Alumnus William C. Harris, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, began his fifty-year career as a Civil War historian here in Tuscaloosa, earning both his undergraduate and graduate history degrees from The University of Alabama Department of History.
Harris, a native of Mount Meigs, Alabama, earned his BA from Alabama in 1954 and, after serving four years in the United States Air Force, returned to the Capstone for graduate school. Initially drawn to Latin American history, Harris switched to the Civil War because of the influence of Dr. Thomas B. Alexander. Professor Harris recalled how Dr. Alexander “worked with me on being objective in history and research…I was in his office going over stuff for eight hours, with a break for nature. He was that dedicated to his students.” Harris studied under department “giants” like Thomas Alexander, John Ramsey, and Charles Summersell — who they called “Chuckles,” he says, “because he had such a sunny disposition.” He received his Doctorate in 1965, writing his dissertation on Reconstruction-Era Mississippi.
Professor Harris began both his professional career and his family in Tuscaloosa, where he met his wife of fifty-seven years, Betty Glenn, and two of their three children were born while he was still in school.
After a few years at Millsaps College, Professor Harris took a position at North Carolina State University in 1969, where he was Department Chair from 1990 to 1995. He had already published a version of his master’s thesis in the late sixties, and two more books, The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi (1978) and William Woods Holden: Firebrand of North Carolina Politics (1987), before turning his professional attention toward Abraham Lincoln, joking that one point he said to himself, “Well, Abraham Lincoln might be a good topic!” Harris’s first book on Lincoln, With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union (1997), placed second in the 1998 Lincoln Prize competition, but would not be his last attempt to win the award. Though Dr. Harris retired from NCSU in 2004, he continues to be a prolific researcher and writer, publishing three books on Lincoln since leaving the university. His Lincoln’s Last Months won the 2004 Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award. He also received the Henry Adams Prize in 2007 for Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency. His most recent work, Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union (2012), won both the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize (for Civil War scholarship) and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award.
“I am so grateful to The University of Alabama and people like Thomas Alexander,” Harris says, “for setting me on this path.” He has “tremendously fond memories” of working in Woods Quad — “with no air conditioning,” he adds. While in graduate school, Harris briefly taught at a community college in Jasper. He went to Pug’s Restaurant at 5:30 in the morning for breakfast before leaving for work and regularly saw Bear Bryant. He never approached him, but says “he seemed to be a friendly person. He was a good guy.”
“It’s been a good ride,” says Harris, who at the time of this interview is 84 and “just got back from Costa Rica — I try to stay active.” His advice to college students is to go “one step at a time…You just can’t get ahead of yourself. Just do the best you can as a student and have some fun, too, of course!”