In the summer of 1950, two Unitarian ministers – Rev. Alfred Hobart of Charleston, S.C., and Rev. Richard Henry, of Knoxville, Tenn. – led a week-long leadership retreat for Unitarian religious leaders and their families at Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina. Hobart, who was also the American Unitarian Association’s Regional Director for the Southeastern United States, had been inspired by a similar gathering held annually in Oklahoma, serving the Southwestern Region.
Hobart and Henry invited program presenters from the AUA to lead workshops for the geographically dispersed Unitarian ministers and religious education directors of the South – while their families enjoyed outdoor recreation, boating and hiking. The model had been cast for what is now SUUSI! From a few dozen people that first year at Lake Waccamaw, our community has grown to more than a thousand people, now meeting the third week of July each summer at Radford University in the mountains of Virginia.
Throughout the 1950’s, the Summer Institute (which went by various names) became a summer institution in the lives of many Unitarians both lay and ordained. We moved from the Atlantic shore to the Appalachian Mountains in 1951, and for the 16 years held our annual summer retreat at the Blue Ridge YMCA Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina. By the time the Unitarian and Universalist denominations merged in 1961, the Summer Institute had become an efficient, well-run, lay-led program that was drawing several hundred people of all ages to Blue Ridge. Word of the beautiful mountains and cool summer breezes had reached far and wide, and large contingents from as far away as Florida were now making the migration each summer for a memorable week of family fun.
In the summer of 1966, things changed dramatically at our beloved Blue Ridge Assembly home. That spring, we were informed that we would be sharing the conference center that summer with the inaugural training camp of the new National Football League expansion team, the Atlanta Falcons. After that experience, our Summer Institute entered “The Nomad Years,” almost a decade of migration from one host site to another, none truly serving our needs. In 1970, in fact, without a site and without denominational support, there was no Institute. But the following year, thanks largely to the tenacity of Thomas Jefferson District board members Don Male and Rosemary Morris, the Summer Institute began the process of “reinventing itself” at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
By 1975, Brad Brown made an overture to Radford College, and we were welcomed with open arms at the lovely campus in Southwest Virginia. In the next few years, we incorporated, officially changed our name to the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI!), developed a more organized volunteer staffing structure, and added numerous adult workshops along with outstanding youth and teen programs. In 1979, we had our first attendance of over 1,000 participants.
Since then, we have met at either Radford University or Virginia Tech, and have developed many of the beloved traditions that keep folks coming back, year after year, now not only from the Southeast, but from all over the United States and even, in some cases, abroad. From humble beginnings near the coast of North Carolina, to major universities in the Appalachian Mountains, for more than 60 years we have brought joy and learning, friendship and community, to generations of Unitarian Universalists.