A new view of Harold Tribble

He was controversial, but the picture painted of Harold Tribble has been incomplete, says Jenny R. Puckett (’71).

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He wasn’t the first choice to become president of Wake Forest, and almost from the moment he arrived, he was under attack. He was burned in effigy by students, survived two Trustee votes to oust him, and withstood alumni calls for his resignation. But when he retired in 1967, Harold W. Tribble had secured a spot among Wake Forest’s greatest leaders.

There is no doubt he was controversial, but much of the picture painted of Tribble has been incomplete, says Jenny R. Puckett (’71), author of a just-released biography of the University’s tenth president.

“Over the years, the decisions he made were seldom neutral, and never universally popular, but he fulfilled the task for which history chose him,” Puckett writes in “Fit for Battle: The Story of Wake Forest’s Harold W. Tribble” (AuthorHouse, July 2011, 244 pages). “The future of Wake Forest was secured when Harold Tribble was chosen to move the College to Winston-Salem in 1956.”

Tribble, a prominent minister and theologian, was “fit for battle” when he was named president in 1950, Puckett says, although he probably underestimated the battles that lay ahead. He would need every bit of fortitude to survive attacks from Baptist leaders, alumni, trustees and students over athletics, dancing on campus, civil rights, governance issues, and lingering resentment over the decision to move the college to Winston-Salem. But Tribble was his own man, Puckett says, who never backed down from doing what he thought was right to move Wake Forest into a new era.

While Tribble is mostly remembered for the move to the new campus, it overshadows his other significant accomplishments, Puckett notes: the transformation of the college to a university; the resumption of graduate studies; his support for civil rights and the integration of the student body; his attempt, although unsuccessful, to gain some governing independence from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina; and his role in the formation of the ACC. (Tribble was dogged throughout his presidency by accusations that he was “anti-athletics,” a claim Puckett disputes in the book.)

Although she teaches Spanish in Wake Forest’s Romance Languages department, Puckett’s research interests lie in the University’s history. Her “Last Lecture” to students two years ago led her to delve deeper into Tribble’s life and presidency.

Other than a memoir that Tribble wrote after he retired as president, little has been written about his life. Tribble’s family — daughter Betty May Tribble Barnett (’55) and her husband, Professor Emeritus of History Richard Barnett; daughter Barbara Ann Tribble Holding and her husband, Harvey Holding; and niece Byrd Barnette Tribble (’54) — provided access to documents, letters and photographs.

Tribble was born in Virginia, one of nine children of a Baptist minister who served briefly as president of Columbia College in Lake City, Fla., before his early death in an accident. He studied in Europe in the 1930s for several summers at universities in England, Germany and Switzerland, and with German theologian Karl Barth. He taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., for 22 years before becoming president of Andover Newton Theological School in Boston in 1947.

Three years later, he was named president of Wake Forest. (The trustees’ first choice, University of Richmond president George Modlin, turned down the job; Tribble, who was well-known on campus from numerous speaking engagements and had received an honorary degree from Wake Forest in 1948, had actually been the faculty’s first choice.)

No other person could have met the enormous challenges that faced Wake Forest in the 1950s and 60s, says Puckett, who is teaching a first-year seminar on the University’s history this fall. “If the college had not found the right leader at the right time, the school’s greatest gamble (the move to Winston-Salem) would have failed,” she writes. “(I)f success depended on sheer determination and a thick skin, Tribble had those qualities in abundance.”

“Fit for Battle: The Story of Wake Forest’s Harold W. Tribble” is available in hard cover, soft cover and as an ebook through BarnesandNoble.com. and will be available later this summer at the College Bookstore and from Amazon.com. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Wake Forest College Birthplace Society.

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