I’ve been whirligigged!

That may not be an actual expression, but it accurately captures the joy and whimsy of visiting the City of Wilson’s downtown park filled with enormous, artistic windmills. Created by Vollis Simpson, whirligigs are the official folk art of North Carolina and are at the heart of a transformation taking place in Wilson as abandoned tobacco warehouses, empty mills and vacant lots are redeveloped into housing, retail and offices. RLF is working with a development firm that is participating in public private partnerships in Wilson and other communities. A field trip to see the sites first-hand was overdue. 

As part of the 36-hour trip, I visited East Carolina University for the first time in nearly 3 decades. While I have read about the remarkable growth and reinvention of ECU, it does not do justice to how this school has grown to meet the needs of North Carolinians. With a student body of more than 28,000 (and nearly half of those undergraduate and graduate students focused on STEM and Healthcare careers), ECU is a powerhouse. 

Dr. Jin-Ae Kang hosted me and Jane Nickles to dinner the night before I met with her students in the Department of Communication. We met Dr. Kang last summer at an event in Charlotte hosted by my Worldcom partner Bill Imada out of Los Angeles. She graciously invited us to visit ECU, tour the campus and speak with some of the more than 700 students in the School of Communication.  

As we had dinner at the Dickinson Avenue Public House, Dr. Kang told the story of how she had come to the United States. She was born and raised in South Korea. She earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Seoul. And then, without ever having visited the United States and knowing no one here, she applied for a doctoral program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. How brave! How committed! I used to think I was being bold when I traveled from North Carolina to Philadelphia to attend graduate school at Temple University, but Dr. Kang’s story puts me to shame!

The drive back from Greenville is smooth and fast, with Highway 264 a paved testament to the vision of 4-term governor Jim Hunt and our unofficial slogan of “the good roads state.” But even from the highway it is impossible to ignore the sweeping landscape of farms and open spaces. I have often said that people who live in the I-85\I-40 crescent that spans from Charlotte to Raleigh have little concept of the rural power that has defined our state for more than 300 years. 

The next time you take a trip to the North Carolina Coast, get off the interstates and highways to take the back roads. Let the history, beauty and significance of our state sink in.