Of all of the early faculty and staff of the State Normal and Industrial School (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro), Susan Mary Kirkland was one of the most formidable. “Sue May” was born in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and educated at the Burwell School and the Nash and Kollock Select Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies which were located in her home town. She taught briefly at Peace College in Raleigh, and it was there that she met Charles Duncan McIver. When the State Normal and Industrial School opened in the fall of 1892, Miss Kirkland followed him there to take the position of Lady Principal. She held this position for twenty-two years.
Her formal responsibilities ranged from “custodian of manners and morals” to” referee in matters social and domestic,” but these descriptions belie the true impact that Miss Kirkland had on the school. On arrival at the college, the girls were immediately impressed by their Principal’s education, ladylike demeanor, silver tea set, and personal maid, Amanda. The general awe with which she was viewed caused students to liken her majestic appearance to Queen Victoria, but her strong character, compassion, and caring nature inspired admiration and love from the many students in her care. One student, Phoebe Pegram, who had only had five days of formal education, recounted how Miss Kirkland had helped her learn how to talk and dress, even providing tutoring with her lessons. Valuable advice such as button your gloves, walk straight, and come back right after church, was also dispensed.
Although Miss Kirkland was a stickler for formalities such as proper dress and decorum, she also had a good sense of humor. Constantly correcting those who called her “Mrs. Kirkland,” she often reminded the uninformed that she was “Miss Kirkland, by choice.” Not that she was unsympathetic to the plight of her young charges to gain access to male company. Although school regulations determined that male visitors were restricted to holidays and other structured times, girls managed to develop romances under her care. On one occasion, Miss Kirkland and Miss Viola Boddie, another unmarried faculty member, were visiting in a parlor across the hall from where students were entertaining several young men. Miss Boddie commented disapprovingly that when she was young, she was never allowed to receive gentlemen callers without a chaperone. Miss Kirkland pointed out, “My mother did the same thing - and see what it did for us!”
Sadly, Miss Kirkland died unexpectedly on June 8, 1914 while visiting her sister in Raleigh. Subsequently, a campus dormitory was named in her honor. This Craftsman style building, located at the current site of the Moran Commons and Plaza, was torn down in 1964.