A monument to a treasured past came down in Chapel Hill last week. No, the Silent Sam statute of a Confederate soldier still stands. The lost monument came from the death of 94-year old Dickson Phillips, the former UNC Law School dean and longtime judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Phillips’ distinguished career spanned an era of important changes. His role in facilitating those changes and helping us adjust to them makes his passage monumental.
But his death also brought to a close an important North Carolina institution known as the Class of 1948 Study Group. More than 70 years ago in the winter of 1946, a group of World War II veterans enrolled in the class of 1948 at UNC Law School. They formed a study group that had a positive influence on North Carolina’s history in the second half of the 20th Century.
Phillips was an important member of the group that also included William Friday, president of the UNC System for more than 30 years and host of UNC-TV’s “North Carolina People;” Bill Aycock, beloved chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill; William Dees, chair of the university’s governing board; John Jordan, former state senator and also chair of the university’s governing board; and Terry Sanford, North Carolina governor and Duke University president.
Before his death, William Friday talked about the Study Group on UNC-TV in response to a question from Don Curtis, who asked Friday why he decided to go to law school after the war. “Well, you get into an experience like that war put us all in, you were thrown with so many different people from all over everywhere, not only (the) United States, but foreign countries. And you realize how much you need all the education you can get. I came back here with Terry Sanford and Bill Aycock and John Jordan and William Dees and Dickson Phillips, a legendary group of people. We all went straight through and stuck together ever since, worked on things in this state.”
The members of the Study Group spent the rest of their lives supporting each other’s efforts to serve the state. Philips and Sanford were law partners before they took on public positions and remained close through the years. Friday persuaded Aycock to take on the chancellor’s job when he would have preferred to continue teaching law. Each was ready and eager to help each other and to serve the state.
Speaking to a group of lawyers shortly before his death, Friday explained how the members of the Study Group were part of the World War II veterans that Tom Brokaw described as The Greatest Generation. Friday said, “We grew up in the depression, and after four years in the military, we knew we were the lucky ones that got to come home … and we just decided to contribute.”
Then, Friday looked out over the group of lawyers and said that North Carolina lawyers, like the ones in the Study Group, were part of a profession with a long tradition. “There is an added ingredient. We must do something extra to leave this place a little better.”
About them and other returning World War II veterans, I wrote a few years ago: They came back from the war with more maturity, energy, confidence, practicality, open-mindedness, discipline, love of country and competitiveness than any generation our country has ever seen. Then the country gave them advanced educational opportunities never available to so many Americans before. With that mixture of healthy traits and education, they caused an explosion of economic growth that underpins our country’s continuing prosperity and success.
The veterans of World War II are a generation to cherish, to thank and to learn from. With Dickson Phillips’ death, the Study Group’s living monument has come down.
PHOTO: William Friday, Dickson Phillips, William Aycock, John Jordan and William Dees, all members of the Class of 1948 Study Group.