Campus News

Tar Heel Bus Tour connects UNC-Chapel Hill to the state

Since 1997, the tour has helped faculty and administrators understand North Carolina while learning about each other.

In 2019, the sun rises as the Tar Heel Bus Tour’s southeast group is about to depart Pembroke, North Carolina. Photo shows bus in foreground with an agricultural field behind it.(Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)
In 2019, the sun rises as the Tar Heel Bus Tour’s southeast group is about to depart Pembroke, North Carolina. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

To hear someone who was on the first Tar Heel Bus Tour in 1997 talk, you might think that barbecue was the trip’s focus because many stops included a barbecue meal. As fitting as that might be in a state split on whether eastern- or western-style barbecue is best, tour planners had loftier goals.

Though some aspects have changed since the inaugural journey — time of year, number of buses, duration — the bus tour continues to connect Carolina faculty and administrators to North Carolinians and their lives. It also helps them understand the state — its economy, its people, its challenges — while learning about each other. On Wednesday, the 2022 Tar Heel Bus Tour commences, with one bus full of faculty and administrators heading west and another heading east.

The first tour

The Public Service Roundtable, a committee of academic deans and senior administrators, had discussed a possible “North State Tour” in the early 1990s. “The roundtable was an ambitious group,” said Donna Warner, then roundtable director and now an adjunct instructor in the School of Government. “Jane Brown, who was chair of the faculty then, was an important voice because she said, ‘This is for the faculty to get to know each other as well as the state.’”

In 1995, the roundtable, including co-chairs Mike Smith, then director of the Institute of Government and now dean of the School of Government, and the late Judith Wegner, dean of the law school, and Warner presented new Chancellor Michael Hooker with a one-page proposal for a bus tour. Hooker promptly returned it with his “OK” scribbled at the top. Warner said that she was such a bureaucrat that Hooker’s quick response confused her. “What does ‘OK’ mean,” she asked Smith, who checked to find out that it meant “Make it happen.”

Hooker, the son of a coal miner, had connected with North Carolinians while visiting all 100 North Carolina counties during his first year in office and was eager to get faculty into the state. He asked top administrators to refine the concept by combining it “with a series of town meetings in which we learn from the citizens of North Carolina.”

Nancy Davis of University Relations, Ronni Gardner of University Events and Warner spent months planning the tour. On May 12, 1997, 29 riders boarded a bus at the Friday Center that rolled out into the cool morning air.

Participants in the first Tar Heel Bus Tour in May 1997 gather on the front porch of the Balsam Mountain Inn. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Participants in the first Tar Heel Bus Tour in May 1997 gather on the front porch of the Balsam Mountain Inn, along with a curious dog in front of the group. Michael Hooker, second row wearing a tie, with Judith Wegner next to him. Mike Smith is in the top row, far right with glasses and a ball cap. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“It was a five-day crash course about various social, cultural and economic aspects of North Carolina,” said Deb Aikat, associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. “What amazed me, and that was my second year as a faculty member, was how UNC-Chapel Hill evokes a sense of belonging among the people of North Carolina. As a faculty member, I had an excellent opportunity to tell the people we met what UNC-Chapel Hill is all about, how we are the University of the people. It also gave me an appreciation of where our students come from.”

The first stop was a tobacco farm, then lunch at Bill’s Barbecue in Wilson before heading to the coast.

Lynn Eades, technology integration librarian who was working at the Health Sciences Library then, was on the bus. “I kept hearing about ‘From Murphy to Manteo,’” she said. “I had never been on the coast and didn’t know what the Institute of Marine Sciences did, so I thought it was a great opportunity.”

The group went trawling on the Bogue Sound, visited Fort Macon State Park and stayed in Beaufort. Then they headed west, where among other stops, they spent a night at the Balsam Mountain Inn 50 miles west of Asheville and square danced to bluegrass music.

“One of the nice things about going across the state was learning more about the Area Health Education Centers because the Health Sciences Library worked in conjunction with them,” Eades said. “We stopped at one, Mountain AHEC in Asheville, and got to see how that location was structured and the community it was serving.”

In 1998, Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh Morton, left, chats with Chancellor Michael Hooker on the mountain's famous Mile High Swinging Bridge. Tour participants talked with Morton about the effects of acid rain on upper-level forests. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

In 1998, Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh Morton, left, chats with Chancellor Michael Hooker on the mountain’s famous Mile High Swinging Bridge. Tour participants talked with Morton about the effects of acid rain on upper-level forests. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

That trip was a hit. Planning for the 1998 version started immediately. Participants incorporated what they learned into their work, some designing service-learning projects for students and directing research toward addressing issues they’d seen.

The stage was set for a long-term extension of the audacious effort to bring Carolina to the state’s small towns, large cities, American Indian communities, farms, commercial centers and places experiencing issues of health care access, education, racial inequities and disaster recovery.

Changes and constants in the tour and the state

Tours continued annually through 2008, but a recession triggered a pause until then-Interim Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz brought it back in October 2019 with 90 people, three buses and three days traveling different routes.

The 2001 tour included a stop at Steve Mitchell’s tobacco farm. Mitchell, left, shows cured tobacco to faculty member Penny Whiteside on the first day of that 1,100 mile, five-day tour. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The 2001 tour included a stop at Steve Mitchell’s tobacco farm in Bunn. Mitchell, left, shows cured tobacco to faculty member Penny Whiteside on the first day of that 1,100 mile, five-day tour. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Anita Brown-Graham, Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government and director of the ncIMPACT Initiative at the School of Government, was on the 1997 and 2019 tours. She speaks of constants: the humility she felt while taking in problems that communities face from natural and manmade disasters, the resolve she saw in the citizens facing the problems and her admiration for her seatmates’ scholarship and humanity.

She was struck on both tours by how some participants didn’t understand the state’s diversity. “They had come to UNC from different places, and their perception of the state, rooted in their experience on campus and in Chapel Hill, could not have been more different from the places we visited.”

Another constant is the positive response from communities. Lynn Blanchard, director of the Carolina Center for Public Service who has coordinated tours since 2003, said in a 2019 Well Said podcast. “I continue to be incredibly impressed at the welcome that we are offered when we call and say, ‘Could we come visit and learn more about the work you’re doing in partnership?’ To my knowledge, we had no one say no to us.”

The 2008 group listens as Dr. Steven Zeisel, center, director of the School of Public Health’s Nutrition Research Institute, speaks in the four-story atrium of the David H. Murdock core research laboratory building under construction on the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The 2008 group listens as Dr. Steven Zeisel, center, director of the School of Public Health’s Nutrition Research Institute, speaks in the four-story atrium of the David H. Murdock core research laboratory building under construction on the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Tours have consistently allowed administrators to show their humanity. “You might think some leaders are kind of standoffish,” Eades said. “Chancellor Hooker was so welcoming and open. You could go up and talk with him about really anything. It was nice to see a leader in a casual position, still having to be the chancellor of the University, but just out there having fun.”

Brown-Graham said that in 2019 Guskiewicz was not only “intrigued and excited about what we were seeing across the state, but he was engaged with faculty and administrators and seemed authentically inquisitive about what they were doing and how that could help the state.”

One more constant: square dancing. It’s on the 2022 western route, with Joe Sam Queen, a former N.C. legislator, calling dances just as he did in 2019 and 1997.

Tours prior to 2019 departed the day after spring commencement instead of traveling during fall break.

Aikat, also a 2019 rider, saw parallel changes in the tour and the state. He said 2019 was quite different. “No tobacco farm, no hog farm, hardly any barbecue. We went through places where UNC-Chapel Hill had strategic collaborations, many of which started in the 1990s. It was amazing to see how much the University has contributed to the economy. I learned that North Carolina is a state of striking contrasts. You have the poorest counties, you have hog and tobacco farms, and then you have high-tech hubs.”

Brown-Graham said that some stops may be in a trajectory of decline, while others are moving forward. “What’s so wonderful about the state is that there continues to be momentum, and what you might have captured in the last decade is different from now and will be different from the next one.”

Behind the scenes: Peeps, traffic jam, no GPS

Each tour requires months of planning. Staff visit possible locations — towns, military bases, parks, family-owned restaurants, historic sites, hotels, municipal buildings — before setting an itinerary. Scouts travel the entire route two weeks before the tour. During the tour, staff ride in an advance car a few hours ahead of each bus.

“We didn’t have GPS on our phones, so we’d print out MapQuest directions and plot our routes,” said Tanya Moore, an associate vice chancellor in University Communications, who helped plan four tours in the early 2000s.

Linda Douglas, senior director of volunteer engagement in University Development, worked on tours between 1999 and 2008. She helped with the 2019 tour and scouted a 2022 tour location. She said that Smith has been critical each year in ensuring that the planning committee stays true to the tour’s goals. For that role and his other contributions, Smith asks for payment in Peeps, the marshmallow candy, said Douglas. “We chose the Carolina Blue ones,” she said. “One year, we forgot the Peeps, so we turned the debrief meeting into an awards ceremony with one honoree and one award — Mike and his Peeps.”

In 2003, the group, many barefooted, stand in the sand of Wrightsville Beach.John Wells, former director of the Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences, talks to the group about the Mason Inlet project at Wrightsville Beach. Tour coordinator Linda Douglas stands next to Wells with bullhorn and tour notes in hand. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)


In 2003, John Wells, former director of the Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences, talks to the group about the Mason Inlet project at Wrightsville Beach. Tour coordinator Linda Douglas stands next to Wells with bullhorn and tour notes in hand. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Each year, planners create a field guide with details on stops for participants. Deep in the nitty-gritty, planners also prioritize the tour’s overall themes. “It’s no small feat to move a bus from one end of the state to the other over several days and make the stops meaningful,” said Moore.

Things don’t always go as planned. Advance person Lindsley Bowen once arrived at a site to find nothing in place but quickly put out chairs and got the venue ready. “It was perfect when we arrived,” Douglas said. On another trip, Moore called from the advance car to tell Douglas to find another way to the next town because of a traffic jam. Douglas rerouted the group without anyone realizing the difference.

“The trick was making things look smooth even when they weren’t going smoothly,” Douglas said.

As the tour has evolved, so has the work supporting it. Videographers and photographers from University Communications follow buses to supply content for Carolina’s channels and media relations personnel track the tour.

The tour’s value

Aside from the tour’s major goals, participants find their own value.

Maria Estorino, interim vice provost for University Libraries, shared in a 2019 blog post what she took away: “Seeing the places where our students come from was really transformative. In some places, it was inspiring and in other places, it was more complex because of the challenges those communities face. Being able to understand the great diversity of North Carolina allows us to better serve students.”

Participants are often left with a desire to return to communities, realizing that they’ve seen only a part of a large, complex state, Blanchard said. They also begin thinking about how to apply what they learn to their work. Douglas remembers the late Dr. Keith Amos, a surgical oncologist in the School of Medicine, taking a deep interest in Dudley’s Beauty Center, a Rocky Mount hair salon that promoted breast cancer self-exams. He returned to the salon to help its efforts, created a learning module for use by high school students and spoke at community events.

New partnerships in research and scholarship can form. “The beautiful thing is when people began working together across schools and departments after meeting on the bus,” Douglas said.

Brown-Graham said that the Tar Heel Bus Tour creates “this wonderful sense that faculty, staff and students could engage in work that could really benefit the state. For that reason, if for no other, I hope the bus tour lives on in perpetuity.”

Dr. Keith Amos gets a hug from breast cancer survivor Vanessa Rorie at the 2008 Tar Heel Bus Tour during the tour’s first stop in Rocky Mount at Dudley’s Beauty Center, where the group learned about the work of Breaking Free!, a project that uses community representatives to increase breast cancer awareness among black women in Nash and Edgecombe counties. Breaking Free ! trained seven area cosmetologists to speak with their hair clients about breast health while the clients are receiving salon services. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Dr. Keith Amos gets a hug from breast cancer survivor Vanessa Rorie at the 2008 Tar Heel Bus Tour during the tour’s first stop in Rocky Mount at Dudley’s Beauty Center, where the group learned about the work of Breaking Free!, a project that uses community representatives to increase breast cancer awareness among black women in Nash and Edgecombe counties. Breaking Free! trained seven area cosmetologists to speak with their hair clients about breast health while the clients are receiving salon services. (Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)