UNCG Magazine

Dot Kearns: First woman to lead Guilford County Commissioners

With a heritage as perhaps the best public woman’s college America has ever seen, this campus has had many trailblazers.

Dot Kendall Kearns ’53, ’74 MEd, who graduated from Woman’s College and from UNCG, is among those at the top of that list.

The first woman to serve on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, Kearns was the first woman to serve as chair (1985-88). (She notes that Zoe Barbee was the first woman to win election to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, but was killed in a traffic accident before beginning service on the board.)

“I ran for the Board of County Commissioners in hopes of helping to facilitate the merger of the three school systems in Guilford County. The end result ultimately became a unified school system available to serve all young students in Guilford County who choose to come into it,” she said.

“Water quality was important (to me) later,” she added. She is recognized for leading the effort to ensure a safe drinking water supply to all Guilford County citizens through, for example, codes allowing no swimming or motorboats in the lakes that form our water supply – and allowing no homes to be built near their shores. 

Earlier in her career, she served on the Boards of Education for both High Point City Schools and then Guilford County Schools. She advocated for the innovative Smart Start program for young children. She has served in community service positions with the National Conference of Community and Justice, the Guilford County Health Advisory Board, Communities in Schools, the NC School Boards Association, the Community Advisory Board for Kids Voting, and, at UNCG, the UNC Greensboro Foundation Board (twice) and the Board of Visitors.

Currently, she is vice-chair of Public Schools First North Carolina, and she is very involved in the Guilford County Roundtable for the NC League of Women Voters. 

She received the Outstanding Service Award presented by the NC League of Women Voters, as well as the governor’s Order of the Longleaf Pine Award. The National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad (NCCJ) presented her its Brotherhood/Sisterhood Citation Award, which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions toward creating a community free of bias, bigotry and racism.

Spring 2009 Magazine article on Dot Kearns; 1950 photo, Pine Needles, of Dot Kearns and fellow class officers. Photo courtesy SCUA.

The Class of 1953 funded and commissioned the Minerva statue at UNCG, and she helped lead the project to its conclusion. She recalls when sculptor Jim Barnhill arrived with the statue in the bed of his truck. She had not anticipated that it would be greenish-colored like an antique penny. “I was surprised.” And she was very pleased – and is thrilled how the campus has embraced the statue. 

Her UNCG years were formative. Her professors, such as Mareb Mossman, were outstanding. Great writers and intellectuals, including Robert Penn Warren. Carl Sandberg, and Katherine Anne Porter, came and spoke.

The first Hariett Elliott forum had a particularly notable speaker, she recalled. “I had lunch right across from Eleanor Roosevelt.” 

She recalls the table conversion and the former First Lady’s appearance like it was yesterday. “Eleanor Roosevelt had been in Kentucky. She told us her thoughts about the mines. She had the most slender fingers, (and) light pink nail polish.”

In the Fall 2018 UNCG Magazine feature on special places on our campus, she told of the very spot her career path was set: As a junior, she had to settle on a major. She loved several subjects; it was nearly impossible to settle on one. She again met with her advisor on the second floor of Foust Building, then abruptly sat down atop the east stairwell steps – with students streaming by. She had an epiphany.

“All of a sudden, it just became clear to me. ‘Major in sociology and get a teaching certificate In history.’” 

She added, “I have never regretted that decision. The background disciplines of the sociology major and teaching certificate in history have served me well in both education and business sectors.”

The public good and education have been her focus ever since.

“Woman’s College and UNCG made a huge difference in my life,” she said. “I do indeed feel I have an enormous debt.”

By Mike Harris, UNCG Magazine

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