UNCW History Professor Larry Usilton Retires after 50 Years of Service

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

History professor Larry Usilton has taught thousands of students about the past. Now, he’s ready to look to the future after five decades at UNCW.

Usilton was 24 years old and fresh out of graduate school when he joined the university in 1971. At the time, UNCW had seven academic buildings, a library, a dining hall and a gymnasium. Enrollment was about 1,500 students, he said, not the more than 17,900 Seahawks who now attend the university.

“I was only a few years older than my students, so it was easy for them to see me as one of their own, not just an instructor. Fast forward 50 years, now they see me as a grandfather,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s how many generations have gone by.”

Teaching was not on his radar when Usilton began his undergraduate studies. His mentor, Mississippi State University professor Charles Lewis, sparked his interest in ancient and medieval history and academia. He died in an automobile accident at the age of 39, a few years after Usilton started teaching at UNCW.

“He encouraged me and pushed me in the right direction,” Usilton recalled. “The research that I did for him allowed me to immerse myself in things that were a lot more interesting than I thought they could be.”

Over the years, Usilton has played a role in strengthening UNCW’s history program. Between 1995 and 1999, he served as chair of the department. He became the first director of UNCW’s Swansea Study Abroad Program in Wales in 1991. The following year, he created “Medieval Sampler,” a travel program that enabled Usilton to take students, parents and community members to the British Isles and most countries in Western Europe. He hopes to continue the travel program during his retirement, which begins in May 2021.

Usilton was recognized by the university in 2017 when he was inducted into the Order of Isaac Bear. The Order, founded in 1988 by former Chancellor William H. Wagoner, recognizes those who have contributed to the university’s academic quality or had a significant role in uniting the institution and the community.

In 2018, Usilton was presented with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine for his outstanding contributions to his field, students, peers and community. It is the highest award given to individuals who have shown extraordinary service to the state and is granted by the Office of the Governor.

Usilton begins his retirement with mixed emotions.

‘It’s all that I’ve known for the past 50 years, and it’s going to be difficult to give that up,” he continued. “I do have other plans. I have plenty of research projects that I’m still working on, which I hope will lead to books, articles and things of that sort.”

He also plans to check off items on his wife’s “to-do” list and play more basketball, an activity he enjoys weekly with friends. 

Usilton hopes his students remember him as someone who made history interesting. He also encouraged students to maintain an eagerness to learn even after leaving UNCW.

“My 50 years with the university have given me the opportunity to witness its growth from a small regional school adjacent to a two-lane road into a major institution,” said Usilton. “Along the way, I have always tried to demonstrate to my students and fellow travelers that the study of history is not only important but can be interesting, as well.”

-- Venita Jenkins