Simpson House Dedication Address May 3, 2019
Several weeks ago, at an event much like this one, just down the Colonnade, we celebrated the dedication of Chavis Hall. On that occasion, I noted that our buildings tell stories about who we have been and who we are. We have buildings that bear the names of presidents, deans and donors. We have one building named for a former treasurer. Downtown we have buildings called the Court House and the Old Jail because that is what they once were.
I also emphasized that the Board of Trustees renames university buildings only after serious consideration and infrequently. But it does happen. Behind you is Huntley Hall. Some of you studied in that building when it was McCormick Library. When the new library opened in 1979, McCormick became known simply as the C-School, until it was renamed in honor of President Huntley. Cyrus McCormick, a significant benefactor and trustee for two decades after the Civil War, no longer has his name on a building, but his contributions to W&L continue to be memorialized by the statue of him on front campus.
Naming this building for Pamela Simpson gives well-deserved recognition to the pioneering roles she played at Washington and Lee. Doing so does not diminish the other individuals with whom the house has been associated.
It was built in 1841 to be the home of President Henry Ruffner. He was succeeded by George Junkin, whose daughter Elinor married Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a notoriously unpopular professor of physics at VMI. The newlyweds occupied the wing of the house, where Elinor died in childbirth and Jackson lived for four years. After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee and his family resided here from 1865 to 1869, when construction of the house next door was complete. This building thus came to be known as Lee-Jackson House.
Stories of Lee and Jackson will always be prominent on this campus and in this town. Lee's contributions to Washington College are memorialized by the name of the university, the chapel that he built, and the house in which he died. Jackson, who was connected to Washington College only indirectly, through his marriage, is memorialized at VMI, where he taught, and in the city of Lexington, where he is buried.
Simpson House recognizes a true W&L pioneer whose contributions to the university in the late-20th and early-21st centuries are difficult to overstate.
When Professor Simpson arrived at Washington and Lee, she was something of a curiosity. It was not only that she was the first female tenure-track faculty member, though she was. It was that some of her views were rather unconventional for a W&L professor. In 1981, when she was appointed Assistant Dean of the College, the Ring-Tum Phi wrote a profile headlined, "Pamela Simpson: Anti-War Protests to W&L." The story catalogued her perspectives on everything from Vietnam to sex and drugs, but not rock and roll. She conceded that she had been considered "a freak in college and what the media considered a hippie." A freak, she explained, was anyone who was a little bit different in 1968.
In the same Phi interview, Professor Simpson predicted W&L would be coed in another 10 years, "for financial reasons if nothing else, but hopefully because we realize it's in our best interests...women in the classroom would make W&L a more human and interesting place."
When her prediction came true, sooner than she expected, Professor Simpson was called upon to help guide the university through unchartered and choppy waters. President John Wilson appointed her in 1984 to chair the Coeducation Steering Committee, which spent the next two years preparing an institution that had been all-male since 1749 to welcome undergraduate women to its ranks. President Wilson charged Professor Simpson and the committee with ensuring "the happy and successful induction of young women into our collegiate life by anticipating new opportunities we should seize upon and potential problems we should avoid if we can."
Under Professor Simpson's able leadership, the committee addressed everything from admissions policies to residential accommodations, from health services to the development of women's sports, from dining hall operations to campus security. Despite the group's painstaking efforts, they weren't perfect. Failing to anticipate how much more often the women would use the Graham-Lees washing machines than had the men, there were laundry room bottlenecks in the early days.
When you consider everything that was involved in implementing the Trustees' landmark decision, it is remarkable how quickly co-education succeeded at W&L. But when asked by the Phi about her role in the transition, Professor Simpson said simply, with characteristic modesty, "I was one voice among many." Those familiar with Professor Simpson know that it was a strong and influential voice.
We owe Professor Simpson an enormous debt of gratitude for all that she did to make this a better, "more human and interesting place," through the many roles she played in the course of her 38 years at Washington and Lee. Simpson House will help us remember her story as part of our efforts to recognize the many people who have shaped this institution and to learn from the principles that guided them, the challenges they faced, the triumphs they enjoyed, and the setbacks they endured as they collectively made W&L what it is today.
Thank you for being present at this momentous occasion. I invite you now to enter Simpson House, where you may view a model of the plaque that will be installed in the lobby and the portrait of Pam Simpson that was taken early in her career by a former campus photographer named Sally Mann.