by Tom Lotshaw and Benny Smith
Lorene Browning Collins, class of 1942 and Sally Campbell, class of 1937, are celebrating big birthdays this week. Browning Collins is turning 100, while Campbell is turning 104, making her Western Carolina University’s oldest alumna.
“I never dreamed I could live to be this old, I don’t have a secret. I’m just proud God’s left me here. We never know what’s ahead for us.”
Lorene Browning Collins is excited to celebrate her 100th birthday on Saturday, Nov.
13. She’s going to have a party with family and friends.
“I never dreamed I could live to be this old,” Browning Collins said during an interview at her retirement home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “I don’t have a secret. I’m just proud God’s left me here. We never know what’s ahead for us.”
Browning Collins grew up in Bryson City. Her parents both worked for a time as teachers
after finishing eighth grade, and always worked to ensure she had every opportunity
to learn growing up.
A cousin was the first family member to enroll in college and studied to become a teacher. That helped inspire Browning Collins. She enrolled at Mars Hill College when she was 16 and transferred to Western Carolina Teachers College a year later.
Browning Collins said she has fond memories of life at the little school in Cullowhee.
Those memories include trips to the student union to pick up mail, walks around campus, seeing movies, going to football games and making occasional car trips to Sylva. She was a member and president of the Baptist Student Union Council, in the music club, on the May Court and had a role in the student play “The Goose Hangs High.”
Browning Collins also remembers eating dinner with other students and regularly seeing Robert Lee Madison, a man who helped found the school and who took his dinners with students.
Browning Collins’ senior class had 95 students. Tuition and room and board for a quarter totaled $84.50, according to a receipt she still keeps with her diploma. That amount was later discounted because her father delivered a truckload of potatoes to the campus.
“I enjoyed it. It was pleasant,” Browning Collins said of her years in Cullowhee. “We had plenty to do for young people. I can say that now that I’m a little old.”
Browning Collins also remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and how that act of war upended life for everyone and threw the world into turmoil her senior year.
“I remember a lot of the boys had to leave the college,” Browning Collins said. “It was a real sad time.”
Browning Collins graduated and started teaching in Bryson City. That’s where she met
her husband, Harry S. Collins, who she married in 1946 after he returned from World
The couple moved back to Cullowhee for Collins to finish his studies in engineering at the college. They stayed in “Boodleville,” prefabricated housing that was obtained from the military and set up on campus to house married veterans attending the school.
Browning Collins went on to teach third, fourth and sixth grades for more than 35 years, teaching in North Carolina, Alabama, Indiana, Florida and Tennessee as she moved with Collins, who worked in the aerospace industry and died in 1990. They had two children, Jim Collins and Debbie Collins Simpson.
“I guess I just enjoy being around kids and hearing them laugh and be happy. That’s the way I like life,” Browning Collins said about her decades teaching. “I do the best I can. Maybe I can help somebody else some way, to help someone to enjoy their life more.”
And Sally’s secret to living to be 104? “Just aim for good clean living.”
It’s been 84 years since Campbell got her undergraduate degree from Western Carolina
Teachers College, but she can still remember it like it was yesterday.
“I had a great time when I was a day student at Western. It was so close to home. But it’s changed so much now,” she said during a brief interview inside of her Sylva home where she has lived for decades.
Campbell turned 104 on Thursday, Nov. 11.
A 1937 graduate of the teacher’s college, which is now Western Carolina University, Campbell still owns her “Catamount” yearbook and recounted memories recently of finishing in a senior class that went through the Great Depression.
“It’s just amazing to me,” Campbell said.
Before getting married, she was known on campus as Sally Mae Monteith. Her annual states her major as English and her minor as history. As a student, Campbell was a member of the glee club, college chorus, secretary to the Jackson County Club and a member of the literacy society.
Several of her classmates wrote that she “was a lifesaver and good study partner.”
Campbell received both of her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the college. She then spent 34 years teaching high school students in Sylva.
“I really enjoyed the students,” she said.
Her caretaker, referred to as Reva, said that Campbell’s doctor told her when she turned 100 to continue drinking water, walking and playing bridge every day and she would experience more birthdays.
He was right.
“For years, I walked at least two hours a day near my house on level territory,” she said. “And sometimes I would walk in the afternoons another two miles.”
Campbell said she walked until she was about 102.
She said she enjoyed the teachers at Western Carolina Teachers College and loved that it “was so close to home.” She is a native and lifelong resident of Sylva. She and her husband, Claude Campbell, married in 1938 and raised their two children, Judy Covin and Jim Campbell, in Sylva. Claude Campbell owned his own electric store on Main Street in Sylva. The couple was married 47 years before he passed in 1984.
Sally’s family planned a brief drop in for family and guests Thursday who were vaccinated.
And Sally’s secret to living to be 104?
“Just aim for good clean living.”