As one of the early faculty members at the State Normal and Industrial College (now UNC Greensboro), T. Gilbert Pearson (1872-1943) was a favorite among his students, but he is perhaps best known for helping to found the National Association of Audubon Societies.
Born in Indiana and raised in Florida, Pearson spent his early years developing an interest in nature. He lived with his family in a log cabin in the woods where he collected and sold rare and valuable eggs. He also traded the eggs for books about birds. By the age of 18, he had amassed a significant collection of eggs and mounted birds and parlayed it into payment toward a college tuition and board. In 1891, Guilford College, a private Quaker college located in Greensboro, North Carolina, agreed to accept the young man’s offer if he would consent to mount additional birds for the school’s ornithological museum. He had a very successful college life at Guilford College, becoming active in academic organizations and campus sports. After graduation, Pearson entered the University of North Carolina, located in Chapel Hill, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree. He then returned to Guilford College to teach biology and continued his interest in the preservation of the state’s dwindling bird population.
In 1901, Pearson decided to accept a position at the State Normal as the chair of the geology and biology department. His natural teaching style made him immediately beloved by the students. Virginia Brown (Class of 1902) recalled Pearson was “young, eager, the sort of person to whom each day seemed fresh as if just created. We caught his spirit.” The young professor impressed the students by reciting poetry and telling them stories about the birds and animal life he had seen in the wild before morning class. Believing that nature was the best teacher, he often left the confines of the classroom to hold sessions in his “laboratory,” Peabody Park, sometimes joined by equally captivated faculty members. The existence of this campus park enabled him to teach the young women in his charge about local birds and their migratory patterns. Thus, when they became teachers, they could pass the information to their students.
|Pearson (lower left) on an outing near Pilot Mountain, 1893|
The school’s president, Charles Duncan McIver, encouraged the young professor and asked him to establish a museum of native birds. It was during his time at the State Normal that Pearson wrote Stories of Bird Life and organized the first Audubon Society in North Carolina. He also served as Managing Editor of The State Normal Magazine.
Pearson’s life progressively would progressively take a turn toward conservation. In 1903, he became the Secretary of the National Audubon Society and State Game Commissioner. He also began to lobby the North Carolina legislature to pass a law that would give the Audubon Society the right to enforce wildlife laws in the state. This would be known as the “Audubon Act,” allowing a private organization to have public authority and creating the South’s first wildlife commission. Although McIver wanted to retain him on the faculty, Pearson left in 1904 to become a full-time agent for the newly formed National Association of Audubon Societies. He later became president of the organization.
Pearson continued as a prolific speaker and writer on behalf of North Carolina’s wildlife, penning an autobiography, Adventures in Bird Protection, as well as The Bird Study Book and Birds of North Carolina and serving as co-editor of the three-volume book, Birds of America. He would move into a national role in conservation, becoming secretary, and later president of the National Association of Audubon Societies.
After spending his life working toward the conservation of the state’s wildlife, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of North Carolina in 1924. Additionally, Pearson received the medal of the John Burroughs Association and was honored in France with the medal of the Society National d’Acclimatation. He passed away in in 1943 and now lays buried next to his wife Elise Weatherly Pearson (a State Normal alumna, Class of 1896) in Green Hill Cemetery in Greensboro.
By Kathelene McCarty Smith