Don't write historian Gayle Fripp off as history.
True, she's retiring this month as assistant director of the Greensboro Historical Museum. During her 25 years there, the museum has grown in size and quality, and she has written books and made speeches that motivated people to visit the museum's old buildings at Summit Avenue and Lindsay Street. She has brought in lively, sometimes controversial, exhibits, such as the slavery-themed ``Before Freedom Came.'She may spend more time at her beach place at Oak Island, but retirement doesn't mean she'll stop writing and talking about Greensboro's past. She'll have to return home occasionally because she has promises to keep. She intends to continue as official historian of Guilford County, an unpaid position that brings occasional inquiries from the public. She'll still give occasional lectures and tours. And she'll keep working on an oral-history project that aims to get the city's leaders and old-timers to unload their memories before it's too late.
To the public, Fripp has long been the go-to person with questions, such as: How many acres did the city's founding fathers in 1808 buy and for how much? (42 and $98)
Although the city isn't likely to see the likes of her again, there may be historians called Gayle Hicks Fripp Fellows.
UNCG, where she earned a bachelor's degree (magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) and master's, is raising $50,000 to endow a fellowship in her honor. It will go to a graduate student in public history with a concentration in museum studies.
Public history is a new field for historians wanting to work outside academia to help communities to become aware of local history. Fripp always has felt comfortable with the public. The public, in turn, feels at ease asking her questions that ivory-tower types might consider dumb or trivial.
``She was a public historian before they created the term,' says William Link, chairman of the UNCG history department.
Her co-workers agree.
``More people than I can count have told me that they normally don't enjoy history,' says Linda Evans, one of Fripp's colleagues at the museum, ``but that hearing Gayle talk made them want to learn more about Greensboro.'\
Now that she is freeing herself from the 9-to-5 routine, Fripp may become like the woman she is often compared to, the late Ethel Arnett. Arnett's book, ``Greensboro, N.C.: the County Seat of Guilford,' still gets thumbed through at libraries even though it stops at 1955.
Arnett, who died in 1980 at age 89, did her most productive pecking on a 1916-model Underwood portable typewriter late in life: All eight of her books on Greensboro people and themes were published after she was 60.
Fripp has written ``Greensboro: A Chosen Center, An Illustrated History,' published in 1980 and revised and updated a few months ago. She also has written two small books, one about the city's neighborhoods, the other a photo book with detailed captions.
Although she's proud of those works, the length limits imposed by her publishers frustrated her. She agonized over material she had to cut.
``I would like to write a book that is not a recipe,' she says. ``I want to explore a topic until I'm tired of it.'
She ponders the possibilities. She wants to write a history of West Market Street United Methodist Church, founded in 1831. Fripp has co-chaired the church's building committee since 1988, overseeing $10 million in new projects that are now nearly complete.
She might look at Greensboro's role in the Underground Railroad. She's also intrigued by the late Julia Ballinger Dwiggins, who in 1949 came out of nowhere to become the first woman elected to the City Council. Fripp wonders how Dwiggins did it at a time when few women sought, much less won, office. After Dwiggins' single term, nearly two decades passed before another woman, the late Mary Seymour, won a council seat. Seymour, who also would serve in the legislature, also is worthy of a book, Fripp believes.
Lately, Fripp says, she has been drawn to such female subjects. She finds that odd because in college some of her professors thought a woman would want to specialize in women's history and tried to steer her in that direction. She refused then, not wanting to be pigeonholed, but has since gone that way on her own.
``As a local historian, I realized the important role that women played in Greensboro and worked on several exhibits to include their contributions,' she says. ``I really hope to pursue that subject in the future.'\
Fripp has witnessed more than 40 years of the city's history, starting in 1959 when she arrived from Granville County as a freshman at the then-Woman's College of the University of North Carolina. She came in time to see segregation crumble: The sit-ins came in 1960, and other racial unrest followed.
She and her boss, museum director Bill Moore, who came in 1964, have been around long enough that they didn't have to wonder how the museum, founded in 1924, operated in the beginning. All they had to do was ask one of the founders, stockbroker and World War I vet McDaniel Lewis, active until his death in 1978.
Fripp managed to deal diplomatically with Lewis and several other cantankerous amateur historians, including lawyer James G.W. MacLamroc, who thought they knew every nuance of Greensboro's history. They constantly feuded among themselves over historical events.
One day, Fripp recalls, MacLamroc was driving down West Market Street in his big, white Cadillac when he saw Ethel Arnett waiting for a bus.
``I ought to stop and give her a ride but ... ' he said, lapsing into profanity. He had a dispute going with her about something. He felt guilty after driving by. He circled back and offered her a ride.
Because Arnett, MacLamroc and Lewis were contemporaries, ``they wouldn't cut each other any slack,' Fripp says. ``As for me, they felt like they should guide me. I was so much younger. They were my mentors.'
Although others often avoided MacLamroc and Lewis, Fripp embraced them because their memories and Arnett's went back to the 19th century. Besides, she liked the trio. Their tendency to argue, Fripp says, showed ``history was their passion.' She finds such passion rare today, and she views other historians and learned people as resources, not rivals.
As a college student, she took all the history courses taught by Richard Bardolph, now 87 and retired. Bardolph selected Fripp as his graduate assistant.
``She is observant, and she has a real sense of history,' he says.
She also studied under Mississippi-born historian James Ferguson, who later became UNCG's chancellor, and took a course taught by Otis Singletary, who was the chancellor at the time.
Fripp learned from a literature course under the late Randall Jarrell, now regarded as one of America's finest poets and literary critics, that public perceptions sometimes clash with how a famous person acts in private. Now Jarrell is often cited for the way he savaged the works of peers.
Fripp remembers a time when he wrote an exam question on the blackboard. A woman in the class sighed.
Jarrell asked, ``Do you have a problem with this question?'
``Yes,' the woman replied, ``I don't know the answer.'
Jarrell erased it and wrote another.
Bardolph says Fripp was one of the talented women drawn to UNCG during what he calls the school's ``golden era,' when doors to many other good universities were shut to women.
Fripp thought she would do what her two sisters had done: attend ``WC' for two years, then transfer to UNC-Chapel Hill. She attended a summer school session at Chapel Hill but found the social scene wore her out. Men outnumbered women at UNC-CH back then, and ``I just couldn't date for breakfast, lunch and dinner and get my work done,' she says.
Besides, she felt empowered at Woman's. Women held all student offices. She believes she was part of the final days of Camelot. Her class of 1963 was the last that was all-female. That fall the school became the co-educational UNCG.
Fripp grew up in museum-like northeastern North Carolina, a section with a rich and romantic past. Before the Civil War, planters with vast estates ruled Vance, Granville, Halifax, Gates and other counties along the Virginia border. The war brought ruin from which the region never recovered.
Fripp's family lived in Henderson and owned a tobacco farm halfway between Henderson and Oxford. Her father and uncles were lawyers and local politicians. A friend was Charlie Rose, the studious TV talk-show host, who was a year behind her in high school.
``He was not a nerd,' says Fripp. ``He was just fun.'
Relations there between white and black people hadn't changed much since before the Civil War. Cordiality reigned, but segregation and subserviency kept black people poor and dependent.
``The black people I knew had a great impact on me, but they were in a servant capacity,' she says.
Her upbringing and her religious belief in fair play later awakened a commitment to diversity that remains fierce today. Although the term has become overused, Fripp preaches diversity with evangelical zeal, especially as it relates to history.
She says the meager treatment of the role of black people in Greensboro's past once kept the black community away from the museum. Black people felt it offered nothing they could feel proud about.
In those days, budgets were too small to bring in traveling exhibits or to buy major artifacts. Displays consisted mostly of donated photos and items. The donors were white people. Naturally, exhibits reflected their culture.
Change began, Fripp says, when the late Abraham Peeler, a retired black educator, joined the museum's board.
``It took about four years for him to trust me,' Fripp says.
She and Peeler, who collected black history artifacts and took slides of local black landmarks, eventually teamed up to do a show-and-tell for the Chamber of Commerce and other groups.
The museum added permanent exhibits commemorating the 1960 sit-ins, civil rights pioneer George Simkins and the city's black colleges.
In 1992, the museum displayed ``The Real McCoy,' a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit about black inventors from 1619 to 1930. The show drew more people to the museum during its six-week run than had visited during the entire previous year. Four years later, another Smithsonian exhibit, on slavery, brought in sizable crowds.
At 60, Fripp doesn't have to retire, but her husband, Terry, recently retired from Burlington Industries.
They live in Kirkwood, a neighborhood where the young and upwardly mobile often spend a few years before moving to bigger houses elsewhere. The Fripps arrived young and stayed put, adding four additions to their house. Their property has woods behind it and a lake nearby. They have never felt the desire to move.
Ah, Kirkwood. Its history may be another book possibility, Fripp says.\
Greensboro has hundreds of lawyers. People who admire Fripp are grateful she didn't become one.
After teaching for a year at Grimsley, earning her master's at UNCG in 1969, getting a son and daughter up and running in life and doing volunteer work for the Junior League and her church, she applied in 1977 to Wake Forest University's law school.
While waiting to hear whether she had been accepted (she had), she was driving one day when she heard a public service announcement on the radio. The historical museum was looking for a full-time person with an advanced history degree, knowledge of Greensboro and civic experience.
``I almost ran into a telephone pole,' she says. ``That was me.'
The rest, as they say, is history.\ \ Contact Jim Schlosser at 373-7081 or email@example.com