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Four grads still best of friends 62 years after meeting at Wingate

  • Alumni spotlight
By Luanne Williams

First days are for making friends: the first day on campus, the first day of classes, the first Street Fair or Orientation mixer. What four young ladies who arrived at Wingate Junior College in 1959 didn’t realize is that the friendship they formed as they settled into Cannon Hall that first day would last for more than half a century.

“There was something that just clicked when we first met,” says Peggy Maddrey Kale of Burlington. “We took classes together. We bonded. That’s the best way to say it. And it didn’t go away, ever.”

After they graduated in 1961, they met up at various locations in the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee as often as possible.

“We’ve always stayed in touch, even the years we were raising our families and not all of us could work a gathering into our schedule,” says Rose Ann Elswick Truesdell of Flatwoods, Kentucky. For the past two decades, except for 2020 because of Covid, they haven’t missed a year.

“We’ve been in each other’s weddings, gone through illnesses and births of children, the death of a child, and yet we still rise to the top,” Kale says.

Four Wingate 1961 alumni and their husbands.

To mark the 60th anniversary of their graduation, they met at Wingate last month, accompanied by their husbands, who have also become close friends and golfing buddies over the years. They reminisced, toured campus with Assistant Athletic Director and 1971 grad Bill Nash, had lunch in the Dickson-Palmer Building and reminisced some more.

“My favorite part was being with the roommates and going to Cannon Hall, seeing the same rooms we were in, the same hall, the same bathroom. I couldn’t believe it,” said Nell Bruorton Lester, who traveled from Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband, Ken. “The campus is absolutely gorgeous.”

Wingate Junior College Cheerleaders, 1961

Truesdell remembers her cheerleading days, traveling to away games and wearing her long blue-and-gold circle skirt with a white blouse and matching vest. She brought her sewing machine to campus so she could make her own.

Although the foursome didn’t immediately recognize the outside of their dorm, which was given a makeover in the early 1980s and is now referred to as Old Cannon (New Cannon is attached), they were thrilled to find it still housing students, and they well remembered their walks from the dorm to Wingate Baptist Church in high heels and hats.

“I remember having to wear gloves and a hat to church, and we’d go eat in the dining hall, but if you didn’t like what they had there was always peanut butter and jelly on the table,” Lester says. “And needless to say I gained a lot of weight.”

As a physical education major and a cheerleader (Truesdell talked her into trying out), she worked off any extra pounds and looked stunning in the yearbook, where she was pictured in formal attire as both May Queen and Homecoming Queen.

Nell Bruorton Lester, Wingate Junior College Homecoming and May Queen, 1961

“I couldn’t believe I got those, coming from a small town (Hemingway, South Carolina). I was amazed,” she says. “It all comes down to being nice to people, smiling and speaking. That’s been my philosophy. Always smile, look someone in the eyes and be nice to people, and that gets you as far as you need to go.”

That’s also the advice she offers to the 1,850 or so Wingate University undergraduate students moving to campus this week and the 650 commuters joining them in clubs and classes.

Rebecca Putman Beam of Mooresville shares similar wisdom: “Come deciding that you are going to be friends with everybody, that you are going to do your best, to work hard, to study and get acquainted with your professors. And then do the best you can.”

Beam said female students had to sign in and out of their dorm and had a 10 p.m. curfew during the week, 11 p.m. on the weekends.

“They were very strict about the curfew. They wouldn’t cut you any slack,” says her husband, Conrad Beam. The two childhood friends began dating while she was at Wingate and he at North Carolina State. 

Rebecca Beam remembers two other aspects of Wingate that she appreciated.

“The professors all were very kind and would help you out, and the classes were not so very big that you felt like you were lost,” she says, adding one more perk: There were a lot more boys than there were girls.

“We would have about 25 boys in the class and five girls, so that was a plus,” she says.

For Kale, there was only one boy on campus.

“This is where we met and where I fell in love with her within the first five minutes of meeting her,” says her husband, Sydney Kale, who graduated from Wingate a year before she did. She had been going steady with a Gardner-Webb football player and he had shown up at Cannon to pick up another girl for a date when they first started chatting. Within days, he predicted they would one day be married.

“Three months later I gave her the diamond,” he says.

“Right here on campus,” she says. “At the baseball field, after the game, under the lights.”

“Sitting in the bleachers. What a great way to propose,” he says, rolling his eyes and chuckling. Next month, they’ll celebrate 60 years of marriage.

Although the Kales are the only one of the four couples who met at Wingate, all have been married more than 55 years. And all say they’ve benefited from the friendships formed in 1959.

“Even though the campus has changed and it’s now a university and much larger, we still have many memories from here and know it was the beginning of a wonderful, forever friendship,” Truesdell says.

Peggy Kale says that when the roommates get together, it’s like taking a trip back in time.

“When we leave, we’re all young again,” she says. “And that lasts for about a year, and then we have to do it again.”

Aug. 18, 2021