The meeting opens with the deep toll of a tabletop gong, and then a poem, William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.”
Bryan Crutcher, secretary-treasurer of the Horace Williams Philosophical Discussion Group, recites the poem from memory, in tribute to E.K. Fretwell Jr., a longtime member and second chancellor of UNC Charlotte, who died Oct. 18 at age 88.
Fretwell is but one of a long line of notable Charlotte citizens who have proudly listed under his credentials the Horace Williams Philosophical Discussion Group, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
This group embodies and preserves many of the things lost in this instant-gratification era of television news and real-time Internet updates. Its members keep alive a delight in learning outside the classroom or the work place, meeting every month to fill their minds with facts, stats and opinions about a current issue – and then talking about it for three or four hours.
Just because they enjoy it.
“I feel awfully honored to be taken in by these people,” said Sugar Sethi, a Charlotte psychiatrist who joined the group a few years ago. “It’s an excellent place to share ideas, to listen to people.”
Many on the group’s current roster of about 30 members have been around for more than a decade. To join the Horace Williams Philosophical Discussion Group, you must be invited to a meeting by a member, and then approved by a nominating committee of five members.
That’s how Crutcher joined. Sydnor Thompson, a former N.C. Court of Appeals judge, invited him to dinner years ago.
“If Judge Sydnor Thompson wanted me to go to a mud-wrestling match, I would go to that, just to be in his company,” Crutcher said.
His admiration is understandable. Thompson was a Fulbright Scholar and a member of the Harvard Law Review and was involved in Briggs v. Elliott, a South Carolina school segregation lawsuit that was combined with the Brown v. the Board of Education case.
Thompson has served as the group’s president since 1988; not many more than a handful of men have served before him. He has been a member since about 1960.
The only time he misses a meeting? “When there’s an opera on the same night,” he said.
As president, Thompson presides over meetings. He ensures that the speaker sticks to the allotted time and that the members ask the speaker just one question each.
The membership represents five professions – academia, medicine, law, business and clergy – and members often also give the monthly presentations.
In November, right after the presidential election and before the group’s holiday break, William Brandon presented “Après l’élection, le Déluge,” about the survival of the Health Care Affordability Act. He is the Metrolina Medical Foundation Distinguished Professor of Health Policy at UNC Charlotte and a group member since 1994.
Charlotte’s who’s who
Thompson speaks of Horace Williams with respect – and amusement. “He is like Plato, interested in the concept or idea, rather than the material thing, like Aristotle.”
Williams spent his life questioning authority and flouting convention; he was known as the Gadfly of Chapel Hill and annoyed his neighbors by allowing his livestock to run freely about his yard.
He taught philosophy at UNC Chapel Hill from 1890 to 1940, pushing his students to think instead of memorize and revolutionize instead of regurgitate information. His style exasperated some (he is the model for the character of Professor Vergil Weldon in Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel”), but he inspired four Charlotte-bound UNC graduates to start the Horace Williams Philosophical Discussion Group in the summer of 1912.
Taking Professor Williams’ suggestion that they study Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s “Philosophy of History,” Frank Graham, Fred Leinbach, Charles Tillett and Otho B. Ross started the group and met every Sunday afternoon.
But, as Ross wrote in letter to the group dated Oct. 4, 1966, “Discussion took over study,” and the Horace Williams Philosophical Discussion Group evolved into what it is today.
Ross’ son, Otho B. Ross Jr., still has a direct connection to Williams; he lived with the aging professor in Chapel Hill in his later years. Ross is in his 90s now, but he still attends the monthly meetings.
The group counts a list of Charlotte’s history-makers as alumni:
• James McMillan, the judge who issued the order for mandatory busing for Mecklenburg County schools, making Charlotte and Mecklenburg a national model to help eliminate school segregation.
• John Parker, Monroe native, U.S. Supreme Court nominee and alternate judge for the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II.
• Harry Golden, publisher of the Carolina Israelite newspaper and a satirist who was mentioned in the Phil Ochs song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”
• Herschel Johnson, U.S. ambassador to Sweden, Brazil and the United Nations.
• Herman Blumenthal, businessman and philanthropist.
• Herbert Spaugh, a bishop of the Moravian Church.
In that 1966 letter to the group’s members, Ross Sr. tries to address the question of how their assembly made a difference in history.
“John Parker wrote a paper for us on international law. He made this speech at Harvard and it was printed in the Law Journal. Someone told Truman about it, and he sent Parker to Nuremburg,” he wrote. “… There was a meeting that we held at Myers Park Country Club to talk about promoting Frank Graham for UNC Presidency. Frank had some time before issued a statement taking the position of the right of labor to organize: an unforgivable offense. Then Charles Tillett wrote a brochure about Frank. We circulated it to the Trustees. We dared not back him in the press. Frank was elected on the third ballot.”
Graham, UNC president from 1930 to 1949, was a regular member of the Horace Williams Philosophical Discussion Group.
Thompson and Crutcher aren’t quite so explicit about the group’s influence beyond the monthly meeting room.
“We discuss topics,” Crutcher said. “We don’t go out and solve world poverty or world hunger, … but our members do change our lives.”
The next 100 years
Bill Brandon’s presentation in November is a rapid-fire course in everything you need to know about how the health care reform law will work. He has about an hour to speak, and then each of the 20 group members there will ask him a question.
They take that task seriously. As the presentation begins, pocket-sized notebooks, folded bits of paper and pens appear around the table.
Charlotte surgeon Harriman Jett is taking fervent notes in tiny script on a piece of white paper, so he can go home and try to tell his wife about everything he has learned that night. He said he joined the group about eight years ago.
“We’ll discuss every topic you can think of,” he said. “You don’t get a chance to discuss things in depth quite as well as you do here.”
The speakers, sometimes arranged by the members, but mostly by Bryan Crutcher in his role as secretary, have addressed everything from the impressions of Vincent Van Gogh’s brother to whether a Charles Manson follower should receive parole to how science and religion can coexist.
And though the monthly meeting topics – and the company – continue to honor the beginnings of the Horace Williams Philosophical Discussion Group, Thompson does see a need for a change.
He is tinkering with the group’s bylaws to ensure that women are a welcome addition to the membership. Women have made presentations to the group, but only men have joined.
“I think something needs to be done,” he said, “to make clear that is a tradition that need not continue.”