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John and Nell Isenhour Establish First Family Scholarship at Catawba College

December 12, 2005

Category: Academics, Students

John Isenhour Sr. of Salisbury has likely forgotten more about making bricks than most people know, but he remembers vividly the value of his own college education. Now, Isenhour and his wife Nell have established a scholarship at Catawba College through a charitable remainder trust which they hope will provide future generations of students with that same valuable college education.

The John and Nell Isenhour Sr. First Family Scholarship will provide financial assistance to Catawba's best and brightest students. First Family Scholarships are Catawba's most prestigious scholarships and students who have been accepted at Catawba are invited to participate in competition for them each year based on their overall grade point average and SAT scores. Competition includes a series of faculty interviews, writing an essay on why a student aspires to be a scholarship recipient, and providing confidential written recommendations from teachers or administrators concerning their abilities, academic achievement, character and motivation.

"John Isenhour is a fine example of a man who was able to very successfully grow his family's business thanks to his college education," explains Catawba College Senior Vice President Tom Childress. "He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for several years, before finally enrolling at and graduating from N.C. State University in 1933 with a degree in ceramic engineering. His education allowed him to help Isenhour Brick of Salisbury make a major manufacturing transition in the 1930s and then, thrive as a family business until it merged with Boral Company in a 1995."

Isenhour concurs with Childress' assessment, noting that he "couldn't have done all of those brick things without an education."  He says he went to UNC initially, thinking that he would earn a degree in business, and spent two years there during the Depression before he "realized I wasn't getting the education I should have."

"I played the violin and got into the symphony. I learned to dance, I joined a fraternity and was on the cross-country team," he continues. "But finally, the Good Lord took a hold of me and I decided I needed to learn more about the brick business. That's when I transferred to State where I spent three years. It was a lot more difficult. I was in class from 8 a.m. to 4 .m. and taking physics, calculus, engineering and ceramics classes. I had a wonderful professor who worked the heck out of us, trying to really teach us."

John Isenhour's grandfather started Isenhour Brick in 1896, making only common brick. His father and uncle continued the business into the new century, still making common brick at a rate of 35,000 a day. The brick industry, however, began changing in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with block being used instead of common brick in construction projects, and face brick being manufactured to front the block. Isenhour Brick did not have the technical expertise or equipment at that point in time to remain competitive so while Isenhour was away at N.C. State, the plant idled for four years.

After graduating from N.C. State, Isenhour was set to take a job at a West Virginia manufacturing plant which produced beer bottles. He was anticipating a salary of $15 a week with a room and board charge of $8. However, when he returned home to Rowan County to gather his belongings, a conversation he had with his father changed everything. He shared with his father new technology about de-airing clay and told him about some good shale that could be used to make face bricks about 15 miles south of Salisbury in Gold Hill.

Isenhour's father in turn told him that he had purchased some equipment to make face brick from a Virginia company. With that equipment purchase, John Isenhour's education, and the source of raw material for making the clay, Isenhour Brick reopened anew and grew into one of the largest single brick-manufacturing plants in the world. At the business' peak, the plan operated six days a week, two shifts a day and turned out a half million bricks a day.

It was shortly after Isenhour Brick reopened, in March of 1935, that John Isenhour married his college sweetheart, Nell Gordon of Pilot Mountain. The two had met on a blind date arranged by a Salisbury girl that Nell roomed with when she was a student at Salem College.

"I thought he'd never, never marry me," Nell Isenhour says of her husband of 70 years. "I guess he didn't want me to starve until he got the business to where he wanted it. I've been in love with him nearly all of my life." 

Salisbury-area projects completed using Isenhour brick include the Rowan Hospital, completed in 1936 using five different kinds of local materials, and the Veteran's Hospital, completed in the 1950s using between four and five million bricks.

Only to answer the civic call of duty did Isenhour temporarily neglect his business in the 1950s. He was elected to serve as a Salisbury City Councilman between 1951 and 1953, and then elected as Mayor of Salisbury between 1953 and 1955.

The Isenhours who both celebrate their 94th birthdays in December are parents of a son and a daughter, have five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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