news-category: GWU History

Gardner-Webb Founders Day Celebrates Contributions of University’s Visionary Leaders

J.D. Huggins and his wife, Bessie Atkins Huggins
J.D. Huggins and his wife, Bessie Atkins Huggins

Observance on Nov. 30 Features Posthumous Presentation of Founders Medal to J.D. Huggins

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—The founders of Gardner-Webb University were men and women with a bold vision to establish a Christian school in western North Carolina. On Dec. 2, 1905, they chartered Boiling Springs High School, which has evolved into a nationally-recognized university and leader in Christian higher education. Those who helped build GWU into what it is today gave generously of their time, talents and critical financial support.

On Nov. 30, the Gardner-Webb community will celebrate Founders Day to honor the names and legacies of the persons and groups who played formative roles in the University’s development. The day of celebration will be highlighted by the posthumous presentation of this year’s Founders Medal to J.D. Huggins, the first principal of Boiling Springs High School.

“In the conference room of Webb Hall on GWU’s campus is a wall dedicated to honoring our institution’s past leaders,” shared Gardner-Webb President Dr. William M. Downs. “A portrait of J.D. Huggins has a special place of prominence on that wall, and each time today’s University leadership gathers in that space to chart the best path forward for GWU we are reminded of the vision, values, and dedication of those who came before us. Without the fast and solid start provided by Principal Huggins, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I am proud that we now pause each year on Founders Day to remind ourselves that we are stewards of a very impressive and distinctive historical legacy.”

James Dwyer “J.D.” Huggins, who came to be known as Professor Huggins, served as the first principal of Boiling Springs High School from 1905 to 1928. Huggins steadfastly lived his charge to care for the welfare, encouragement, and growth of the students of Boiling Springs High School. His desire to guide students into thoughtful, conscientious service-leaders sparked student-led initiatives to establish the Athenian and Kalagathian literary and debate societies. Under his guidance, the institution remained strong through the 1920s, when it transitioned to a junior college.

Historical Marker Ceremony

Founders Day will also feature a ceremony at 4:15 p.m. to place a historical marker at the Washburn House, at the corner of Huggins Street and West Branch Avenue. The Washburn House was built in 1941 and is the second oldest building on campus, next to E.B. Hamrick Memorial Hall. The Washburn House was given by Seaton Washburn, who owned Shelby’s Washburn Hardware Store. He gave the house in memory of his wife and two daughters who had all passed away in the years before ’41. Their names were: Mintie Missouri “Sudie” Hamrick Washburn, Sarah Oeland (sometimes spelled Olin) Washburn and Mae Washburn McMurray. The Washburn House served as the first free-standing library on campus.

Founders Day will also feature a ceremony at 4:15 p.m. to place a historical marker at the Washburn House, at the corner of Huggins Street and West Branch Avenue.
The Founders Day exhibit will also spotlight the founding students in Gardner-Webb’s history, including the Student Government Association in 1943-44, pictured above.

Historical Exhibit

After the ceremony, the campus community and guests are invited to view the Founders Day Historical Exhibit at 4:45 p.m. in the Dover Library Main Gallery. The exhibit will run through Jan. 30, 2024.

University Archivist and Dean of the Library, Dr. Natalie Edwards Bishop noted that they exhibit is designed to educate students, alumni, and the community on key figures who have had a lasting impact on the culture of Gardner-Webb. Bishop observed, “This year the exhibit shines a light onto J.D. Huggins, the first principal of Boiling Springs High School, and the contributions of the Washburn families to the institution. While each year we honor a key founders, the exhibit also includes a special focus on founding students in our institutional history. This year we are featuring the formation of the Student Government Association, 1943-1944. Formed by an inaugural group of 13 young women, SGA is one of the longest running student-led organizations on our campus.”

Founders Day Dinner and Medal Presentation

The awarding of the Founders Medal will take place at the Founders Day dinner, which begins at 5:30 p.m. on the Third Floor of Tucker Student Center. Tickets are $40 per person or $300 for a table of eight. Afterward, guest are invited to the Festival of Lights, which begins at 7 p.m. and the reception that follows.

Auxiliary aids will be made available to persons with disabilities upon request 10 working days prior to the event.  Please call 704-406-4270 or email [email protected] with your request.

Notable Dates in Gardner-Webb’s History:

  • 1905 — Chartered as Boiling Springs High School. Formed by the Kings Mountain and Sandy Run Baptist Associations, the school’s purpose was to educate and equip young men and women to invest, improve, and build up the communities in which they lived.
  • 1928 — Boiling Springs High School was accredited as a two-year junior college
  • 1942 — Gardner-Webb College is named in honor of the support of N.C. Governor O. Max Gardner and his wife Fay Webb.
  • 1993 — Leaders elevated the institution to its present status as Gardner-Webb University.

Gardner-Webb University is North Carolina’s recognized leader in private, Christian higher education. A Carnegie-Classified Doctoral/Professional University, GWU is home to nine colleges and schools, more than 80 undergraduate and graduate majors, and a world-class faculty. Located on a beautiful 225-acre campus in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb prepares graduates to impact their chosen professions, equips them with the skills to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and inspires them to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others. Ignite your future at

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