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Considered by many to be the “Father of East Carolina,” Thomas Jordan Jarvis was born on January 18, 1836, in Jarvisburg, North Carolina. His father, Bannister Hardy Jarvis, was a Methodist minister and farmer. Jarvis assisted on the farm and attended local common schools before enrolling at Randolph-Macon College in Boydton, Virginia, at the age of nineteen. He supplemented his college expenses by teaching during summers spent home in Currituck County. He graduated with honors in 1860 and continued his education, earning a Master of Arts degree in 1861. With his formal training in education complete, Jarvis opened a school in Pasquotank County, North Carolina.
In May of 1861, the State of North Carolina seceded from the Union. Jarvis enlisted in the Seventeenth North Carolina Regiment, before transferring to Company B, in the Eighth North Carolina Regiment as a lieutenant. Jarvis served with distinction, until suffering permanent disablement to his right arm in May 1864, during the defense of Fort Darling, approximately fifteen miles south of Richmond. After the Confederate surrender, he returned to Jarvisburg.
In September 1865, Jarvis was elected as the Currituck County delegate to the State Constitutional Convention. Later that year, he opened an unsuccessful general store in the town of Gum Neck, North Carolina. As a result, he turned to studying law and after earning his license to practice in June 1867, moved to nearby Columbia. In the spring of 1868, Jarvis was elected the State House of Representatives. By 1870, he had risen to Speaker of the State House.
Jarvis moved to Greenville, North Carolina, in 1872, where he opened a law practice with his partner, David M. Carter. He continued to participate in politics, becoming Chairman of the County Democratic Central Committee. In 1874, Jarvis married Mary Woodson of Goochland County, Virginia, the daughter of Judge John Woodson. They had no children.
In 1876, Jarvis became the lieutenant governor of North Carolina under Zebulon B. Vance. When Vance was elected as a United States Senator, Jarvis was sworn in as the forty-fourth governor of North Carolina. He used his influence as governor to reduce state debt by selling state-owned railroads to private companies. He also sponsored the creation of mental health facilities in Goldsboro and Morganton and established normal schools at Davidson, Wake Forest, and Trinity colleges. Reelected in 1880, Jarvis turned his energies toward improving public education. He championed the idea of multi-level teacher certifications, standardized exams for public school teachers, codified state laws, and approval was obtained for the construction of a governor’s mansion in Raleigh, North Carolina. Convict laborers began construction on the mansion in April 1883, and it was completed in 1891. Its first resident was Governor Daniel Fowle.
After his second term, Jarvis served as the U.S. Minister to Brazil until the death of President Cleveland. He then returned to Greenville, North Carolina, where he reentered politics and reopened his law practice with new partner Alexander L. Blow, who became Clerk of the North Carolina Superior Court in 1912.
In 1907, Jarvis and William H. Ragsdale wrote a bill proposing the creation of a teacher training school in Greenville, N.C. After multiple failures, the state legislature approved funding for the creation of East Carolina Teachers Training School, which would award two-year teaching certificates.
The East Carolina Board of Trustees was formed in March 1908, with State Superintendent of Public Instruction, James Y. Joyner, serving as chair. Jarvis was given a spot on the board and was chosen to head the executive committee, which gave him influence over the design of the buildings. He used position to influence the design of the buildings, including demanding red tile roofs and copper gutters On July 2, 1908 Jarvis ceremoniously broke ground on the site of the Old Austin administrative building.
Jarvis selected Robert H. Wright of Sampson County, North Carolina as the first president of the new college and the two men began hiring faculty members. Jarvis continued to support and promote the school for the remainder of his life. On January 18, 1915, Jarvis made his last of many appearances on campus, celebrating his 79th birthday with the faculty and students and passed away a few months later.
A devout Methodist, Jarvis attended national conventions on behalf of the North Carolina Methodist Conference, while also serving as the superintendent of Sunday school and Chairman of the Building Committee. After his death, the church was renamed Jarvis Memorial Methodist Church to honor its most famous member. Jarvis is buried in Greenville’s Cherry Hill Cemetery, approximately one mile from the church that bears his name. On the campus of the school that he helped create, Jarvis Residence Hall houses participants in East Carolina University’s Walter and Marie Williams Leadership Awards program.