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IN THEIR OWN VOICES
Bob House: ‘Man Does That
Hasn’t Got Any Manners’
To the historical researcher, the journalist and now, with improving access, the casu- ally curious, oral history is an archival treasure chest. Among the many things the repository of interviews is, it is a terrific place to stumble on unexpected wonders.
For anything it’s received, the Southern Oral History Program has repaid the University a hundredfold with a large collection of interviews with the people who helped make
its history and some who just know where the skeletons are. Anyone looking into UNC’s
past is drawn quickly to them.
The person I went looking for recently was, unfortunately, gone before the SOHP
could get to her. But there was, lying beside the path, this conversation with an aging but
sharp Robert B. House ’16, who was not one to subordinate his personality to his position.
The 1983 interviews began and ended with his renowned harmonica playing. His interaction with the interviewer, former admissions director and close friend Lee Roy Wells Armstrong ’26, at times took on the air of an old Bob and Ray radio comedy.
The hearing underscores how important it is to be able to know not just that it was told,
but the way it was.
The philosophy professor and UNC benefactor
Horace Williams (class of 1883) had called for House to
come see him, apparently as he was dying in late 1939.
House was then the University’s CEO and soon would
be the first to be called chancellor.
House: He was dying, and I went over there. “Well,” he
says, “you came. Stand over there. I want to assess you.
Now, don’t talk. This is a solemn occasion. I am assessing
you as a person. You have the finest set of standards to live
by of any man ... I’ve known all of my life.” And he cried.
… “I am a failure. You, yourself, said I didn’t have any
manners,” which was the truth.
Armstrong: You said that about Horace?
Armstrong: That he had no manners?
House: Yes. I said it to him. He said … “Where are
you going?” I’m going over to Greensboro to make a
speech. “Whatcha going to tell ’em?” I told Horace what I
was going to tell them, and he said, “No good.” I said, the
trouble with you is that you haven’t got any manners. I didn’t do anything in the world but just
politely tell you goodbye and see you later, and you attacked my speech, and you know a man
does that hasn’t got any manners.
House: He said, “That gut [sic] me. I cried over it, and I couldn’t get away from it. I missed
manners, beauty and conduct. I’m a failure.”
Armstrong: Now, did he say that when you went over to see him when he was really dying?
House: When he was dying.
Armstrong: Did you have any idea that he really thought that much of you?
Armstrong: Why were you noted for your morals?
House: I had ’em.
Armstrong: You never changed when you came here, did you?
— David E. Brown ’75
‘There was a
kind of program
who started the
in mind and
which was a
the bottom up”
says, were “absolutely miserable.” When
UNC freed some money specifically to
hire women faculty in 1974, a sizable class
came in — but six or seven years later,
few of them had received tenure. There
was a suspicion, Hall said, that some of the
departments wanted the positions but not
The University administration was
enthusiastic about an oral history program,
but its pockets were turned inside out.
Hall was paid as a faculty member released
to direct the SOHP; for research assistants
and travel and interview expenses, the
program would go grant to grant, first
from the Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary
Reynolds Babcock foundations.
The SOHP would stake its reputation
on thousands of stories from the trenches.
Hall articulated the vision in a 2008 interview with one of the program’s graduates:
“I did come with what you might call
a vision. I know because I recently ran
across an article I wrote for South Today in
1973, the spring before I came to Chapel
Hill. The title pretty much says it all:
‘Oral History Movement: Seeking Out
the Voices of Women, Blacks, Radicals,
and Workers for a Better-Balanced Story.’
I mentioned the new program at UNC
and quoted George Tindall as saying that
it would ‘focus initially on interviews
with prominent individuals,’ but that,