A family whose roots in Charlotte extend back to when Providence Day School’s site was surrounded by dirt roads and pastures is responsible for shaping the school’s campus of today - and beyond.
Had it not been for Robert and Evelyn Pharr and their wish to help a small independent school at the intersection of Sardis and Rama roads, there might be no tennis courts; no Mosack Athletic Center; no Overcash Stadium or Murdock Baseball Field; and far fewer resources for Providence Day as the school begins planning the next phase of its future.
The Pharrs built their Robinson Woods home in the early 1970s and owned around 22 acres of land that allowed the school to expand the campus into the area it covers today. Robert Pharr was a land surveyor and developer who owned most of the property that the school is now on, with the exception of the “Original House” and The Levin Family Extended Day House.
“His plan was to make a residential development out of it either connected to the Lansdowne [neighborhood] or have a couple of cul de sacs,” says Kent Pharr Burke, Robert Pharr’s daughter. “He had owned that land for many years, and my great-grandfather’s house is the Extended Day House – it was my Dad’s grandfather’s house.”
Pharr spent his childhood in Charlotte when Providence Road was an unpaved dirt road. While his formal education ended in the eighth grade, “he was a very smart man and ended up teaching himself a lot of mathematical skills,” Burke says. “He was in the second World War in combat in the South Pacific and received the Silver Star Medal.” Pharr returned to Charlotte after the war and met his future wife Evelyn who grew up in Davidson, N.C. Her father was a professor at Davidson College and taught Pharr many of the skills he needed to work in surveying, from which he built a successful business.
“My Dad really had a soft spot in his heart for the school and how they were landlocked. That part of town was sort of his stomping ground growing up,” Burke recalls. Pharr was involved with Sardis Road Presbyterian Church and his mother’s father lived on Sardis Road. “There was always the neighborhood, the school, and the church, and my parents were involved in all three of those.”
Burke grew up steps away from the Providence Day campus, in the house still visible next to the current tennis courts.
When Burke was a child, her family enjoyed playing tennis together and had a court at their house before selling the land to PD. “When Dad sold that land and they built the tennis courts, he said there’s one stipulation – we have to have a key to the courts. So we used to go down there to play at times when there was nobody down there.”
PD’s first 14-acre land purchase from Robert Pharr was made in November of 1981 and over time, Pharr “became really good friends with Gene Bratek [PD’s headmaster/Head of School from 1986-1995] and was interested in seeing the school prosper and grow, which I think it did in the formative years of the school,” Burke recalls. “Over the course of time, Gene Bratek approached my Dad about selling [land] to the school instead of developing it.”
Robert and Evelyn owned the home next to campus until they were ready to downsize in their 70s. “My kids came along and I bought that house [from my parents],” Burke says. While she attended Charlotte Latin growing up and her friends assumed her kids would follow in her footsteps, “I lived there and raised my two daughters there so it was only natural for them to go to PD. PD is an excellent school.” Burke’s daughters Natalie Burke Davis ’11 and Julia Burke ’15 were both PD “lifers.”
Living next to the school was really a terrific experience for her family. “My parents loved the school,” says Burke. “I’ve always been a working mom so they would pick the kids up from Extended Day and go to their cross country meets and swim meets and all of the things that they did. It was a wonderful experience.”
Burke’s older daughter Natalie went to UNC-Chapel Hill and works for a Christian organization on campus called Cru. She is a mission trip operations specialist, and although the group cannot travel now, she’s planning trips for the summer of 2021 and into next year. She and her husband met at UNC, spent a year in Prague with Cru, and recently bought a house together in Chapel Hill.
Natalie recalls, “One of my most fond memories of Providence Day, as it relates to my grandparents, is before I was even a student! Every Christmas season, Providence Day hosted a horse-drawn carriage ride around Mimi and Da's neighborhood, Robinson Woods. Every elementary school grade rode around the neighborhood singing Christmas carols and enjoying candy canes. Since the carriage turned around in my grandparent's driveway, Mimi insisted that I join in on the fun starting at age 2! I got to ride the carriage for 8 years total once I finished elementary school at PD.
“I think this is one example of how close the relationship was between my grandparents and Providence Day. They wanted to be part of the community – even before a family member attended! Over the years, I have learned how much of a mutual blessing the Pharrs and Providence Day were to one another and I think my grandparents left an example of community involvement and servanthood that I hope to replicate in my lifetime.”
Burke’s younger daughter Julia went to Auburn and graduated in 2019 with a marketing degree. She spent a year in Spain after graduation teaching English but returned to the U.S. early due to COVID-19. Julia recently began a job with Fidelity Investments based in Dallas.
Julia says, “Growing up right next to the school, I’m so grateful my grandparents and parents gave me the opportunity to be a Providence Day lifer. From the valuable experiences, incredible teachers and staff, the opportunities and trips, Providence Day created fond memories and lifelong friendships that I will always cherish.”
The Pharrs had a great love story and celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary before Robert passed away in 2007. Evelyn passed away in February of 2020 at the age of 94. “She was grateful for her life and what they had been able to accomplish together,” Burke says.
Providence Day is a beneficiary of a charitable remainder trust set up by the Pharr family when they sold the land to the school. “Dad used to joke about his lack of education, but he realized how important education was, and I think that’s one reason he and my mom wanted to include Providence Day School in their gifting,” Burke says. “They saw the impact it had on my children and how important education is for all of us. I think he saw the school as being diverse and he was ahead of his time in his thinking about inclusion and diversity. He used to talk to me about that a lot.”
Today, Burke splits her time between homes in New York and Charlotte. “When my mom passed away she also lived down the street in Robinson Woods and I’ve now bought her house, so I’m there – I have a habit of buying my parents’ house!” Burke jokes. “I see so many PD families because they love the neighborhood and being able to walk to school. It’s a friendly neighborhood with so many people of all ages. It’s a really fun neighborhood.”