by Julie Lineback

Oddly enough, there isn’t a long history to the historic preservation movement.

George EdwardsAlthough you can trace its roots back to President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century, a government policy didn’t exist until Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966.

Around the same time, a young George Edwards enrolled at then-West Georgia College and was on his way to making his own history – not only as a first-generation collegian, but also as a pioneer in officially safeguarding our nation’s history.

The son of an armchair historian, Edwards’ reverence for the past was built on the foundation that many memories are still made of today – the family road trip.

“My mom was very interested in history,” he recalled. “When we traveled we’d sometimes stop – both at her initiation and mine – to visit historic sites and read roadside markers.”

Edwards would later credit his mother, who had been accepted to college during the Great Depression but couldn’t afford to attend, for his rich career in preservation. He recently retired after more than 30 years in the field, the last 13 of which were spent as executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF) in North Carolina.

Under his charge – the longest executive tenure in HWF history – the foundation broadened its service area to include Brunswick and Pender counties, reopened its architectural salvage operation after a decade-long hiatus, and initiated the annual Most Threatened Historic Places list to bring awareness to local landmarks threatened by development or neglect.

But according to Edwards, the highlight of his career was implementing the award-winning Tar Heels Go Walking guide program, a partnership created with New Hanover County Schools.

“I’m extraordinarily proud of this program,” he shared. “Eleven years ago we began inviting third graders to take advantage of the rich palette the downtown area afforded them to not only learn about history and preservation, but also community art, public statues and sculptures.”

HWF estimates more than 2,400 children are introduced to history, architecture and culture each year through Tar Heels Go Walking.

“We’ve guided 23,000 third grade students, about 300 third grade teachers, and roughly 1,400 parent volunteers on this three-hour walking tour,” Edwards explained.

Stops on the tour include the public library, the fire department and a historic theater in order to give the youngsters an introduction to those facilities and have the employees interface with the kids.

Edwards said he still runs into people today who recognize him – and his signature bowtie – from tours past.

“This program makes a difference,” he said. “I think that’s the way to build a future generation of people in a community who will be sensitive to preservation. I’m grateful that I had that chance.”

Another way Edwards helps educate the next generation of historians and preservationists is through his generous donations to the University of West Georgia as an alumnus. Having received his bachelor’s degree in history and master’s degree in counseling and student affairs from UWG in 1969 and 1971, respectively, Edwards is proud to say he has been a donor for 50 years.

“Giving is important,” he explained. “Having worked in nonprofits where there is a lot of fundraising, you can’t make a program work without those extra generous gifts.”

Edwards voiced his impression of the current UWG public history program and its director, Dr. Ann McCleary. He has visited the UWG Center for Public History and spoken with students about careers in the preservation field.

“McCleary is doing a fabulous job,” he complimented. “I’m so impressed with the center, the work they’re doing and the products they’re creating.”

Most of all, Edwards hopes he is setting a good example for alumni who are on the cusp of donating, big or small.

“It’s critical that we give as alumni,” he concluded. “It makes the school stronger. It makes our degrees more valuable, and that enhances the reputation of our training and education. It helps the students and the institution make that margin of excellence. It’s our responsibility to help create that.”

Posted on August 6, 2019