Though Bob Ward describes himself as a “nonessential, seasonal, temporary, part-time greeter and museum attendant,” and an usher for basketball games for the past 35 years, he is, in fact, a historian — a citizen historian. He’s a repository of Chapel Hill’s recent and not-so-recent past, seven decades worth, a witness to the changes time has wrought and brought to what once we called a village. We thought it would be best to hear his reflections, uninterrupted. Consider it a brief oral history from a man who has seen it all, edited only for length.
“I grew up in Orange County, first in Hillsborough, where my dad, Ira Ward, was very involved in community and took pride in giving back. He served as a Board Member on the County Commissioners and also held the position of County Supervisor (a titled used before County Manager). He eventually went into banking, and it was that role that transferred him to the Chapel Hill branch of the Orange Savings and Loan, located next door to where Med Deli now resides.
“I attended Chapel Hill High School on Franklin Street in the old University Square block which now houses Target and many apartments and retail shops. We were the Class of 1966, the last class at Chapel Hill High School’s downtown location. The junior high school was right next door. Our football team was the Chapel Hill Wildcats and eventually it became the Chapel Hill Tigers after de-segregation when Lincoln High School closed for good.
“My life in Chapel Hill in the 70s was centered in downtown. Of course we loved The Rathskeller. A favorite bookstore was the Intimate Bookshop run by Wallace Kuralt, Charles’s brother. It had creaky hardwood floors. Alexander Julian was in our high school class and he opened a store called Alexander’s Ambition before he became famous. One thing that was truly different is the number of filling stations downtown. In fact there were five gas stations in one block. We had grocery stores everywhere. But downtowns are different today because things are either changing or they’re dying.
“There was significant pride of ownership with downtown merchants and as a result they were very involved with the community. The Hub was owned by Bob Rosenbacher and every morning you’d see him sweeping the sidewalk and talking with fellow merchants.
“In Chapel Hill and throughout Orange County there was also a sense of giving back. I watched my father commit to civic clubs that gave back to the community.
As an adult I modeled that behavior and have stayed involved in protecting Hillsborough’s historic character through The Preservation Fund of Hillsborough board. This board does a fine job of allying preservation and growth. I also joined the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Jaycees when they were active. Today I remain committed to East Chapel Hill Rotary and their motto #serviceaboveself. I believe that spirit is still alive throughout Orange County today. It’s at the core of who we are as a community.
“I’m not an anti-growth person, I’m a proponent of growth, but we have to be smart about it. I’d like to see the scale more manageable. I don’t think what we are building now is attractive. The current architecture is out of character in my perspective. Chapel Hill was built around a certain look. I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.
“To some extent we’ve lost some of the friendly nature. The bigger it gets the more unfriendly we get and that’s hard to accept. We don’t have a daily newspaper that brings us all together. Communication is very fragmented. It strengthens a community when the population knows what is going on locally. Most of us recall the thrill of getting your name in the local paper. From athletics to musical concerts, school leadership clubs, if your name or picture was in the paper, many community members would be impressed.”
“We ought to think of ourselves as a tourist town. At the Basketball Museum we’ve had more than 12,000 people come here from May through August. It’s my hope they find our community to be the welcoming place we like to think it is.
“Chapel Hill has always been about people moving in and out. But the business community was more about banding together towards community service because there were more local mom and pop-type businesses.
“I hope we don’t tune-out a segment of our population and write it off as “the world has changed and history doesn’t matter anymore.” More than sounding like an old man, we should balance forward-thinking priorities while learning from the past. I’d like to see our residents love of nostalgia inspire them, because the happy memories we share gives life meaning.”
— Bob Ward
Opportunities to Learn More about Orange County History
Our past memories and experiences play a crucial role in shaping who we are today and what elements remain important to us. By remembering our past, we can shape the future that still has elements of our sense of identity.
Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.