More than 3,500 students, faculty, staff and community members packed Western Carolina University’s Central Plaza and A.K. Hinds University Center lawn area Monday, Aug. 21, and cast their eyes skyward to get a first-hand look at the Great American Eclipse.
The crowd issued a collective groan as a bank of clouds threated to obscure the view of the first total solar eclipse in the skies over Cullowhee in more than 500 years, then broke into spontaneous cheers and applause as the clouds parted mere minutes prior to the eclipse reaching totality.
With the eclipse falling on the first day of the fall semester, university officials suspended classes from 1 until 3 p.m. to give students and faculty the opportunity to view the phenomenon. Staff also were allowed to step out of their offices or away from their duty stations to witness celestial history.
WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher said the eclipse-viewing party was a great way to start the year and to build a sense of community around the shared experience as the only University of North Carolina system campus in the path of totality.
“When I first heard that we were going to have a total solar eclipse in Western North Carolina on the first day of a brand new school year, I thought ‘really?’ As if things are not hectic enough at the opening of a new school year, now we’re going to have the first total solar eclipse in this region since the year 1506? And the next total solar eclipse won’t be happening for another 136 years? Really?” Belcher said.
“But after the initial shock, I realized that this truly is an incredible experience, and that we needed to do whatever we could do to ensure that members of our university community could witness the eclipse,” he said.
The university made available special certified solar viewing glasses so that members of the crowd could watch without risking damage to their eyes by the harmful rays of the sun. The Division of Student Affairs passed out T-shirts and served ice cream, funnel cakes and – of course, MoonPies.
Staff members from the Office of Communications and Public Relations collaborated with colleagues in Information Technology, the College of Fine and Performing Arts, and Campus Activities to mount a 45-minute live online broadcast featuring several subject matter experts and hosted by Brandon Truitt, a 2016 WCU graduate who is now an anchor and reporter at WNCT-TV in Greenville.
In addition to the viewing party in the center of campus, hundreds of eclipse-watchers viewed the eclipse from other vantage points in Cullowhee, including intramural fields, around the Ramsey Regional Activity Center and John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center and anywhere folks could find a shady spot to set up lawn chairs and blankets.
Head football coach Mark Speir also used the total solar eclipse as an opportunity to debut the black uniforms the Catamounts will be donning for the home opening football game Saturday, Sept. 9, against Davidson, a contest that is being billed as a “black-out game” with fans encouraged to wear black.