By Tony Castleberry
VANCEBORO — It didn’t work out the third time.
In terms of avoiding a complete disaster, I guess it worked out, but my third stop at the College of Knowledge wasn’t nearly as fruitful or fun as the first two. Part of the third visit included me having to walk out in the street and stop traffic to pick up the scattered contents of my wallet. Does that sound like a good time?
We’ll get to why and how my driver’s license, debit card, underused gym membership card and other rectangular pieces of paper and plastic wound up out of my wallet and on both lanes of N.C. 43, but first, the backstory.
Last April, I wrote a graduation-themed May Mixer cover story on Vanceboro’s College of Knowledge. An ample amount of research and on-site investigation went into the piece, but I admittedly left some things out either because I didn’t know them yet or because they didn’t fit the story.
After the issue printed, people called or emailed with additional nuggets of information about the college, a cinderblock building where a group of Vanceboroans often gathered to talk and tell jokes.
A couple of people wanted to pass along their personal history with the college. Others told me stories about their older relatives who spent many a morning there with Bill Cleve and his crew. A few invited me to attend a class at the new meeting place, a College of Knowledge satellite campus, if you will, since the original school still stands vacant with real estate signs outside.
Then, on Feb. 1, 2016, nearly a full year after my story ran, I got an email from Jimmy Robinson. This is exactly what he wrote and how he wrote it: “SOMEONE JUST SENT ME THE ARTICLE ON THE COLLEGE OF KNOWLEDGE IN VANCEBORO . IF YOU WILL GIVE ME A CALL I CAN TELL YOU HOW IT ALL STARTED SINCE I WAS LIKELY THE PERSON THAT PUT THE WORD OUT IN PUBLIC. IT IS QUITE A STORY.”
I didn’t give Robinson, the president of Robinson and Stith Insurance in New Bern, a call, but we proceeded to trade 13 emails and one of them contained the complete, detailed origin story of the College of Knowledge.
As Robinson recalled it, one day in 2005 he was at Cleve’s store. Cleve, a lifelong Vanceboro resident who died at age 99 in 2014, ran a convenience store type of business out of the building that came to be known as the College of Knowledge.
According to Robinson, a New Bern Sun Journal reporter was trying to call Craven Community College, but dialed Cleve’s store instead. Cleve responded to a question with, “No, this is not Craven Community College. This is the College of Knowledge.”
That led to additional questions from the reporter, and Cleve laid it on thick, talking about what a “nice little college” they had in Vanceboro and how the education was free.
Back then, Robinson and Si Seymour, who is part of the East Carolina basketball radio team along with the Voice of the Pirates, Jeff Charles, broadcast New Bern and West Craven High School football games for a New Bern television station. Robinson sensed a game he and Seymour were covering that week was going to be a blowout, so he prompted Seymour to ask him if he had heard any good jokes lately during halftime.
Total professional that he is, Seymour expertly worked the question into the football broadcast, and Robinson proceeded to retell several jokes he had heard at Cleve’s store. Seymour asked where Robinson heard the jokes.
Robinson replied, “They came straight from the College of Knowledge in Vanceboro.”
Seymour, really getting into the improvisational spirit of the gag, then requested Robinson tell viewers about the college.
Robinson answered, “It’s the white building by the foot of the Swift Creek Bridge.”
Seymour: “I didn’t know about it until now.
Robinson: “It’s quite a place to get an education.”
Seymour: “Who is there?”
Robinson: “Well, Bill Cleve is the president. Whitey Bryan is the vice president. Bobby Ray Adams is the dean of academics. Shirley Bryan is the registrar. Royce Jordan is the dean of students. Grover Lancaster is the provost officer. Tom Nobles is the maintenance director. Creed Mills, Jerry Phillips and Leonard Taylor Jr. are board members. I may have left out a few.”
Seymour said, “That is some place,” and Robinson invited viewers to visit.
The following Monday, after three replays of the Friday night game Robinson and Seymour called, Robinson walked into Cleve’s store and was met with “Are you crazy?” stares and questions. Soon after, Robinson prompted Cleve to tell the story of his interaction with the Sun Journal reporter, and Cleve did, explaining both the College of Knowledge’s birth and Robinson’s on-air antics.
Two weeks or so after that, Robinson said the black “COLLEGE OF KNOWLEDGE” lettering above the double-door entrance to Cleve’s store was painted. People accused Robinson of doing it, but he denied it, saying if it had been him, he would have made each of the letters four feet tall.
Robinson told me Mills and Randy Bryan, Whitey’s nephew, were responsible for painting the college’s name, doing so “coming home from the 3 to 11 shift” at Weyerhauser one night and “watching out for the cops a little after midnight.”
Believe it or not, this is the condensed version of Robinson’s story, and upon a recent re-reading of it, I decided to visit Vanceboro and the college once again.
My fears of its demolition were unwarranted. It’s still there, a little emptier and dirtier than it was during my April 2015 visit. As I walked around the property and looked in the windows, not one person felt compelled to stop and ask what I was doing. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, other than trying to reconnect to a place I had so enjoyed two times prior.
After no more than 15 minutes of investigation, or snooping, depending on your perspective, I got in my car and headed back up 43 on my way to Greenville. Probably 45 seconds into my return trip, I remembered I left my wallet on the roof of the car and I pulled the quickest U-turn I could to retrieve it.
After returning to the small College of Knowledge parking area, I found just one part of my wallet’s innards, a piece of paper with my checking account number written on it. I looked around the car and the college several times before glancing up the street and seeing a small black object in the road.
The closer I got to it, the more times I said to myself, “That’s my wallet,” and I was right. As happy as I was to locate the billfold, the state of its existence was borderline tragic. It had been run over by a few cars, and that sent all my wallet stuff flying. Driver’s license here, fishing license there, Frozone gift card...where did I get a Frozone gift card?
Anyway, I waded into Vanceboro traffic around 4 p.m. on a Friday with both of my arms outstretched and both lanes complied with my request for them to stop as I hastily gathered vital cards and papers. Only a couple of minor things were lost, and a $5 bill survived the ordeal.
I nodded thanks to the cars as I returned to my vehicle at the college. Before pulling away, I took a long look at the place one more time. Somewhere, Bill Cleve was laughing.
Contact Tony Castleberry at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-329-9591 or follow @tonycastleberry on Twitter.Login or register to post comments