Stories From a Seventh-Generation Chapel Hillian

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By Marshéle Carter / Photography by Beth Mann

Dianne Gooch Shaw Chapel Hill NC Historian
Dianne Gooch Shaw is a seventh-generation Chapel Hillian whose stories are entwined with the town’s history.

“How many Chapel Hillians does it take to screw in a light bulb?” she asks, her eyes sparkling. Unable to wait a moment longer, she answers her own riddle. “Twelve. One to screw in the light bulb, and 11 to talk about how it used to be.”

Dianne Gooch Shaw is a seventh-generation local whose family roots in this area can be traced to the 1700s. “Each person has his or her own Chapel Hill,” she says. “They have things they remember, things that were really special to them.”   

Dianne’s own Chapel Hill was shaped by her family history that spans three centuries, a menagerie of colorful town characters who might as well have been family, and several unforgettable moments that changed her life as well as the course of history on the hill. After her graduation from UNC in 1971, Dianne invested her time into improving her hometown through her career, contributions and causes, enriching countless lives. 

Deep Roots

Dianne’s family tree, which includes Sparrows and Pendergrafts, is older than the oaks and elms on the Carolina campus. Her great-grandfather opened Gooch’s Cafe in 1903 on Columbia Street just north of Franklin Street in the vicinity of today’s Buns. Later, her grandfather owned a number of downtown restaurants – the storage room of one occupied what was once the Ram’s Head Rathskeller (and is now Gizmo Brew Works). On her way into town, she smiles and waves to her grandmother, who rests in Sparrows Cemetery just off Mount Carmel Church Road.

“It would seem that my family members who arrived here six generations before I did liked what they found here and stuck with it,” she says. “But I know it’s not inertia that keeps me here. It’s a choice – because of the vibrancy of the town and the area.”

For Dianne, that vibrancy is powered by the remarkable people who have lived and worked at this intersection of scientific discovery, artistic expression and community that make Chapel Hill a special place. 

Chapel Hill Characters

Growing up in the Morgan Creek area in the late ’50s, Dianne was inspired by well-known folk singers such as Joan Baez and Carrboro’s legendary, left-handed guitarist Libba Cotten. She was part of a small group of folk musicians that included neighborhood pals Joff Coe, James Taylor and his siblings, Kate, Liv and Alex

“James had a fantastic voice and presence in high school,” Dianne says. “I remember him in [the Chapel Hill High School (CHHS) talent show] ‘Junior Follies’ and [the band] The Fabulous Corsairs.” James and Dianne’s paths would cross again in the ’90s when Chapel Hill’s famous son agreed to sing at a fundraiser at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, where she was the director of communications at the time. “James was kind enough to attend a reception after his Smith Center concert. We charged for the tickets and raised money for the cancer center.”

“Each person has his for her own Chapel Hill. They have things they remember, things that were really special to them.” – Dianne Gooch Shaw

Besides the musicians, “Chapel Hill had characters,” Dianne says, such as George “Cat Baby” Cannada, the insatiable fan who attended all the CHHS football games; Kemp Battle Nye, who ran Kemp’s Record Store on Franklin Street; and the flower ladies, especially Lillie Pratt, whose children Dianne later taught at CHHS. “What an amazing group. I can see them now.”

Notable Moments

Hollywood world premieres, presidential visits and unsolved murders also left their mark on Dianne. She remembers the day President John F. Kennedy came to campus for University Day on Oct. 12, 1961. 

“There was no school that day,” Dianne says. “We got to line the block as he was arriving. I remember seeing his car go by with [UNC System President] Bill Friday.”

Dianne also recalls the exciting day when crowds descended on downtown Chapel Hill for the arrival of movie stars Richard Chamberlain and Yvette Mimieux at The Carolina Theatre on Franklin Street for the premiere of “Joy in the Morning,” based on the book by local author Betty Smith

Another prominent memory is of the unsolved murder in Coker Arboretum in 1965, when 21-year-old student Suellen Evans was killed walking back to her dorm. “Older women were walking around with big umbrellas [to defend themselves], and it wasn’t raining,” Dianne says. “We had never had something like this happen before, and it was frightening.”

‘Walking Among Heroes’

Dianne followed some of her favorite Chapel Hill teachers into the profession once she graduated from UNC with a degree in English education. She first taught English at Person Senior High School in Roxboro in the early 1970s before attending graduate school at Appalachian State University, and then started teaching drama and vocational exploration at Guy B. Phillips Middle School in 1974. 

“I got into teaching because of Zora Rashkis and Jessie Belle Lewis,” Dianne says. “Their love of and deep knowledge of their subject captivated their students.” She would stay in the classroom for a decade, also teaching at CHHS, before switching careers. 

For the next 29 years, she directed communications, media relations, patient education and outreach for Lineberger. In 1992, she founded the UNC Cancer Patient/Family Resource Center, now the Mary Anne Long Patient and Family Resource Center, to educate and support patients and families throughout their cancer experiences. “Before the internet, finding information about cancer wasn’t easy,” Dianne says. “It took a long time to track it down. We started the resource center, and it has grown.” 

She also served as the UNC contact for local and state cancer advocacy groups, such as Susan G. Komen, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and the National Lung Cancer Partnership, and created the now-defunct UNC Breast Center Advisory Board, which advised clinical leaders on patient issues. 

“Every day I was walking among heroes – patients who are going through a really tough time, the family members, the doctors and nurses, the scientists,” Dianne says. “It was an amazing honor to be in their company and to work under visionary directors Dr. Joe Pagano and
Dr. Shelley Earp.”

Dianne’s service now has national reach as a patient advocate of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute in Washington, D.C., and on the steering committee of the Vasculitis Patient-Powered Research Network, which works to simplify and streamline clinical research about vasculitis, a rare, chronic autoimmune disease that she has personally battled for more than two decades. 

Hope and Home

“There’s a Petrarch quote that really resonates with me: ‘Hope guides me,’” Dianne says. “It’s what guides everyone who has ever taught, myself included. It’s what guides the work of scientists, doctors, nurses and health care staff, as well as the lives of patients and families. I saw hope in action every day at the cancer center. It’s what keeps me going after 25 years of living with vasculitis.”

These days, in addition to her advocacy and freelance writing, Dianne enjoys contra dancing, traveling and making music with John, her husband of 46 years. John founded the fine woodworking program at CHHS and received the North Carolina Industrial Arts Association Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 1980. “He has learned to be from here,” Dianne says with a smile.

Grounded by home and guided by hope, Dianne believes people come to Chapel Hill to find a sense of purpose. “There’s always been an undercurrent of creativity here,” Dianne says. “You can tap into it, add to it and grow it. You just want to give back to a place that’s given you so much.”

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