During their lifetimes, Florence Kivette Childress ’37 and Camille Kivette ’41 insisted life was plain and simple, but a dive into the university archives suggests otherwise.
By Xernay Aniwar ’17
Elon students and faculty recognize the name “Kivette” as residence hall C in the Colonnades residential neighborhood. But back in the day, Florence Kivette Childress ’37 and Camille Kivette ’41—affectionately called the Kivette sisters—were described as “legends” within the community, and particularly known for their holiday parties.
The sisters were daughters of the late P.L. and Annie Kivette. P.L. was in the lumber business as well as an assortment of entrepreneurial endeavors, while Annie was a hat maker who worked alongside prominent dress designers in the area. The Kivette family lived in a large Southern Colonial style home on a 15-acre cornfield along N.C. 100. The estate boasted 20 rooms, two formal gardens and an enormous kitchen with two ovens, three sinks, a butler’s pantry and “the wherewithal to serve 600 or more guests,” according to a 1987 Greensboro Daily News article.
Florence was born in 1917 and graduated from Elon in 1937. The quote that accompanied her senior photo reads, “None by herself can be herself”—a fitting tribute to the relationship she had with her sister, Camille. The two were inseparable and lived together even during Florence’s marriage to J. Clifton Childress. Camille was born in 1920 and graduated from Elon in 1941. Both sisters attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for graduate school but remained closely tied to Elon. Their baby blue Cadillac convertible could always be found in the parking lot during basketball or football home games, and they regularly ate in the dining halls.
According to George Troxler, the university historian who worked as director of cultural programs from 1985 to 2009, the sisters always requested reserved seats in the back row of McCrary Theatre, where they would regularly attend events, dressed in knit caps and sweat suits, with fur coats and matching muffs. Aside from their quirky sense of style, the sisters were perhaps most famous for using their giant house to host annual Christmas parties. For more than 40 years, everyone who was anyone was in attendance, including governors, congressmen and NASCAR legend Richard Petty. Their parties were so popular they never bothered to send out invitations.
In a 2010 column, Times-News (Burlington, N.C.) Managing Editor Jay Ashley observed that at their last party, “there were chiefs of police, mayors, socialites and men of business and industry and politics standing in line to have Florence draw them a demitasse of coffee from a silver service. The ladies told me anywhere from 300 to 400 people usually attended. ‘Political year’ parties boasted big turnouts, the largest being about 650 people the year James Broyhill challenged Terry Sanford for the U.S. Senate. They considered the get-together ‘a Christmas gift to all our friends.’”
While the entertaining was always done at what the sisters referred to as “the Big House,” Camille and Florence also had a separate townhome. According to Jo Watts Williams, vice president emerita at Elon and a close friend of the Kivettes, the sisters’ vivacious attitudes once helped them secure several original Norman Rockwell paintings. The story goes that they found Rockwell on the streets of Massachusetts and charmed him into taking them back to his studio. The paintings are now part of Elon’s collection.
Florence passed away on Oct. 29, 1999. She was 82 years old. About 10 years later, on Oct. 2, 2010, Camille died at age 90. The sisters stated numerous times that Elon was their only family, and it was to their family that they left their entire estate. Their eccentric personalities, remarkable generosity and legendary parties have yet to be matched.