From A Sampling of University Hauntings

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Colleges, it appears, have always been attractive to ghosts, and there is hardly an institution of higher learning in Alabama that lacks a local legend of the supernatural.

Huntingdon College has its Red Lady, Judson has its phantom organist, Montevallo has the restless spirit of a former student up on fourth Main (better known as Buzzard), Spring Hill has the ghost of a brilliant mathematics professor, Athens College has the stern presence of Madam Childs, and there are other such college hauntings.

The University of Alabama, as befits the state’s oldest seat of advanced education, has several college ghosts, spirits linked with the history of that Tuscaloosa institution. Ghost lore on the University campus centers on Smith Hall where for more than a quarter of a century there have been stories of nocturnal noises for which there is no satisfactory explanation.

There may have been earlier supernatural occurrences in the yellow brick building, but it was in 1955 that Dr. Gary Hooks, then an instructor at the University, had his first encounters with the Smith Hall ghosts. Dr. Hooks, it is recorded, was working very late, doing research for his dissertation in a room on the first floor of Smith Hall. He was alone in the building.

He was concentrating on the notes and charts spread out in front of him when he became aware of unusual noises on the floor above him. There were the sounds of muffled voices and of many footsteps, as though a group of students was being shown through the second floor museum.

Dr. Hooks hurried upstairs to see who the late-night visitors were, but he found the second floor quite deserted: no one was there. There was no one on the third floor, either. Yet Dr. Hooks was certain he had heard footsteps and voices.

He gathered up his papers and left the building.

This initial awareness of the presence of other people in the supposedly empty building was followed by several similar experiences. Again and again his late night study was interrupted by clattering footsteps on the second floor and by the intermingling of many voices. And on each such occasion, a search of the building showed no one else was there.

The ghostly noises did not always follow the same pattern. Sometimes it was the voices of college students Dr. Hooks heard, as though the students were assembling in the classroom for a lecture or were changing classes. At other times the voices seemed to be those of children, perhaps elementary school pupils being taken on a tour of the museum. Though thousands of Alabama schoolchildren have trekked through the museum in the past half-century, no youngsters were ever visible when Dr. Hooks went to investigate.

In the early 1970s, several graduate students studying past midnight in Smith Hall told of eerie experiences similar to those reported by Dr. Hooks.

Chuck Weilchowsky of Selma, working alone in the basement after midnight, had his study interrupted by the same kinds of noises, the subdued intermingling of many voices and the hurried steps of many feet. But never did he find anyone else in the building.

Bob Clark, Barry Gilliam, Jay Masingill, Perry Hubbert, Vic Davis, Steve Kimbrell, and others have reportedly heard the phantom voices and footsteps. On some occasions, they said, a dominant voice was audible above the murmur. Though the words were not clear enough to be understood, it sounded, they said, like the voice of a teacher or lecturer calling his class to order.

Occasionally, these graduate students recalled, they were aware of an unseen presence very close to them, as though a professor were looking over their shoulders to check the quality of their research.

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Dr. Eugene Allen Smith spent most of the last years of his long life in Smith Hall.

Some of the students who heard the ghostly noises believe the sounds somehow involve Dr. Eugene Allen Smith for whom the building was named.

 

Dr. Smith was born in Autauga County in 1841, and he entered the University of Alabama in 1860. The War Between the States interrupted his education, and in 1862 he joined the Confederate forces, attaining the rank of captain.

He became a professor on the faculty of the University in 1871, having earlier earned his Ph.D. degree from Heidelburg University. In 1873, the Alabama legislature appointed him Alabama’s first state geologist.

In his new position, Dr. Smith crisscrossed the state in his horse­-drawn buggy, observing, studying, mapping, collecting, photographing, and writing about Alabama’s geological formations. It was Dr. Smith who first recognized the importance of preserving the remnants of Indian culture at Moundville.

He was nearly seventy years old, but still quite active, when Smith Hall was completed in 1910. He moved his laboratory to the first floor of the building that bears his name, and for the next seventeen years he continued to work there. And into that building he brought his collection of fossils, artifacts, and rocks, geological samples from every county in the state.

Dr. Smith was eating breakfast one morning in late August 1927, when he became violently ill. His death came about a week later. He was eighty-six years old.

”Dr. Smith spent most of the last years of his long life in Smith Hall. He loved this place,” students who believe that his spirit still lingers in the building point out. “He liked to lecture to the classes and enjoyed escorting groups of elementary schoolchildren through the Museum of Natural History, talking to them and answering their questions.

”He dedicated his life to the study of the geology of his native state, and he wanted to pass his knowledge on to new generations. So it could well be his voice we hear above the mingled whispers, his footsteps we hear in the museum, his presence we feel,” they say.

(c) Kathryn Tucker Windham

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