphor for life, growth and change being a disorienting experience, but I miss the Athens of my memories.

Although I was a reluctant Bulldog fan at first having been raised a Georgia Tech fan, I soon was cheering on my Georgia Bulldogs and Herschel Walker in Sanford Stadium, and walking the streets of Athens feeling like a native. I enjoyed a cheeseburger at the original location of The Grill, a place I still miss, viewed second run movies and ate pizza and drank beer at the Carafe and Draft House, now known as the Georgia Theater, a fabulous live music venue. I even bought some of my trousseau at Heery’s Clothes Closet in downtown Athens. My time in Athens feels like a dream, one I could never repeat, but one which forged my musical preferences and political opinions and taught me to appreciate life. I have come a long way from the country girl I was who used to walk through downtown Athens and pass beside the arch on her way to Park Hall. I owe much of my success, such as it is, to UGA and the men and women who taught me to think and question and enjoy what life has to offer.

My school, the University of Georgia turned 228 years old on January 27, 2013. Knowing how long it has been an institution of higher learning makes me feel proud and fortunate to have been a part of such a grand tradition. One day I hope to return to Athens to stroll through campus, take in another football game, walk up the steps of Park Hall in the depressions worn by thousands of feet, and stand on the bridge to look into Sanford stadium. One day I also hope to be classified as a scholar so I can enter the rare books room at the library, a place I longed to explore as an undergraduate.  I have always wondered what treasures are hidden within its walls.

My four years at the University of Georgia seems at once like the shortest and the longest time in my life. I lived a lot in those four years, making friends and memories in the dorms and at the Tri Delta house, learning about people, life, and what I was capable of in my classes. I learned the intricacies of the English language in Park Hall from distinguished professors like Dr. James Kilgo who has since been inducted in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. When I was taking his class, The American Short Story, he challenged me and the rest of my class to write a story ourselves so we would know how hard it was to do well. I struggled to produce something which wouldn’t embarrass me, but was unsuccessful. I would give anything to be able to tell him that I have now completed my first novel, all because of his challenge which sparked an interest in writing that has since become a flame. His passion for the written word became mine as well.

I couldn’t be prouder of my education and the traditions and connections I have to Athens. That town molded my mind and gave me a wonderful education, role models to pattern my professional life after, friends who have lasted a lifetime, and my wonderful husband. I couldn’t be prouder to be a Bulldog and to claim Georgia as my alma mater.  Happy birthday, UGA!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeGWLOS-C_o

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