by Kathelene McCarty Smith
Virginia Brown was one of the North Carolina State Normal and Industrial College’s (now UNC Greensboro) first students. Because State Normal did not give formal degrees in the early years of the school, Virginia and six classmates returned to the college for a fifth year to receive their degrees. Virginia majored in Zoology. Her Botany teacher was T. Gilbert Pearson, founder of the North Carolina Audubon Society, who she described as “the great bird man of the world.” His fascination with ornithology often took him out of the classroom, resulting in Virginia teaching his class and becoming an authority on birds and wildflowers. She was also very inspired by math professor Gertrude Mendenhall, chemistry professor Mary Petty, and Dr. Anna Gove, the college’s second physician. Virginia credited Dr. Gove for being the most influential person in her life.
|Virginia and her horse Victor|
Virginia was always considered strong willed, more interested in outdoor pursuits than domestic duties. While attending State Normal, she insisted on riding her horse, Victor, to school every day. Victor would be stabled in the campus barn with Dr. McIver’s horse during the day, then he and Virginia would trek home every afternoon. Victor was given to her by her father, a merchant and livery stable owner. Known as “one of the wildest riders in the state,” she was often seen racing Victor around Greensboro.
Virginia later married local lawyer, Robert D. Douglas, grandson of Stephen A. Douglas of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates. Robert was a match for her free spirit, and he encouraged her interests. The couple had four children: two daughters and two sons. Her son Robert Douglas, Jr. and her daughter Virginia both became lawyers. Her daughter, Helen, joined the Army and was stationed in Australia. Sadly, her son Stephen, was killed while piloting his own plane.
From all accounts, Virginia was a very unconventional mother for her time. Their house often smelled like scuppernong wine, which she made in the attic. One of her children commented about their mother, “She could never cook worth a dern. Rather than being the sweet little mother who stayed home and took care of the household, her interest was in birds, flowers, and mountains. She was always encouraging us to get involved in the study of nature.”
Virginia and her children traveled all over the state, studying wildflowers in 76 out of North Carolina’s 100 counties. The children recall traipsing through the swamps of eastern North Carolina looking for unusual flowers or wild birds. Closer to home, they collected leaves and built birdhouses. Their father also helped fuel the children’s imagination by reading them exciting tales of adventure, such as The Jungle Book, and by looking the other way as they slid down the banister of their family home in Fisher Park.
Virginia never lost her love of learning. In 1928, she returned to her alma mater and earned a degree in English, from what was then called the North Carolina College for Women. Virginia’s journeys led her further afield than North Carolina, traveling around the world twice. She remained active into old age, riding horses, mowing her own lawn, and even trekking across the world to visit her daughter in Tasmania in her nineties. Virginia lived to be 101 and when she died, she was one of the two oldest surviving alumnae of the college. She is still referred to as the school’s first commuter student and the image of Virginia and Victor arriving on campus for class figures prominently in the history of the early campus.