- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It starts with the Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad Co., one of North Carolina’s most successful short-line railroads. It ends with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the fourth-largest philanthropic organization in the state.

In between, William S. Powell — the 87-year-old historian with a textbook memory, the man whose Encyclopedia of North Carolina covers 1,328 pages and 2,053 entries — forgot how he met his wife.

“I wish … Virginia,” he yelled, calling for his wife of 54 years. “She remembers. I can remember 17th-, 18th-century events, but I can’t remember what happened yesterday.”

Not much from yesterday is listed in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, a 15-year project that has resulted in a comprehensive history of the Tar Heel State written in small essays on various topics. The $65 book is the third major historical reference book written or edited by the professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina.

“Whereas most of us might go read the latest best-seller novel, he’d rather spend his time working in his study on some kind of North Carolina puzzle that he’s trying to solve,” said Jeffrey Crow, deputy director of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. “It’s just part of him. He’s devoted his whole life to it.”

More than 550 researchers, including scholars and reporters, contributed to the project. Mr. Powell, who wrote dozens of entries himself, edited each submission. Starting with the opening entry on the short-line railroad, the encyclopedia is a 3-inch-thick tome rich with detail and full of trivia:

• In which North Carolina city was Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” banned from the library? Page 427: Asheville.

• Who died trying to prove Mount Mitchell is the highest point in the eastern United States? Page 769: UNC Chapel Hill Professor Elisha Mitchell.

• When did the state’s “Tar Heel” nickname make its first appearance? Page 1,103: 1863, in the diary of Lt. William B.A. Lowrance.

The encyclopedia adds to Mr. Powell’s legacy in the state’s community of researchers and historians. He edited the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, which was published in six volumes between 1979 and 1996. It contains biographical sketches of about 4,000 North Carolinians. He wrote the North Carolina Gazetteer, a geographical dictionary published in 1968 that details the origin and history of 20,000 place names.

“Most of us don’t know how we survived without the North Carolina Gazetteer before it was published,” Mr. Crow said.

Even though he was in his early 70s when he began working on the encyclopedia, Mr. Powell said he never considered that he might not finish it. He technically retired from UNC Chapel Hill in 1986, and although he had to give up his office in the history department, Mr. Powell still keeps a study on campus at the school’s Davis Library. He tries to work eight hours every day and a few more after dinner.

“Age doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “As long as you can get up every morning and be excited about something to do, you don’t need to worry about your age.”

Mr. Powell has three degrees from the university, earned before and after his four-year tour in the Army during World War II. But a doctorate isn’t among them, making him something of a rarity in academia. He started at the school as an assistant librarian in 1952, working in the North Carolina collection, and went on to teach history from 1973 until his retirement.

It’s an avocation, Mr. Powell said, that came from the one month a year he would spend with his grandmother as a child. She told him stories of the Civil War, in which Mr. Powell’s grandfather fought for Confederacy. Eager for more, he would sit on the steps of the Iredell County Courthouse and listen to Civil War veterans tell their stories.

“He never tires of doing research and writing North Carolina history,” Mr. Crow said. “He loves it so much that it’s just an outgrowth of his personality. It’s both a profession and a hobby with him.”

It is not one he plans to put down any time soon. With the encyclopedia complete, Mr. Powell has moved on to updating his eighth-grade history textbook as he starts to research the life of Frank I. Wilson, a 19th-century reporter and author whom Powell discovered while browsing through old newspapers.

“I’m afraid I don’t know very much about Frank I. Wilson,” said Mrs. Powell, “but I guess I’m going to learn about him because that’s what he wants to do next.”

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