Few individuals have had closer ties to NC State through its 125 years than John W. Harrelson.
Harrelson was valedictorian of his class when he graduated from North Carolina State College in 1909. He immediately went to work as a math instructor at the college, and later became a professor. He was head of the math department when he was appointed dean of administration in 1934. That meant he was in charge of State College — the first alumnus to hold that position — since there was no university chancellor at the time. That would change in 1945, when Harrelson’s title was changed to chancellor.
Then, on this day in 1952, Harrelson announced that he was resigning, effective the following summer when he would be 68. The Technician reported that for 18 years, Harrelson “was a familiar sight, garbed in a navy blue suit and a hat with a downturned brim.”
Clarence Poe, a member of the Board of Trustees for the university system, said at the time that State College had made more progress under Harrelson than under all of his predecessors combined. Another trustee, not named in the article, praised the excellent work being done in the schools of Textiles and Agriculture.
But Harrelson also had his controversies, most notably with students who felt they were not given enough freedom under his leadership. One nagging issue was how students were penalized for missing classes. When a student dance was cancelled in 1938 to avoid disturbing the neighors of fraternity houses, students staged a protest. “At the next freshman assembly when Harrelson rebuked the students for the incident, he was loudly hissed,” according to an account by Alice Elizabeth Reagan in North Carolina State University: A Narrative History.
Harrelson, a World War I veteran, was known for his military bearing. In 1943, he became the first head of a major college in the South (and 56th member of the State College faculty) to be called for permanent active duty. He was appointed deputy chief of the Army Specialized Training Program in the Fourth Service Command, a post he held for 16 months before returning to State College. The Faculty Council ran the college in Harrelson’s absence.
It was not so easy to replace Harrelson following his resignation. Reagan writes that several possible candidates refused the job “because of the low salary and limited authority.”
It took trustees more than a year to finally settle on Carey Hoyt Bostian, director of instruction in the School of Agriculture, to be NC State’s next chancellor.