It’s hard to believe that a young first year student from Charlotte named Napoleon would move to Chapel Hill for college in the early 1970s and find another North Carolina student with as memorable a name as his—Queenie—with whom he would create a lasting partnership. But it’s true.
This is a Chapel Hill love story – and much more.
Napoleon and Queenie Byars celebrated their retirement this week. The are leaving the School of Journalism from which they both graduated. No amount of jawboning would get them to stay. They leave with the sound of cheering in their ears. They leave on their own terms.
They always have.
When they left Chapel Hill upon graduation they got married and joined the Air Force. This was not a season of patriotism. The U.S. had evacuated Vietnam yet the sting of that war was strong. The tensions between those serving the country and the public real. Both traveled the world for the military, worked in public affairs, as editors of the Stars and Stripes and as information officers in various ports of call. They came to Washington and worked at the highest ranks of the Pentagon. They both retired as Colonels.
Success wasn’t enough for them. Challenges called. So did North Carolina. First Napoleon began teaching public relations at UNC Then Queenie did. Their classes always had waiting lists. They both had real world experiences and the drive to share what they know with students, but that wasn’t the reason that students signed up for their classes.
They each gave something different to the students – their own experience of the art and science of persuasion and public communications. But they also shared the same thing with students. A genuine interest in a student’s life, dreams, and frustrations. Napoleon and Queenie have shared a life, and a career, and a philosophy that translates into a bond with students that is real. Word got around: “You want to take at least one course with the Byars while you are the J-school.” This year when word got out of their retirement, I had students beg to get into their classes.
I’m trying to understand what makes the difference in a professor that is successful and one that transforms lives. It’s academic integrity. It’s intellectual complexity. It’s charismatic and inspirational teaching. Watching the Byars this year, who have all the above, I’ve decided the difference they have is the commitment to the soul of a student. They don’t just meet and challenge young Tar Heels with dreams like they had in the 1970s. They listen, coach, care about, and become part of the stories of the students they teach, mentor and track.
I said this is a Chapel Hill love story. It’s about Napoleon and Queenie who found each other and a meaningful way of life at America’s first public university.
And it is also about what can happen on a campus inside and outside a classroom when men and women of substance pursue ideas, knowledge, understanding and justice and commit to building new generations of leaders.
As a dean, I don’t want this Napoleon and Queenie story to end this year. University life is often quantified in such one-dimensional ways – papers, accomplishments, grades and awards. I have found through Napoleon and Queenie something so much richer academically.
Their own transformation from young North Carolina kids to graduates and national leaders. And on return to the University, their ability to work with students who were often outsiders, unsure, or tentative and make them see what can happen when you study, experience, risk and learn about the world and then, put your mark on it.
Chapel Hill is not simply a place. Napoleon and Queenie introduced me to the idea behind this great institution – with rigor, exploration and values lives are changed.