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Endowment’s backstory shows power of liberal arts

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Kyle Biery, associate professor of theatre

Kyle Biery, associate professor of theatre

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(May 9, 2014)– Dr. Charles Irving Fuller may well be the best phantom benefactor a theatre has ever had. His story could one day make a play, as it consists of several facts wrapped around a mystery.

As a C-N student some 75 years ago, the Norton, Virginia, native majored in chemistry and minored in German and math. The 1941 yearbook, “Appalachian,” cites his extracurricular activities as being the Science Club, Biology Club, Philomeathean Literary Society and Life Service Band, a group for those who supported ministry and missions but not called to fulltime Christian service.

He graduated from Carson-Newman in 1941 and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After finishing the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine in 1945, his studies in pediatric medicine included stops in Los Angeles and Chicago. He then returned to Norton to see to the health of his hometown’s children.

The facts show Dr. Fuller was a good physician, a stalwart community member and a philanthropist; he named scholarship programs at Carson-Newman and the University of Virginia at Wise to honor his parents. He also established two medical school funds at UVA, one of them being a neonatology fellowship “to provide treatment to premature infants and to train residents and fellows.”

In the early 1980s, he stipulated in his will the formation of another fund that would provide for a certain cousin. Following his death in 1995, his cousin benefitted from his generosity until she died. When her estate was probated, its proceeds were forwarded to Carson-Newman to, as noted in one sentence of the will, “establish a chair of drama.”

Thus began the mystery.

News of the endowment first led its beneficiary, Associate Professor of Theatre Kyle Biery, to wonder if Carson-Newman might have some theretofore-unknown connection to a noted playwright, also named Charles Fuller. Biery easily dismissed that fancy, given that his patron was a physician, plus the fact that playwright Fuller was a toddler when physician Fuller was completing his Carson-Newman education.

By the time he realized he would hold the Charles I. Fuller, Jr. Chair of Drama, Biery wondered if his patron had been a student actor. However, as demonstrated above, there are no acting credits, no drama club memberships or anything of the like. There is neither, save a lone course in public speaking, any tangible connection to the department on his undergraduate transcript. Save one sentence in a will written more than 30 years ago, no direct link has been discovered between the benefactor and the program he endowed.

Biery likes thinking that there is no mystery at all.

“It may be the best example I know about the power of liberal arts,” said the professor. “A young man from Southwest Virginia comes to college, applies himself, shows interest in helping others and makes a career of doing that. And then, when he plans for a future he will not see, thinks that people need theatre in their lives.

“Yeah, I like that – I like that a lot!”

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