William Powell

2007 SeasonWilliam Powell

Bill Powell is widely considered the "dean" of North Carolina historians. Born in 1919 in Johnston County and raised in Statesville, Powell attended Mitchell College for two years before transferring to the University of North Carolina. He graduated in 1940, entered the U.S. Army, and served in the military intelligence branch in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He returned to Chapel Hill after the war to earn degrees in history and library science. After one year as a librarian at Yale University, in 1948 he became a full-time research historian at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.

In 1952, Powell became assistant librarian at the North Carolina Collection at UNC, and in 1958, he was promoted to curator. In that capacity he helped build what is now regarded as the premier research collection on state history. In 1973, he became a professor of history at the university, teaching more than 6,000 students before his retirement in 1986. Many of his students and protégés have gone on to hold significant positions at the state's libraries, archives, colleges, and universities.

While he has written or edited numerous volumes of state and local history, Powell's most important contributions are reference works that have long been regarded as foundations for North Carolina history and as models for similar works in other states. The North Carolina Gazetteer (1968) is a geographical dictionary that lists the names, founding date, and a snippet of history on every notable place in the state. The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (1979- 1996) spans six volumes and contains almost 4,000 biographies of people who made significant contributions to North Carolina history. Over the course of many years, Powell collected and edited entries from volunteers, as well as writing hundreds of entries himself. His North Carolina Through Four Centuries (1989) remains a standard college textbook. The scope and quantity of his writings are unmatched and include documentary volumes on the Regulators and William Tryon, an illustrated history of UNC, a biography of John Pory, and a history of Caswell County.

The library catalog at UNC-Chapel Hill lists some 112 books and articles by Powell. For his accomplishments, he was honored with the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2000.

Powell celebrates his 87th birthday this year. He lives with his wife and research partner, Virginia, in Chapel Hill.


John Pory, 1572-1636: The Life and Letters of a Man of Many Parts

Paradise Preserved: A History of the Roanoke Island Historical Association

The North Carolina Gazetteer

Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Vols. 1-6

North Carolina: A History

Encyclopedia of North Carolina

The First State University: A Pictorial History of The University of North Carolina

North Carolina Through Four Centuries



Encyclopedia of North Carolina - Hang Gliding 

Hang Gliding has been associated with the North Carolina coast from the sport’s earliest incarnation. Francis Rogallo and his wife and coinventor Gertrude set out in the early 1940s to see if they could design a kite or flexible wing that could be held together in controlled flight by the action of the air itself. The result, patented in 1947, was the Rogallo Wing, which was considered in the early years of the space program as a possible method of returning space capsules to earth. The Rogallos began examining the possibility of developing a man-carrying Rogallo Wing at Southern Shores, just north of Kitty Hawk, in 1967, conducting experiments on the beach in front of their cottage with the help of a daughter and interested neighbors. The couple moved to Southern Shores in 1972, by which time people were building and flying their own Rogallo Wings with modifications that included the addition of tubes on the wings and keel and a crossbar in front. The term “hang gliding” soon came into use, probably when practitioners had difficulty describing their unusual activity as Rogalloing or, even worse, Rogallo Winging. Interest in the new activity spread so rapidly that the first national hang gliding meet was held in the summer of 1973 at Jockey’s Ridge.

A Rogallo Wing has no engine, no wheels, no brakes—in fact no moving parts. The rider takes off in the Rogallo Wing running downhill as fast as possible with the wing in front. The position of the nose must be exact, because miscalculating can result in either too much drag or the nose dipping and ramming into the ground. Once in flight, the rider hangs in a prone position, face down, in a harness that hugs his or her hips, with hands holding on to the crossbar in front. To nose down, the rider pulls forward a little bit; to nose up, the rider pushes back; and to turn left or right, the rider pushes his or her body to the desired side. The easiest part of all is landing: the rider simply noses way up, causing forward motion to stop, and lands on his or her feet like a bird.

The procedures followed by the first people to experiment with the Rogallo Wing have continued, as fliers using hang gliders the world over have learned to climb and stay aloft for hours by flying back and forth in rising air currents. Thousands of people, men and women, children and seniors, have taken lessons and learned to fly hang gliders at Jockey’s Ridge. In fact, the ridge’s name has become almost as synonymous with hang gliding as those of nearby Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk are with the first flights by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903. Grandfather Mountain and other sites in the western section of North Carolina have also become favorite spots for hang gliding enthusiasts.

Reference: Wolfgang Langewiesche, “The Flyingest Flying There Is,” Reader’s Digest (February 1974).

David Stick

From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH CAROLINA edited by William S. Powell. Copyright (c) 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu.