The Great Cullowhee Solar Eclipse

Even when the moon blotted out the sun, the WCU community brought more than enough energy to make up for it.

Students, faculty and community members gathered in masses to watch this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Students preparing for the solar eclipse. Photo by Keegan Wiggins.

On Monday, Aug. 21, the WCU campus witnessed a total solar eclipse, which won’t happen in western North Carolina for another 136 years.

WCU provided students with viewing glasses, shirts and a multitude of moon pies to prepare them for the eclipse. The university welcomed the unique celestial event with a live stream and a panel of informative experts. Cherokee Program Coordinator Tom Belt and Professors Dr. Enrique Gomez, Dr. Paul Heckert and Dr. Steve Morse offered commentary for the eclipse from the perspectives of culture, science and tourism.

Around noon, people started to gather at the Catafount. The first to arrive joined lines for eclipse-related trinkets and free novelty t-shirts.

WCU Solar Eclipse trinkets and novelty t-shirt. Photo by Keegan Wiggins.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and the shirt is an item I can wear, like a memento. I can look at it and go, ‘That was cool. I got to see that,’” WCU student Jansen Haneline said.

By 1 p.m., the crowd had expanded to include not only students seeking freebies, but also more serious eclipse enthusiasts.

Student Kayla Bowman was more keen on the eclipse than the free t-shirts.

“I’m really excited, because I’m not gonna get to see it again in my lifetime,” she said.

Dr. Bricker demonstrates the use of a Pringles can indirect viewer. Photo by Keegan Wiggins.

Professors, also excited for the eclipse, brought it to the classroom. Professor of Science Education Dr. Patricia Bricker showed her class how to make indirect viewers out of household items like cereal boxes and Pringles cans.

“It’s an incredible opportunity,” Bricker said. “It’s a chance to experience ourselves and think about how you might take advantage of things like this for kids in the future.”

Even though students and faculty shared their excitement, the younger audience had mixed feelings. Youngster Taryn Shick put her excitement level at about five, while Emma Jennings put hers at a “ten outta ten.”

Taryn Shick tries on her eclipse glasses. Photo by Keegan Wiggins.

By 2 p.m., the lawn was packed from the U.C. to Balsam-Blue Ridge with people of all ages. As the sky darkened like dusk, people settled into their final viewing spots and “dawned” their eclipse glasses.

A group of clouds instilled a false start. However, the audience quickly regained composure. In the final moments before the real eclipse, only a fingernail sliver of the sun remained. The clouds cleared, and a low energized murmur filled the air.

Then cheering erupted.

Cullowhee’s solar eclipse. Photo by Keegan Wiggins.

All that remained of the sun at 2:35 p.m. was a fiery ring in the southwest sky – the Corona. Onlookers safely removed their viewing glasses and gazed in awe at the spectacle. The temperature dropped noticeably as the automated light posts flicked on, and the unusual phenomenon incited a chorus of crickets.

“I took off my glasses and the whole world looked different,” said student, Emily Andsager.

High school teacher and WCU alumnus Michael Peysour said, “That was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life – like a Celestial Woodstock!”

Chancellor David Belcher was ecstatic after the one-minute-and-53-second total eclipse.

“Oh, it was awesome, you know. It was incredible!” he exclaimed. “Most people have never had a chance like this, so I thought it was great.”

Dr. Heckert watches the second half of the partial eclipse. Photo by Keegan Wiggins.

Professor of Astronomy and Physics Dr. Paul Heckert was thankful that the weather cooperated with the event.

“It would’ve been nice if it were 100 percent clear all day but what we got for Cullowhee was pretty good,” he said.

Belcher added, “It was pretty amazing, to tell you the truth. I was actually worried about the cloud cover, but at that one moment, everything was just right.”

Although Cullowhee won’t witness another total eclipse until the year 2153, enthusiasts like Heckert are planning to see another, even if that means they’ll have to travel.

“The only thing I did wrong was I didn’t move to Carbondale, Illinois, because they get this one and 2024 eclipse only seven years apart! But Cullowhee is a better place to live,” Heckert said.

Chancellor Belcher posing for the camera. Photo by Keegan Wiggins.

For now, Belcher is focused on the present and what the Great American Eclipse did for WCU.

“Here’s the first day of the year, and suddenly you have everyone together, and it’s this major event that actually turns into community,” Belcher said. “And community is what really defines Western Carolina University.”

Click here for more photos from the event.

By Keegan Wiggins and Yustin Riopko.