On the campus of UNC Charlotte, Bonnie E. Cone is a legendary figure because of her role as the founder of the university. Her legendary status is reflected in the fact that several professorships are named after her, including the Bonnie E. Cone Professor in Civic Engagement. I currently hold this position, and I consider it a great honor to have my name associated with hers.
The story of how Bonnie Cone came to establish the university is the focus of a newly published book titled Jewel in the Crown: Bonnie Cone and the Founding of UNC Charlotte. Written by William (Bill) Thomas Jeffers, this book is a collaboration between the Atkins Library’s Special Collections and University Archives and Digital Publishing units along with the University of North Carolina Press. For more information about this book, please click on the following link: https://omp.uncc.edu/library/catalog/book/11
I recently contacted Bill and asked him for more information about his thoughts on Bonnie Cone and her place in the history of Charlotte. Here is what he sent to me:
To be honest, I never met Bonnie, formally – although we were in the same room at my fraternity formal in 1996. I had a rule back then: never meet the bigwigs, it’ll be too easy for them to identify you after you screw up. Low profile was my preferred operating style as an undergraduate and, more or less, it served me well. However, I deeply regret not walking up and saying hello at the time – especially considering the role UNC Charlotte has played in my life. I cannot thank her enough for her persistence in seeing this dream of hers through to reality.
One thing I learned was that Bonnie never wanted to be an administrator; her true passion was reaching young minds through teaching. I was surprised to discover, when first offered the job as director of the Charlotte Center of the University of North Carolina, she initially tried to turn it down – citing no experience! How fortunate we are that her boss, Elmer Garinger, thought otherwise, and told her she had to take the job because no one else could. Garinger, as principal of Central High School, was the person who brought her to teach in Charlotte in 1940. In fact, he actually snagged her away from another teaching position already promised to her in Kannapolis. Cone admitted years later that she didn’t think she could say no to Garinger in his request to run the center because he was the boss and you didn’t say no to the boss. In the six weeks between her August appointment and the start of school in September, she quickly proved he made the right choice, fully staffing and setting a new record for enrollment, all while operating out of an office the size of a closet. If that isn’t what a determination to succeed looks like, I need a new pair of glasses because I really don’t know what is.
While the idea of publicly supported higher education in Charlotte was not new, the means about which to galvanize public support around the idea was hit or miss prior to 1946. The Charlotte Center became the catalyst that changed that. I wonder, however, if the center would have been that catalyst if not for Bonnie Cone. Whenever you saw the center mentioned in the Charlotte Observer, Cone’s name always accompanied it. Whether it be an announcement about a new class offering, a student dance or fundraiser, or even the start date of the upcoming quarter – she was there; letting readers know about this valuable resource, and that it was a temporary one too. Those nonstop reminders paid off, catching the attention of Charlotte executive W.A. Kennedy. If Bonnie Cone was the public face of the movement to bring a public university to Charlotte, Kennedy was the back office. Their working relationship produced a tandem that drove the discussion about higher education in this city – and pushed the envelope when complacency threatened their momentum. Charlotte College’s creation in 1949 serves as a good example. The two-year junior college set records for enrollment, but struggled financially during its early years because it had to compete with Charlotte’s growing public school system for funding. Cone knew this arrangement had saved the school, but it was not a viable long-term funding option for growth. Consulting with Kennedy they decided to push for a four-year, state supported college, even though that didn’t appear to be anywhere on the horizon. Cone took it a step further – she saw a full-fledged university here, and looked to that day as fulfillment of her dream for the city. Then she went and did it.
Lastly, she could talk people into anything, so I am very glad she used her superpower for good.
Since March is Women’s History Month, the recent publication of Jewel in the Crown: Bonnie Cone and the Founding of UNC Charlotte is perfectly timed. Bonnie Cone played a pivotal role in the history of UNC Charlotte, but she also played an important role in the larger history of Storied Charlotte.