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Members of the book club stand lined up side by side outside in a field, facing the camera.

Members of the “Great Books 40+” book club and spouses (from left to right ): Michelle Matthew, Scott Granowski, Tim Terrell, Grace Emerson Terrell, John McGowan, Jane Danielwicz, Pitt Hyde, Barbara Rosser Hyde, Anne Beeson Royalty, Bob Royalty, Ed Rak, Lise Rak, Dennis Whittle. Class members not pictured: Kim Kleman, Frances Seymour.

Rarely do students have the chance to recreate their favorite class and have their beloved professor join them more than 40 years later. Thanks to the close ties formed during English Professor Weldon E. Thornton’s “Great Books Seminar” in 1981, several of those students — now in their early 60s — have done just that.

Inspired by Thornton’s teaching and humanistic approach to learning, they have reconvened to reread most of the books from the original syllabus as well as more contemporary complements to the traditional canon.

Thornton taught for 44 years at Carolina before retiring in 2005. During that time, he received five teaching awards, including the Board of Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Dubbed the “Great Books 40+” book club, Barbara Hyde ’83, Kim Kleman ’83, Anne and Bob Royalty ’83 and others from the original class have met twice a month for the past three years.

black and white headshot of Weldon Thornton
Weldon Thornton’s faculty portrait from 1997.

“We thought: Wouldn’t it be amazing to reconstruct this very formative experience we had as students, this time with the benifit of decades of life experience?” Hyde said. “Grappling with extraordinary works of literature with engaged classmates and an inspiring teacher was an experience that I always hoped a college class would be. The reading schedule was grueling, but something we were secretly proud of.”

Today, the class meets over Zoom and in person to reexamine texts, which have included Plato’s The Republic and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

“We’re able to have these rich conversations because of that grounding with the class in 1981,” added Kleman.

In addition to the year-long “Great Books Seminar” that met twice a week, Anne Royalty recalls being invited to Thornton’s house once a week to sit around a table and talk. “He created a space for really engaging with intellectual and personal questions outside of the classroom,” she said. Bob Royalty cites Thornton as the reason he became a professor of history and religion.

During the reading group’s first meeting in January 2021, Thornton, who was in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease, was able to join.

More notable than their professional accomplishments was “all the good they’ve gone on to do in the world,” said Barbara Thornton, Weldon’s wife of 65 years, who also joined that first meeting. “Weldon was so pleased by that.”

Book club members agreed that their professional and personal accomplishments are a byproduct of the commitment to vigorous intellectual pursuit and an appreciation for life that Thornton modeled and taught. He encouraged his students as they explored the enduring life questions found in the books they read together..

“He treated us as equals learning alongside him,” Kleman recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘what can I say about Virgil’s Aeneid or Homer’s the Iliad at age 19,’ but the confidence I gained from being his student has stuck with me throughout my life.”

Thornton passed away, at age 86, about six months after joining the group’s first meeting.

Bob Royalty and Dennis Whittle stand outside side by side.
“Great Books 40+” book club members Bob Royalty ’83 and Dennis Whittle ’83.

The Weldon Thornton Memorial Teaching Award and Society

John McGowan, a Carolina teaching legend and prominent scholar, stepped in to help facilitate the group’s discussions. McGowan and Hyde are leading the fundraising effort to establish The Weldon Thornton Memorial Teaching Award and Society in Thornton’s honor.

The award will recognize outstanding teaching in the humanities and be presented to a professor who demonstrates many of Thornton’s qualities.

Award recipients will become a part of the Weldon Thornton Society, composed of alumni, faculty, students and friends of the Carolina community and founded on the idea that humanistic inquiry fuels a lifetime of ongoing reflection, discovery and community.

“The new Weldon Thornton Society and Teaching Award affirm the central place of the humanities in the arts and sciences tradition that has long defined a Carolina education,” said Jim Leloudis, the Peter T. Grauer Associate Dean for Honors Carolina. “Today, more than ever, we need humanistic study to clarify our values, guide our engagement with the great issues of our time and help us shape purposeful lives.”

When asked about what her late husband would think about the teaching award and society being formed in his honor, Barbara Thornton said, “He’d be so thrilled.”

color headshot of Weldon Thornton
Weldon E. Thornton

A storied Carolina career

In 1961, at the age of 25, Thornton, and his wife Barbara, arrived in Chapel Hill. He was offered a one-year term teaching position that was renewable twice. Little did he know he’d spend the rest of his career at Carolina, retiring in 2005, and how much he would inspire so many students to become great thinkers.

In addition to many professional accomplishments in his primary area of research and publication, Irish and British literature, and a renowned reputation for work on James Joyce, Thornton thought of himself first and foremost as a teacher.

As his family shared in his obituary, Thornton was a man of great energy and curiosity who enjoyed many pursuits outside academia. He loved the adventure and education of travel. He was audacious enough to think that he could build a house for his family. In the summer of 1971 he did just that — with the help of his carpenter father and a small crew of family members, including two 13-year olds. Fifty years later, his family still calls the house they built together “home.”

Thornton easily related to people of all walks of life, according to his wife. He was at work on a book of intellectual history until the infirmities of his illness caused him to lay it aside.

To make a gift to the Weldon E. Thornton Honors Distinguished Teaching Award, contact Anne Collins at anne.collins@unc.edu or (919) 962-0108 or visit the secure giving form.

By Meredith Tunney


Published in the Spring 2024 issue | The Scoop

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