Breaking Ground and Breaking Barriers

One alumna’s historic role in a UNC campus institution

Story by Carrie Creasy | photo courtesy of Mary Ann Kirkpatrick | Published July 18, 2023

Black and white photo of five men and two women standing outside

The Frank Porter Graham Student Union, or Carolina Union, is essential to campus life in Chapel Hill. The Union honors university president Frank Porter Graham (1886-1972), whose legacy includes supporting social justice, freedom of speech, and excellence in education. Today, the building is home to more than 950 student organizations and provides programs, services and facilities for all members of the Carolina campus community.

Governing the Union is a faculty board of directors representing various disciplines, who select a student president each year. In 1967, the board of directors selected Mary Ann (Fulton) Kirkpatrick, BSPhar ’68, as the first female president of the Union. Her first official duty was participating in the ground-breaking for the new student union building that is familiar on campus today. Mary Ann was a competent practitioner because of her degree in Pharmacy, but she attributes her liberal education to her involvement with the Union.

The 1960s were a turbulent time on college campuses, particularly for women. Mary Ann remembers that “females were not allowed to wear shorts or smoke cigarettes, we had a curfew.” She bonded quickly with her fellow coeds on the second floor of Spencer Dorm and served on the Women’s Residency Council for two years. Before applying for the position as president of the Union, she acted as representative at the board of directors.

She omitted her GPA from the application because “I didn’t think it would serve me very well.” During the interview, when asked why it was missing, Mary Ann responded “with confidence I shouldn’t have had” that “I don’t think you can compare GPAs between disciplines.” Dr. Jicha from the chemistry department spoke up to agree with her, insisting they move on with the interview. She became the first pharmacy student to hold a campus-wide office.

Mary Ann oversaw seven committees working closely with Howard Henry, the Union’s first permanent director, and Archie Copeland, his close associate and successor. Their gentle leadership gave her confidence that “if you work well with all types of people, who are coming at problems in very different ways, then you can get any job done well.”

During her final year of Pharmacy school, it was her involvement with the Union that rounded out her entire education. “My degree in Pharmacy opened a lot of doors for me,” she says. “But it was that experience at the Union that enabled me to be successful behind those doors.”

Mary Ann was well-prepared for practice in hospital pharmacy, where her career began. Nudged by a co-worker in 1981, she applied for a one-term faculty position as a pharmacy laboratory instructor; that one term turned into 20 years. She proceeded to earn a graduate certificate in Aging Studies, a Master’s degree in Gerontology and, in 1997, her PhD. In 2001 Mary Ann became the Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the School of Pharmacy at Shenandoah University. She enjoyed this work until she retired in 2012.

Most comfortable trying new things and always busy, Mary Ann has found retirement to be no different. She has an extensive travel itinerary, does Jazzercise five days a week, and prioritizes adventures with her two daughters and four grandchildren. This summer she and her husband, also a pharmacist, are celebrating 50 years of marriage.