The founder and his dream

Campbell University will unveil Friday at 3 p.m. a new campus landmark in front of Kivett Hall: a 7-foot bronze statue of Founding President J.A. Campbell. Among those scheduled to attend the unveiling ceremony are nearly a dozen members of the Campbell family, including Tom Campbell, the host and moderator of NC Spin who will speak on behalf of the family. He is the great-grandson of J.A. Campbell and the grandson of Leslie Hartwell Campbell, who served as the university’s president after his father’s death in 1934 to 1967.

“Jim Arch had red hair and just this incredible personality, and many times the school continued just through the strength of his own personality and sheer will,” Tom Campbell says.

Despite his family ties to the school, Tom Campbell didn’t attend Campbell University. “Granddad (Leslie Hartwell Campbell) wanted me to go to Campbell, but as a young boy I smoked cigarettes and I danced,” he says, laughing, “neither of which he approved of.”

But he still has plenty of memories of being on Campbell University’s main campus. He spent many childhood summer days in his grandfather’s office, which was then in the same building as the student store. “I’d . . . get a pencil or a nickel pack of notebook paper, and my brother and I would play underneath his desk,” he says. Today, the desk sits in his own office.

Also passed down to him have been the lessons learned from his great-grandfather J.A. Campbell and his founding of Buies Creek Academy in 1887. He penned this reflection on J.A. Campbell’s legacy.

Tom Campbell: The founder and his dream

Jim Arch always stood out in a crowd. His red hair, blue eyes and bushy mustache attracted attention, but his engaging, charismatic personality drew people to him. With little formal education and practically no money he started, in 1887, what is now Campbell University. There is no reason what author Winston Pearce described as the “Big Miracle at little Buies Creek” should have happened, but the story is worth remembering and retelling.

Many private academies and colleges opened and closed since Campbell’s founding. There is no major center of commerce or natural resources to make the region appealing. No major benefactors like the Dukes or Reynolds endowed the school; in fact the elite often sent their children to more prestigious colleges. Naysayers predicted this “bumblebee” school could never fly, but today, in the middle of nowhere, Campbell boasts schools of law, business, pharmacy, divinity and now a medical school among the best in the nation.

As an itinerant young preacher Jim Arch traveled the North Carolina countryside and what he encountered was appalling. In those Reconstruction times there was both a poverty of spirit and financial poverty, the people’s health even poorer and illiteracy was commonplace.

Jim Arch was convicted to begin Buies Creek Academy because he believed education was not only essential to making a better living but also a better life. That first semester 21 showed up — five helped build the new schoolhouse. They paid tuition in hogs, cabbages or whatever produce their families could spare. The hardships were unimaginable, including a fire that devastated the building and books that housed the school. But James Archibald Campbell had a dream. He preached, cajoled, begged, worked tirelessly and taught, by example as well as words, the value of hard work and education.

James Archibald Campbell was my great-grandfather. He died nine years before I was born but I knew his wife, Miss Neely (Cornelia Pearson) and his three children, Bessie, Carlyle and my grandfather, Leslie. Jim Arch and his two sons graduated on the same day from Wake Forest College. All three were college presidents and his daughter taught music at Campbell after graduating from Meredith.

As Campbell unveils a statue on Founder’s Day to honor Jim Arch there are lessons we can learn from this success story. Paramount is that dedicated, committed leadership that refuses to give up almost always trumps other mitigating circumstances. Campbell has been blessed by the founder and my grandfather Leslie as presidents, as well as Norman Wiggins and Jerry Wallace. They have managed to convince superior faculty to teach in what admittedly is less than the ideal setting. Dedication to the mission has encouraged alumni and supporters to work tirelessly in support and more than a few who rose to achieve prominence and wealth have been willing to invest in this dream.

We need reminding that dreaming big can achieve great results. Focused hard work does not go unrewarded. Many hands, united in a common effort, make success more likely. And Churchill frequently reminded us to never, ever give up. — Tom Campbell, executive producer and moderator of NC Spin

5 things J.A. Campbell said

  1. “If you have the character of the true lady or gentleman and know your letters, do not let your ignorance keep you out of school. Come, and we will gladly aid you.”
  2. “It’s worth one’s while to work day and night to be misunderstood and misrepresented, to give one’s life for others and at last to die poor in order that he may make others useful and happy. There is no other life worth living. A man never knows real happiness until he has felt this.”
  3. “Prosperity reveals our weaknesses, adversity our strength. Let us not despise that which shows us our better selves.”
  4. “There are few greater blessings to a young man just starting out in the world than to know he has the friendship of some good men.”
  5. “I want you to promise me that, insofar as it is within your power, if the time ever comes when Christ is not honored in this school, the name ‘Campbell’ will come off the buildings.”

5 things said about J.A. Campbell

  1. “He was hard working, never idle—he loved to see things hum. At times the load he carried was almost crushing. Many women think their husbands are great men, I knew mine was.”— wife Cornelia Pearson Campbell
  2. “The teacher stands among them saying little, showing little, wonderfully quiet and surprisingly gentle, with a word for everyone and that word of life. They love him because he loves them. . . . That has made the school . . . the rule of love.”— former student
    U.S. Senator Josiah W. Bailey
  3. “He’s a good preacher—a true servant of the Lord if there ever was one. Always in good spirits, too, telling jokes, laughing. He’s no long-faced preacher; makes everybody feel the joy of religion. That’s another reason why folks like him. Tender-hearted — why, you know how he gets so full sometimes when he’s preaching that the tears stream down his face. And the next minute, he’ll be telling a joke!”— father-in-law William Pearson
  4. “It is an inspiration to see what this man, endowed with energy and ambition, has accomplished in this remote country neighborhood. Is it any wonder that Buies Creek Academy is the pride of Harnett County?”— The State Chronicle editor
    Josephus Daniels
  5. “Almighty God directs that institution, and J.A. Campbell is his willing servant.”— Harnet County News Editor
    Henderson Steele

#CampbellFoundersWeek Coverage

On Cornelia Pearson Campbell

Since the day J.A. Campbell opened Buies Creek Academy, there was one other person who was there with him every step of the way and throughout his 47-year presidency—his wife, Cornelia Pearson Campbell.

When BCA’s classes began on Jan. 5, 1887, Cornelia Pearson was a student. By the end of the day, she was a teacher, working with the younger students. She would go on to serve the school as business manager and assistant principal.

For a few months in 1890, she even served as head principal as J.A. Campbell took a short leave to work full time as pastor of the Baptist church in Dunn and to begin his first term as superintendent of the Harnett County public schools. That same year, she and J.A. Campbell married.

Tom Campbell said his great-grandmother, who died in1963 at age 97, was known for her creative and savvy business skills. She even arranged to have cows kept on campus, both so they could trim the grass and be used as food. He added:

“Ms. Neely was a very elderly lady who ran the household and was always able to make ends meet. Buies Creek was never a big financial success. The stories around the Campbell were that many a farmer in Harnett County didn’t have cash to pay for his son’s education, so he would pay in pigs or cabbage or potatoes or whatever else they grew, and that’s how they paid for education. And Ms. Neely was always there to make ends meet, and use that to feed the school.”