The Way We Were — 1966 and 1985


The definitive account of Washington and Lee University’s modern history is Blaine Brownell’s 2017 book, Washington and Lee University, 1930-2000: Tradition and Transformation.

As part of their orientation to W&L, members of the incoming undergraduate class of 2022 are learning about Washington and Lee by reading and discussing two chapters of that work, “Issues of Race and the Civil Rights Revolution” and “Men and Women Together: Expanding Old Foundations.”  The first reading has been described as concentrating “on the 1960s and how W&L grappled with the changes in American society and higher education at this time,” leading to the admission of African-American students as undergraduates, while the second “focuses on the mid-1980’s and the university’s momentous shift to co-education.”

Professor Brownell notes that the first two African-American students, Dennis Haston and Leslie Smith, enrolled at W&L in the fall of 1966, while the first undergraduate women arrived for the Fall Term in 1985.   The author discusses many of the issues, opinions, and emotions which which were apparent or behind-the-scenes at those times.

But what did W&L look like at these turning points of 1966 and 1985?

One can get a pretty good idea of campus life by examining the official student yearbook, the Calyx, for these pivotal years.  The University Library has digitized decades of Calyx volumes and readers near and far can now get a flavor of W&L by browsing these pages and appreciating, at least visually, the way we were.   Here are the Calyx volumes for 1966-67   and 1985-86.


[from the 1967 Calyx]


Tom Wolfe at W&L in 1951


Many of this week’s articles on the death of renowned writer Tom Wolfe take note of the fact that he attended Washington and Lee University, graduating in 1951.   (Although it does not mention his education, a personal favorite is a reminiscence by a “retired astronaut“.)

We in the University Library can offer some evidence of Mr. Wolfe’s senior year.  The 1951 Calyx, the “Annual Publication of the Students of Washington and Lee University,” contains numerous examples of the young Mr. Wolfe’s achievements as a student, including his service as sports editor of the Southern Collegian,  his fraternity membership (Phi Kappa Sigma), and his official senior photo (below), with an annotation listing more of his accomplishments.




He can be seen in his baseball attire (although misidentified as “Wolf” in the caption), perhaps offering an early glimpse of an interest in white clothing.



Speaking of baseball, the Ring Tum Phi‘s May 22 issue announces the upcoming game between the faculty and the varsity, with Mr. Wolfe pitching against some of his professors:


The above examples are taken from the W&L Digital Archive, which offers online access to many items from the University Library’s Special Collections.   Here are links to the online items excerpted above:  The 1951 Calyx and the May 22, 1951 Ring Tum Phi.   (You should opt to view/open the PDF file on the left side of the page.)

Perhaps needless to say, the University Library has an extensive collection of books written by Tom Wolfe.

Not Our First Eclipse


You don’t have to be a science geek, much less an umbraphile,  to appreciate the rarity of a good solar eclipse.   Still, the hype surrounding the upcoming event might lead one to believe that this will be the Washington and Lee community’s first opportunity to experience a solar eclipse.  Not so.

Depending upon local sky conditions, observers in Virginia and elsewhere in the region on Thursday 30 May in 1984 were able to view an annular eclipse of the sun, with about 99% of the sun covered by the moon.  In fact, the area of greatest eclipse during the event was in eastern Virginia and the Richmond Times Dispatch provided significant coverage in its 31 May issue.   (Access to this issue is provided to current W&L students, faculty, and staff through the University Library’s  subscription.)    Broader coverage of the event in the southern U.S. was published in this New York Times article , which included the news that schoolchildren in Atlanta were kept indoors during the eclipse.   (Note: It is not customary for the New York Times to give away their archived content without requiring payment, but this story appears to be available online free-of-charge.)

On the W&L campus, the effects of the eclipse began to be noticeable during that year’s baccalaureate service, which was held in Evans Dining Hall in those days.   At least some folks can recall leaving the ceremonies and noting the dusk-like lighting and the peculiar effects of the increasing eclipse on shadows beneath trees on the University’s front lawn.

One interesting sidelight on the Richmond Times Dispatch coverage cited above:  An article near the bottom of the 31 May front page concerns Jeffrey Scott Gee, the first-ever W&L valedictorian to graduate with a GPA over 4.0.  Commencement took place the day after the solar eclipse.

One final note: Since the eclipse occurred at the very end of the school year, there was no article in the student newspaper Ring Tum Phi to offer any accounts.   However, there was a highly unusual issue of the Phi a few weeks later in July, one offering absolutely no coverage of atmospheric events, but with some other ground-shaking news.   (Online access provided by the University Library’s Digital Archive database of the Ring Tum Phi.)

Maybe this month’s eclipse also will portend some good news.   Fingers crossed.