by Mariah Parker, Multimedia Editor
Photos by Josh Reiss
After a few semesters at Wilson, one comes to expect the unexpected automatically. In some instances, quirk becomes normal, even homey.
I’m talking, of course, about Witherspoon’s Elvis Lounge, home of the Chemistry department.
The Chemistry department’s obsession with Elvis dates back to the early ‘80s when Chemistry professor Dean Kahl was coach of the Cross Country team. While in Cherokee with the team for a road race, Kahl picked up a velvet painting of Elvis at one of Cherokee’s many gift shops.
“Dean’s a real connoisseur of velvet art,” said fellow Chemistry professor Vicki Collins.
When Kahl displayed slides during his classes, the Elvis painting made a handy blackout curtain for the windows.
Elvis had just passed away in 1977 and rumors of his actual whereabouts circulated widely. “There were all these articles in the tabloids about how he had put a wax dummy in his coffin,” said Kahl. Many believed Elvis had faked his death to enjoy a quiet life.
Kahl’s painting stirred Elvis fervor among his students, and soon, the Chemistry department was transformed into a temple to the fallen icon.
At the time, the Chemistry department was located in the basement of Morse Science Hall.
From as far away as Mexico, students brought in news clippings of Elvis sightings, photographs from trips to Graceland, and other memorabilia. Students created original Elvis works for art classes. One student brought in a stone bust.
“None of us are particular Elvis fans,” said Collins. “In the 90s, FMTS was run by a man named William Warren who claimed to have opened for Elvis when he was young. That’s our only real connection.”
Former president Doug Orr contributed Elvis clocks and other collectibles, as did Intercultural Studies professor and flea market hound Bill Mosher. Mosher donated an Elvis candle that the chemists began lighting during exams; students would put their hands over the flame and ask Elvis for inspiration and insight.
The mania escalated as some students began to try to find Elvis’ name in sequences of DNA. One student even presented a grainy photo of an Ingles employee with an Elvis coiffure as proof that Elvis had retired to Swannanoa.
The fervor died out in the 90s as the late pop icon lost cultural relevance. When Witherspoon was built in 1999, Kahl coordinated with the architects to ensure the new Chemistry space would be welcoming to its students.
“Chemistry can be scary,” said Kahl. “We wanted a nice lounge and had considered throwing out the Elvis stuff from the basement, but the students wanted to keep it.”
Only a third of the memorabilia survived the transition. Much of it was old and ready for the recycling bin; other artifacts are still displayed prominently in the Lounge. Even with changing times and environments, Elvis found a home in the Chemistry department–and so, it seems, have the students.
“I remember the lounge from my tour of Wilson,” said senior Kendra Marcus of the Chemistry crew. “For me, it became a symbol of the inclusivity of the science department.”
“It’s my home away from home,” added sophomore Michi Stewart-Nuñez, also of the Chemistry crew. “It’s not unusual to see people sleeping in here.”
Will Elvis ever leave the building? It’s hard to say. With the passing years, Graceland has seen dwindling traffic; the Witherspoon shrine, too, belongs to a past that is quickly receding into the distance. Collins believes the shrine will last another decade, but it’s doubtful that the students will let him go that easy.