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WCU Stories

Happy birthday, Katherine: From, Cullowhee

By Tom Lotshaw
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Katherine Brown Wells, center, with her namesake niece, Kathy Abbott Beam (left), and Western Carolina University Chancellor Kelli R. Brown, at a university event in Murphy.

Western Carolina University is wishing alumna Katherine Brown Wells an extra sweet birthday. That’s because “Aunt Katherine” as she’s known to many Catamounts is no stranger to sweet birthdays. She was born on Valentine’s Day 101 years ago today.

And as WCU celebrates its sixth-annual “I Love WCU” month this February, it also wants to honor Brown Wells, who has demonstrated her love for the higher education institution for over 10 decades.

Brown Wells, who lives in Murphy, has traveled around the world, to every continent except Antarctica. Yet, it’s Cullowhee and its once little school that have always held an extra special place in her heart.

Brown Wells grew up on Dix Gap in Cullowhee in the 1920s and 1930s. She enjoyed living next door to WCU as it grew from a start-up high school into a teacher’s college and, eventually, into a full-fledged university.

Her father, Frank G. Brown, moved the family from Roanoke, Virginia to Sylva in 1921 after his employer, the Blackwood Lumber Co., bought 45,000 acres of forested land in Jackson County.

Her mother, Minnie, three months pregnant with Brown Wells at the time, successfully pushed for the family to move a little farther down what was then a dirt road to Cullowhee. She wanted the family to be near the growing school for more of the cultural and educational opportunities they enjoyed in Roanoke.

The family quickly became friends with many people involved with the school. Those family friends included professor Robert Lee Madison, the school’s first president, professors Cordelia Camp and Edgar Stillwell, and Hiram Tyram Hunter, school president from 1923-1947.

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Katherine Brown Wells

Brown Wells has called the small college community the foundation of her existence, and said she profited from every minute spent at “my little school.”

In a memoir written to her children, several of whom also attended WCU, Brown Wells wrote about how she loved having the school as a neighbor. She loved its events, its people, checking out library books, and its “blessed-with-beauty” campus with its big, beautiful trees and wildflowers.

“Cullowhee was an ideal place for this particular little girl to call home,” Brown Wells wrote. “I will always say it was the best place in the world for a child to call home.”

When not out exploring the Cullowhee countryside or making mischief with siblings and friends, she took voice and piano lessons from the school’s music teachers. She also attended six weeks of summer school each year with the students training to be teachers. The classes only ran until noon and focused on nature studies outdoors.

“We didn’t suffer for lack of anything of a cultural nature, for we attended everything at the school,” Brown Wells wrote in her memoir, which is held in special collections at the university library.

“We had plays, music recitals, recitation, declamation contests, debate, basketball and soccer. Lyceum programs that included magicians, choral groups and plays were always well attended. Mother saw to it we were dressed and in the front row if anything of interest was available.”

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Katherine Brown Wells, top left, grew up in Cullowhee in the 1920s and 1930s. She graduated from Western Carolina Teachers College in 1941, serving as editor-in-chief of the yearbook. She turns 101 on Valentine’s Day. She credits her family, Cullowhee and the school that grew to become Western Carolina University for her ideal childhood and for helping instill in her a lifelong love of learning.

Brown Wells started attending Western Carolina Teachers College as a student at age 16 and graduated in 1941. She was class secretary-treasurer her freshman year, president of the glee club, a commencement marshal, in the marshals’ and dramatics clubs, on the May Court and editor-in-chief of the Catamount yearbook.

After graduating, Brown Wells moved with her husband, Harold Wells, to Murphy, where his family had a dairy farm. She taught school for a few years before staying home to raise her own children.

“She has always credited Western as being one of the major things she did in her life,” said Kathy Abbott Beam, a niece who’s named after her “Aunt Katherine” and graduated from WCU with a bachelor’s degree in 1967, a master’s degree in 1979 and an education specialist degree in 1983.

The two served together on the WCU Alumni Association’s board of directors in the 1990s. They helped renovate the Bird Alumni House, which sits across from where the childhood home of Brown Wells stood.

Each of the women also set up scholarship funds to help students attend the university in Cullowhee — hoping to help the school have the same positive impact on others as it had on themselves. “She has always wanted to give back because Western has done so much for her,” Abbott Beam said.

Jamie T. Raynor, vice chancellor for advancement at WCU, said “Aunt Katherine” is the history of the school in Cullowhee.

“She loved growing up on campus and has loved this institution since its earliest days. Oh, the WCU stories she can tell while sitting by the fireplace or working a challenging puzzle,” Raynor said. “We wish her a very happy birthday, and we’re grateful for the imprint she and her family have left on this institution over the years.”

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