William “Twig” Branch has an anecdote he loves to share.
“I introduced two friends of mine to each other, and a tragedy ensued,” Branch said. “They each liked each other more than they liked me.”
It gets a laugh, but he swears the story about Henry Pharr II, who died in January, and Professor Jurgen Buchenau is true.
When Pharr retired from his law practice (he was a founding partner at Horack Talley Pharr and Lowndes) in 2013, he considered attending UNC Charlotte as a graduate student. “Henry saw the joy (grad school) brought me and sensed it might be a way to keep his trained legal mind active,” said Branch, who is retired.
But Pharr’s declining health made mobility difficult. Branch asked Buchenau, chair of UNCC’s history department, to find a graduate student Pharr could hire to teach him history in his home. Buchenau volunteered to be the tutor himself.
Pharr loved his private tutoring sessions and began telling friends about them. They, too, wanted to head back into the classroom. And then something happened. Soon, Pharr and his wife, Carol, were hosting intellectual salons in their SouthPark home. Originally, 35 of the Pharrs’ friends attended the first eight-week salon. That has grown to more than 60.
The Civil War salon that recently ended was the third series the Pharrs hosted. The professors who lead the salons are picking up followings of their own, said Carol Pharr, and independent salons are spinning off.
Sharing a love of learning
When Pharr’s health declined, Carol Pharr said, his “friends at UNCC stepped in to give him new direction and purpose.”
And the decline was brutal. His illness, which started with cancer of the kidneys, eventually led to dialysis. A failed knee replacement in July 2013 resulted in Pharr having one leg amputated. Later, his other leg was amputated.
But nothing kept him from learning.
The professor learned from his student, too. “As our studies moved into the 20th century, we got to a time that Henry had lived through but I hadn’t,” said Buchenau, 50. “It enriched me to hear Henry’s perspective as a historical witness.”
“And I was struck by his deep humanity.”
Pharr, a Charlotte native and Myers Park High alumnus, knew plenty about local history. “As a real estate attorney,” Buchenau said, “(Henry) was part of Charlotte’s explosive growth.”
Buchenau said the way history is recorded is much different now than when Pharr was a history major at Davidson College in the early 1960s. “Up until the late 1950s, U.S. history tended to agree with the national narrative,” Buchenau said. “But since then, history is no longer in service of the government. That was a topic Henry and I explored.”
Buchenau volunteered his time as teacher, but the Pharrs asked their friends to donate to UNCC’s history department. The Buchenau-Pharr research scholarship, which helps graduate students finance historical research, was born.
“What began as an act of kindness soon answered a need,” Carol Pharr said. Henry Pharr’s obituary requested donations to support the scholarship fund. The Pharrs and their friends have raised more than $20,000.
Pharr continues to host salons in her home. The most recent five-week series, a study of the Civil War, was led by history professor David Goldfield. Next up this fall: A history of the American South, led by professor John David Smith.
“Henry wanted desperately to be home (from the hospital) in time for the Civil War (salon) in his living room,” Carol Pharr said. “He came home but did not make it to the lectures. He knew it would live on, as he does for all of us.”
A sophisticated school
To walk into one of the Pharr salons is to feel transported to a more elegant era. The home, in a high-rise tower on one of Charlotte’s most beautiful streets, is filled with Oriental rugs, oil paintings in gilded frames and tapestries hung on the wall. But the Pharrs’ friends – about 45 on a recent Monday evening – aren’t there for the refined décor. Or the food and drink.
They’re serious scholars.
Buchenau has discovered that senior citizens have longer attention spans than some traditional-aged students. “Some college students are working a job and going to school,” he said. “In some ways, they’re trying to do the impossible. The (senior citizens) I teach have more time to engage with the issues. They’re not taking a class to get a grade. They’re there to learn.”
The aura at the Pharr salon is focused. Not a single person is texting or looking down at a phone. Several are taking notes, though.
The lecture is followed by more than 30 minutes of questions. Dean Gutierrez cuts off questions eventually, but Goldfield wants to keep the dialogue going. And why not? It must be every professor’s dream to have students this engaged.
“The middle class grew after the Civil War,” Goldfield, seated in front of a fireplace, told his rapt audience. The steel industry was booming in Pittsburgh, and oil took off in Cleveland. Suddenly, middle managers were needed. These were jobs that didn’t exist before the war.
“The South re-created an economy that mimicked slavery,” he said later.
“Government governs best through compromise,” Goldfield said at one point. “But how can you compromise on an issue like slavery?”
History and humor
It’s serious stuff punctuated by occasional laughter. Like when the professor mentions a 19th-century scandal involving a married minister, Henry Ward Beecher, and a married woman in his congregation. He asked in mock horror: “A sex scandal: Can you imagine?”
He called Rutherford B. Hayes “Rutherfraud” because of the questionable way he won the presidency. Something about a vote recount in Florida. “That would never happen today,” he said to more laughter.
It’s no wonder Pharr enjoyed his tutoring sessions. The salons combine history, literature, politics and economics – with a little stand-up comedy thrown in.
Those tutoring sessions, and the salons that grew out of them, were an elixir for Pharr.
“The relationship between Jurgen and Henry was a beautiful thing,” Twig Branch said. “In a world where so many people guard their hearts and timidly live each day, these two companions sallied forth and relished the day.”
The friendship Pharr and Branch had was equally beautiful. They met 20 years ago when they became neighbors. Still, Branch identifies himself as one of Pharr’s “newer friends.”
“We all knew that one day we would lose Henry,” Branch said. “But Henry never pulled back, never stopped learning and never stopped giving of himself.”
Be like Henry
Lifelong learning, Henry Pharr knew, is a great joy. And pretty good medicine. Jurgen Buchenau, chair of UNC Charlotte’s history department and Pharr’s teacher, says educational outreach into the community should be part of a university’s mission. UNCC is making it a priority. Nancy Gutierrez, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says the college started small with the salon concept in 2009. But the success of the Pharr salons has made her dream bigger.
▪ Some salons are a one-time event; others last for nearly a full semester. All are driven by community interest. A community member can contact Gutierrez, and her office will identify a professor with the right expertise. Together, professor and host decide what topics to cover and how many weeks the salon ought to be.
▪ Previous salon topics have included immigration, the historical role of women in religion and the relationship between the United States and Latin America. Upcoming topics will focus on bioethics and end-of-life care. The topic is always up to the community member who wants to host.
▪ Not all salons are as large as the ones held in the Pharr home. Some have a dozen or so students. They don’t necessarily involve food and drink, but the Pharrs elevated the concept with a bar and hors d’oeuvres.
▪ Be a host. Want to host your own salon or salon series? Contact Dr. Gutierrez at email@example.com.