The Man Who Graduated Twice

UNC Asheville can trace its roots back to 1927, and that same year, Joseph R. (“Joe”) Bly was born in Washington, DC. The Bly family subsequently moved to Asheville and, in 1945, Joe enrolled as a new student at Asheville-Biltmore College. He arrived as the recipient of the A C Reynolds Founders Award Scholarship which, as he recalled in a 1984 interview with former Chancellor Bill Highsmith, was worth $50, and for that he was expected to sweep the library, help paint the typing room, and haul cinders for the driveway!

Joe Bly, 1947
Joe Bly, “Summit”, 1947

Bly had been class president at Haw Creek High School, and through this role had been identified for the scholarship by Mary Cordell Nesbitt. (Nesbitt was herself an alum of the college having graduated, as Mary Cordell, from Buncombe County Junior College in 1930. She would go on to serve in the NC House of Representatives.) As he would later tell Highsmith, Bly’s family had little money, so the scholarship ensured that he could continue his education and he would not be “consigned to manual labor”.

At the time Joe Bly enrolled, the college was located in a former children’s home on Merrimon Avenue, at the corner of Gracelyn Aveune, on the site of what is now Grace Covenant Presbyterian church, and was already well known in the local community.

Merrimon Ave
Undated image of the Merrimon Avenue campus [ABP_106]
It had established a solid reputation for drama and for English (especially through Bluets, its award winning literary magazine), but as was the case for much of its life, the college was short of money. However, rather than seeing lack of money being a negative, Bly told Highsmith that it actually pulled the students together, and created what he described as a “mythology” about the college. Around the time Bly started at Asheville-Biltmore, the college’s enrollment and, more importantly, its income were starting to be boosted by servicemen (and they were mainly men) returning from WWII. Many of the ex GI’s were part of a Refresher Class, “aimed at the student who had been out of college for quite some time…to prepare the student…for full admission to the Freshman class of college”.

In his final year at Asheville-Biltmore, Joe Bly was president of the Student Council and, as such, was actively involved in events when President Clarence N. Gilbert suddenly  left the college. Although Gilbert ostensibly resigned because the trustees had re-elected some faculty members without Gilbert’s recommendation, many thought he had been ousted because he was running against the chairman of the Board of Trustees in a City primary. Certainly the latter scenario is what the students thought, and they organized protests and published flyers in support of Gilbert.

We want Gilbert
Asheville-Buncombe students show support for former president Clarence Gilbert, 1947 [UA11.2]
Bly was subsequently asked to meet trustee Martin Nesbitt in Pack Square, where Nesbitt requested that Bly “cool things down”.  As Bly somewhat wryly noted to Bill Highsmith, it was probably not a coincidence that the trustee’s representative sent to influence Bly, was the husband of the person who was instrumental in obtaining the scholarship that had got him to Asheville-Biltmore.

After graduating from Asheville-Biltmore in 1947, Joe Bly worked for the Post Office. By 1973 he was manager of manpower development for western North Carolina, responsible for developing a program for pre-supervisory training in postal management. For this he decided to take some classes at UNC Asheville, and he “got the student bug again”. So although he initially only planned to take a few management classes to help his career, and set an example for postal employees, (“If they could go to school at night, I could go to school at night”), with no real intention to graduate, in May 1977 Joseph Raymond Bly did graduate from UNC Asheville with a BS and a Distinction in Management.

Commencement programs
Pages from the 1947 and 1977 commencement programs [UA11.3]
After graduating (for the second time), Bly went on to manage the downtown post office in Asheville.

Although this post is essentially about Joe Bly’s connection to UNC Asheville, it would be remiss not to briefly mention his other “careers”. For many years he was emcee for Asheville’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival and Shindig on the Green, he was also manager of the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers, and he was a long time ambassador for the arts, culture and music of North Carolina.

Joe Bly 1977
Joe Bly at Shindig on the Green in 1977, the year he graduated from UNC Asheville. [M2005.1]
Joe Bly died in April 2017. He was 89 years old.

  • Colin Reeve, Special Collections

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