What was it like to grow up in Lexington?
One of my coolest pastimes as a young boy in Lexington was riding my bike to Lee Chapel on Sunday afternoons to see the huge, fully-assembled skeleton of Robert E. Lee's horse, Traveler. He stood in a glass cage and was quite the attraction for local children. Later as a teenager, my life intersected with Washington and Lee in other ways. On warm weekend nights when my bedroom window was open, I laid awake listening to the rock and roll music playing at the Pi Phi or SAE houses. From my perspective, nothing could be more perfect than falling asleep listening to the popular music of the era, especially when I knew it was being performed live. Direct contacts with W&L students were few, but I did meet some at St. Patrick's Catholic Church. These were students who talked to me during early mornings after daily mass. St. Patrick's Church was unique. It was the only place in town that was not racially segregated. But, Lexington was a bona fide Jim Crow town, and W&L was all white and all male. Any black kid who sent in an application in 1961 would have been wasting his time. So W&L was not an option for me at the time.
What path did you take after high school?
I actually went into a Franciscan monastery for about a year. When I was a kid, I was deeply religious. In the 11th and 12th grades, I went to Mass every morning at 7 o'clock. Pursuing religious life was something that was just really very dear to me. It is an experience in my life that I've never regretted. After that I returned home because I discovered that was not what I was being called to do. Once back in Lexington, I needed a job, and I eventually found work at W&L.
What did you do in your job at W&L?
For the first year, I was really on the facilities-maintenance staff. Then the biology department rescued me. The biology department was in need of a lab technician, but budgets were pretty tight. I was able to transfer to the biology department, and they taught me everything that they needed me to know. I was a laboratory assistant there for 19 years.
When did you start taking classes at W&L?
Toward the end of those 19 years, I started taking one class per term for credit — it was a little known benefit that W&L employees had. I was the only person who had ever done it. By that time, it must have been about 13 years after the admission of the first black student. I think that the first class I ever took as a student here was Intro French. After three courses in French, I started venturing into other departments.
How did you decide to become a full-time student?
One day I was walking along campus, and I ran into Professor Bill Watt, who was the Dean of the College at the time. He complimented me on how well I was doing with these courses I was taking. At that point I had about 38 credits. He told me: "You know if you ever want a degree, you're going to have to quit your job and be full time for two years." And so I did. Along with two other men, we formed a new minority in the student body called "nontraditional" students. All three of us were older and were fathers. At age 40, I was the oldest.
What was it like to balance being a full-time student and father?
My wife and I had a small child at the time. Sometimes babysitting arrangements would break down and he ended up coming to class with me. That was part of the fun. I remember bringing him with me to a history class in Newcomb Hall. It was a warm day and the windows were wide open. He was about five years old at the time, and we were sitting near the back. I was taking notes, but then I looked around and he was gone! He had climbed out the window and was outside playing on Stemmons Plaza.
I also took courses in studio sculpture, and there were times that he would have to come to the sculpture lab with me. That was really easy because I would give him a mound of clay, and he would end up playing with the clay while I worked on my project.
Were there any W&L professors who inspired you?
Currently enrolled students will be interested to note that I shared a few professors with them. Professor Harlan Beckley taught me theology, and Professor Richard Marks taught me the Jewish tradition and Jewish mysticism. Professor Emeritus Holt Merchant '61 was my faculty advisor and mentor. The first of my papers that Holt graded were so full of red marks that I wondered if he had become so exasperated with my prose that he had attempted slashing his wrists while grading my papers. But it was Holt who encouraged me to take a Ph.D. in history and return to Washington and Lee.
After getting your Ph.D. at William and Mary, what drew you back to teach at W&L?
I did have other opportunities. But this was home. I'm probably fourth generation Lexington. And this was alma mater. And it was a good job. Over the years, I've been on all kinds of committees that deal with the topic of diversity. That is one thing with which I have certainly been very involved and invested.
How have you seen coeducation change W&L since your time as a student here?
When I was a student here it was all male. Comparatively, the classes are much better. Classes — particularly those that have a discussion dynamic — need as many different perspectives as possible for discussion. Women add things that many of the guys are not even going to think about.
What is your four-week Spring Term class: The Freedom Rides?
A few years ago, I got the idea for a course that would teach civil rights history through travel across the South. First, I give a weeklong crash course on campus that establishes historical background for the Civil Rights Movement. Then we take a road-trip to the exact spots where many of these events transpired: Selma, Money, Jackson, Birmingham, Memphis and New Orleans. I require students to write three blogs a week about their experiences and reflections. One of the greatest parts for me is that the course is so typically W&L. What I mean is the deep and significant interactions with students outside of the classroom. I have two meals a day with students. Typically the most enjoyable time of the trip has been the evening meal. The trip takes students outside their comfort level, which is a good thing.
What do you want students to take away from this class?
What I try to stress is that people their own age that took over the Civil Rights Movement. The freedom rides are a perfect example. The rides occurred in 1961, which was the year I graduated high school in Lexington. When older leaders backed away from the Freedom Rides after the firebombing of a bus in Anniston, Alabama, Fisk University students took over the Freedom Rides. At this point, John Seigenthaler, an aide to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy said to the principal student leader, Diane Nash, "Young lady, you don't know what you're doing, you're going to get these people killed." And she replied, "We know the dangers. Last night we wrote our last wills and testaments and signed them. We're ready to die." Now imagine college students doing something like that. So I want students to come away from this class with the understanding that people their age can make a difference and that people their age in the 1960s did make a difference.
Do you have any advice for your students or prospective students?
Students who want to do well in my classes must read all assigned readings; seek help, if needed; submit paper drafts; and participate in class discussions. I hope all Washington and Lee students understand that I am easy to find and usually very friendly. My office is just inside the front door of Newcomb Hall, and I spend lots of time there. Visits with students are the most pleasant times of my day. If you don't know who I am, just look for the old guy with the bald head and signature bow tie. I am always happy to talk about the history major, W&L or whatever is on your mind.
- interview by Laura Lemon '16 and Jinae Kennedy '16