Monday, March 7, 2016

Laura Hill Coit: “the best loved member of the faculty”

Almost fifty years after Laura Hill Coit first stepped on campus of the State Normal and Industrial School (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro), she retired from her position as secretary of the college and administrative assistant to the president. Physically and emotionally stretched beyond her health, she spent several years seeking treatment at a Philadelphia hospital before returning to North Carolina where she lived with her sister, Johnsie, until her death in 1944.

Laura Coit, Class of 1896
Coit’s dream had been to become a missionary. She was from a staunch Presbyterian family who was very committed to charitable work as well as education. Coit was one of the first students to attend the State Normal. After earning her first degree at Mitchell College, she sought an additional degree in science. She graduated from State Normal in 1896 and remained at the college to teach education, mathematics, and English. Although she had planned to join her brother, Robert, in missionary service in Korea directly after graduation, Coit returned to the State Normal in 1901 as the administrative assistant to the college president, Charles Duncan McIver. He increasingly depended on her to take on the responsibilities of running the school. In fact, Julius Foust, the college’s second in command, claimed that Coit had served as the unofficial vice president during the early years. McIver’s dependence on her was especially evident when in September of 1906, after Coit had tendered her resignation to travel to Korea, McIver hastened to her family home in Salisbury, North Carolina, to persuade her not to go. Days later McIver was dead, succumbing to a stroke on a train traveling home from Raleigh. After McIver’s sudden death in 1906, Coit decided to remain at the college to assist Julius Foust in his role as the new college president, and remained in that position for the next forty years. Foust found her “invaluable,” and in 1922 she was made a faculty member.

Charles Duncan McIver and the Coit family, 1906
Her gentle cheerful demeanor made her a friendly and approachable friend to new students. The young women remembered not only her pleasant greetings, but also her poise and control, characteristics that she proved during the fire in the Brick Dormitory in 1904 when she kept calm during the ensuing confusion. Coit also helped with student admissions, writing each girl to welcome her before they came to campus. She was known for not forgetting a name or a face, and continued to keep in touch with many students after they graduated. It is thought that she helped over 14,000 students’ transition to college life. The students adored her, and showed their appreciation by dedicating their campus yearbook to her twice. She was an active member of the Alumnae Association, serving as secretary-treasurer for nine years, president twice, and honorary president of the organization in 1922. In 1916, Coit was given a gold watch and chain, as well as a chatelaine pin, for her service in the Alumnae Association.

In the 1930s, Coit was put in charge of the Student Loan Fund, which allowed the students to borrow $250 during their time at the college. She not only managed the Fund, she also taught many of the young women to keep their finances. The Fund was subsequently named for her.

Laura Coit at her desk
Although she did not pursue her life as a missionary, she remained very involved in the Presbyterian Church, serving as the president of the Emma Gray Missionary Society and in various positions with the campus Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).  Coit was able to take a six month leave of absence in 1919 to visit her brother, who was serving as a missionary in Korea. On hearing of her trip, alumnae, faculty, and students sent her gifts and monetary donations.

Her health began to decline in the mid-1930s, and she officially retired in 1939. Her extensive medical care was quite expensive and her savings always seemed to go to the less fortunate. To help her pay the staggering medical costs, President Foust and Chancellor Jackson arranged for financial assistance for Coit. In July of 1939, the college changed the name of East Dormitory to Laura Coit Residence Hall to honor her. In the days after her death, Chancellor Jackson praised her decades of service to the school, declaring  that she had been “the best loved member of the faculty.”

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