South Toward Home: Tales of an Unlikely Journey by Alice Joyner Irby
Southerners love to tell stories. In these twenty-six stories, Alice shares her childhood adventures while growing up in the 1930s and 1940s on the Roanoke River in Weldon, a small town in Northeastern North Carolina. She and her brother, George, kept Granny’s boarding house lively with pranks on customers and neighborhood playmates. Sometimes they were admonished, sometimes punished, but mostly just loved. Through it all, the two enjoyed the implicit protection of loving parents, family friends, and a caring community.
Eager to explore the world by rail, highway, or river, Alice stopped first at The Woman’s College (now UNCG) in Greensboro and then at Duke for graduate school. Feeling well prepared and fearless—it was the 1950s--she jumped into the business world, only to hit walls common to the experience of other young women in a man’s world before the Women’s Movement caught fire and definition. Applying for her first job—fresh out of graduate school—she was told she was over-qualified for the advertised position but that she could not hold a higher-level job there because women did not qualify for account executive.
Every decade brought unforeseen opportunities, painful disruptions, and life-altering choices—from the controversial McCarthy hearings and public school integration efforts of the 1950s, to the 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro when as Alice was Director of Admissions at UNCG; from the legislative push for equal rights to LBJ’s War on Poverty in the 1960s to her role within LBJ’s Job Corps in Washington, D. C. These were exciting and formative times for the Republic. Alice witnessed them all--and more.
Music sustained her, whether playing under the tutelage of Louise Farber, her piano teacher, or celebrating her college mentor, Warren Ashby, when listening to Anton Dvorak’s "Serenade for Strings" or absorbing the emotional intensity of Rachmaninoff’s "Concerto No. 3 in D Minor."
Unconditional love and support from her parents, siblings, and daughter also enabled her journey and sustained her resilience. Her guiding “celebrities” come to life as well in South Toward Home. These richly-detailed stories are Alice’s personal history of life in America in those decades—while at the same time the heart of this young Southern woman never entirely leaves the black-delta banks of the timeless Roanoke River and the friendly, unpretentious, independent people of Halifax County, North Carolina.
Alice, a native North Carolinian, was born in the small town of Weldon in historic Halifax County. She grew up in what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church, a church in Weldon co-founded by her ancestors. In 1950, she moved to Greensboro, graduated with honors from The Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNCG), and moved to Durham for graduate work in Economics at Duke University. After several years of working with Merrill Lynch and teaching at UNCG, she moved into academic administration as Director of Admissions, UNCG. In 1962, she moved with her young daughter, Andrea, to Princeton, New Jersey, to join Educational Testing Service (ETS). For the next thirty-six years, she lived and worked in New Jersey and in Washington, D.C. While living in Princeton, Alice served on the Committee on the Ordination of Women of Trinity Episcopal Church, one of the first churches to endorse the ordination of women.
In 1964-65, she was on leave from ETS to assist in the establishment of the Job Corps during the Johnson Administration. During the 1970s she joined Rutgers University as the first female Vice-President of a major university, returning to ETS in 1978 to lead its field offices and oversee its legislative relations. Several years before she retired, she founded and was CEO of The Chauncey Group International, the first operational subsidiary of ETS, with the mission of developing licensing and certification examinations for the professions and employment.
At one point, when she was moving her base of operations to Washington, a colleague asked her why she would want to leave Princeton for Washington. Quickly, she replied, “Because it is halfway to North Carolina!” And, in 1998, she came the entire way home to join other members of her family: her daughter, Andrea, and grandson, James, in the Raleigh area; her sister, Margaret, in Southern Pines; and her brother, George, in Morehead City.
Before moving to Raleigh in January, 2016, to be closer to her daughter and family, she lived in Pinehurst. There Alice focused her interests on her profession, her alma mater, and her community. She chaired the board of a testing company in New Hampshire. At UNCG, she was a member of the Excellence Foundation. Locally, she served on the board of Friends of Given Library, was president of the local branch of The English Speaking Union, and served as Treasurer of The Village Chapel. Her determination to “retire from retirement” when she moved to Raleigh has been partially successful in that Alice has made time to write stories for her family and friends—now the chapters of South Toward Home.