Living History in Action: Tech Alumni Reminisce

Foreword by James I. Robertson, Jr.

Context Autumn 1970 vol. 5, no. 1

One of the most important innovations in recent scholarship has been the living history technique. Known also as oral history, this historical process strives to preserve reminiscences of the recent past by those who are still living. It is a valuable technique- and one born somewhat of necessity.

A century ago, when a prominent person wished to communicate with someone, he wrote a letter or memorandum; and if such documents were preserved, the historian thus had material with which to work. Yet in today's complex world, such written communications are decreasing almost to the point of extinction. Man is now too busy to be concerned with keeping a diary or preserving papers. The telephone provides easy access for discussions that are rarely recorded. Modern transportation facilities have led to personal conferences replacing personal correspondence.

In short, today's technology has imposed a heavy burden on tomorrow's historian. By restricting greatly the written research material, any analyst of the present era will be hard-put to find enough principal sources to chronicle the full story of the 20th century.

The living history concept evolved from the growing crisis. It seeks to fill the gap in research by utilizing taped recollections or dictated reminiscences of influential persons. These oral transcriptions have a number of advantages. The interviewer can organize and frame the questions so as to get unusually complete data from the interviewee. Once the transcription has been made both parties can review it for additions and corrections. This provides accuracy and comprehensives traditionally lacking in the average memoir. Equally as important, the finished products give not only personal touches to the past; they also rescue a history that might otherwise be lost.

Virginia Tech's centennial year has afforded an ideal opportunity to experiment on the Blacksburg campus with the living history technique. The feeling prevailed that one or two recollections of early students days at Tech might add individual color and unique personal insights to the general history was of the University. This first attempt at living history was, to be sure, small in scale. Yet it proved so simple in execution and so valuable in result that it gives every promise of opening a completely new- and deeply worthwhile- vista into the University's past.

The two memoirs that follow are the outgrowing of nothing more complicated than personal ties and a common love for Virginia Tech.

One of this writer's most cherished possessions is a close relationship with J. Ambler Johnston of Richmond. Johnston entered Tech in 1900 as a young Salem lad of 15. After graduation in 1904, he established an architectural firm that, among other successful endeavors designed most of the modern Virginia Tech campus. Throughout a long and highly distinguished career, Johnston has remained one of the University's stronger supporters.

He has been a stalwart in the Alumni Association, and his countless gifts to the institution (only a few of which are public knowledge) have been so magnanimous that the University's largest dormitory bears his name. In many circles he is called "Mr. Virginia Tech." But to those who know his sincerity and genuine goodness he is affectionately called "Uncle Ambler."

It was natural, therefore, that the first overture for recollections of early student life at Tech should be made to Johnston. He eagerly endorsed the idea and, with customary promptness, put his extraordinary powers of recall to work. In the quietness of his Richmond office, with a dictaphone his only companion, Johnston talked of students days in Blacksburg almost three quarters of a century ago.

Two dictaphone belts of reminiscences emerged. These were mailed to the Tech history department and transcribed. The rough draft was edited and returned to Johnston. He made alternations, mostly in the form of additional recollections prompted by what he had dictated, and sent the manuscript back to Blacksburg. There it was polished editorially and retyped. Once Johnston approved the second draft (and again added material that came to mind), this installment of living history was complete.

Meanwhile, Johnston's reminiscences had spawned another, similar undertaking. As a young Tech freshman, Johnston greatly admired a junior cadet named W. Purviance Tams, Jr. Descended from a prominent West Virginia family, and a member of the Class of 1902. Tams pursued the family coal business and achieved eminence in his own right. He rapidly became a recognized authority on coal-mining. His book, The Smokeless Coal FIields of West VIirginia, is a definitive study of the subject.

Few men have matched Tam's generosity to the University. He contributed substantially to the construction of the Memorial Gymnasium and the Memorial Chapel that grace the center of the campus. An active supporter of athletics, he was influential donor in the erection of Lane Stadium. He continues to purchase a large bloc of tickets for the traditional football game with VMI. His love of the Corps of Cadets is well-known, and on more than one occasion he has been on the reviewing stand at yearly parades. Today Tams is the senior active member of the Old Guard (alumni of 50 years' standing or more). He rarely misses the annual reunion of the Guard.

The friendship between Tams and Johnston has continued literally throughout the century. Johnston was midway in the preparation of his recollections when he informed Tams of what he was doing and asked the latter to embark on a similar venture. Tams soon responded by submitting a transcript. This was edited and returned to him for a final approval, which was readily given. The relative ease with which written recollections came forward from two of the University's oldest and most respected graduates has created excitement in many areas of the University over the living history technique.

It is therefore both a pleasure and an honor to present in the following pages the reminiscences of W. Purviance Tams, Jr., and J. Ambler Johnston. The value of these recollections should be self-evident. We of the history department earnestly hope that the memoirs of these two gentlemen will perhaps stimulate other Virginia Tech Alumni to prepare and submit their own accounts of the Tech of yesteryear. Even the recollections of 'young' graduates of 20-40 years ago are potentially valuable, for such personal observations will be a veritable gold mine to those historians who, a century hence, will be chronicling the University's second 100 years.

We cannot promise early publication of all such reminiscences. Yet we do assure any donors that the University and its archives will be decidedly richer from having these needed documents at hand.

Individuals make a university what it is. Only individuals can supply the facts for what has been- and will be in the days to come.

W.P Tams, Jr. 1902

When I entered VPI in September, 1899, it was a military college with about 500 cadets; the Corps was composed of four infantry companies, a battery of artillery, and a cadet band. The commandant, then always called 'Buck,' was 'Buck' Finch, a VPI graduate. Finch had succeeded 'Buck' Shanks, a Regular Army officer, who had been recalled to active service by the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Shanks became a major general in World War I and was in charge of dispatching troops from Hoboken, NJ, to Europe.

Being about six feet tall, I was placed in Company A, with Cpl. Randall Barton as our quad's drill instructor. The daily routine was as follows: reveille at 6:30 am; room inspection at 7 am; breakfast formation at 7:30 am and march down to mess, followed by chapel (occupying about fifteen minutes); march back to barracks; classes for three hours, 8-11 am; drill until noon; dinner formation at 12:15 p.m.; shop work, 1-4 p.m.; retreat formation at 6 p.m., at which reports, memoranda, and orders were read out; then march down to supper and march back; call to quarters at 7 p.m.; tattoo at 9 p.m., after which lights had to be put out, except for special permission just before mid-term and end of year examinations. Two room inspections took place between taps and reveille.

There were two barrack buildings- Old Barracks and No. 2 Barracks. No. 3 Barracks was completed and occupied in my third year. The barracks rooms contained iron bed frames, with a mattress hinged to the middle, sheets and pillow case and cover; one table with either two or three chairs (depending on the number of room occupants); a bowl, pitcher, one water bucket and one slop bucket; one electric light and one galvanized iron bath three feet in diameter and ten inches high. There were no shower baths. Behind the barracks was one hydrant from which to obtain water and carry it to the room. The latrine was behind the Old Barracks. It was inhabited by rats as big as cats. Sanitation consisted of lime, sprinkled from time to time, assisted by the rats.

The hazing of new cadets consisted of bucking a 'Rat' (as newcomers were called) by making him bend over a chair and giving him strokes with a bayonet scabbard and requiring him to fetch water to the rooms of older boys. The hazing period lasted about six weeks and was conducted by a relatively small group of older boys. It had one good point; it taught everyone that, regardless of how big and strong he might be, a large group could compel him to submit, which is a fact of life he will discover when he goes out into the world.

Our President, Dr. John McBryde, who really made VPI from a political football of Reconstruction days into a discipline and excellent college, was a very wise man. He usually caught some popular cadet, or cadets, hazing, and he threatened to expel them, unless the Corps promised to stop hazing for the rest of the year. In my 'Rat' year, Edmond Allen (known as 'Spunk' Allen) was caught and threatened with expulsion. Since Allen was a popular fellow, the pledge was given. It is of interest to note that Allen, an electrical engineering student, joined General Electric Co., on graduation and later became the vice president in charge of engineering. I did not mind the bucking, but I detested the carrying of water. When I became an 'old boy,' I never engaged in hazing.

On Saturday mornings, a complete inspection of quarters was made by the commandant, accompanied by the officer of the day and barracks orderlies. After this, all 'Rats' who were sensible broke for the country. Those who were dumb or slow were caught by the old boys and taken out behind Old Barracks, paired of f by size, given boxing gloves, and required to fight for the amusement of the old boys. Everyone was free until retreat Saturday night.

On Sundays every cadet was required to attend church at 11 am. Each cadet could select whichever church he wished. He then had to join the detachment going to his choice of church and was marched, under a cadet officer to the church. A favorite trick was for all the boys to agree to join the detachment going to the smallest church. Then, when 100 cadets arrived at a church that could accommodate only 30-40 persons, the 'Rats' were told to go into the church, while the old boys escaped church for that day.

Under Dr. McBryde, an excellent faculty had been secured. The most widely known faculty member was Col. William Patton, a VMI graduate who had fought at New Market and, after the Civil War, had joined the Confederate colony in Brazil. Returning to the United States in 1870, he taught at VMI and was engineer in charge of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridge over the Susquehanna River at Harve de Grace, where pneumatic caissons were first used in building bridge piers. Col. Patton also worked on the Chicago Drainage Canal. He was the author of both a text book on foundations and a general engineering text book.

LS Randolph, another VMI cadet (for two years) and a graduate of Stevens Institute, was head of the mechanical engineering department. He had been superintendent of motive power on the B & O Railroad, and he re-opened the old Merrimac coal mine while I was at VPI.

Prof. Robert Price taught sophomore general chemistry. He was the most popular of the professors. He was an interesting lecturer, who had studied at a German university. He always wore a pleasant smile, and when he dismissed the class after the lecture, he stood at the lecture room door and greeted each student by name. But the velvet glove concealed an iron hand. One day during his lecture, a football star sitting next to me whispered a question to me about the statement Prof. Price had just made. The whisper was too loud. Instantly, the professor stopped his lecture; and after a blood-chilling ten seconds of complete silence, he thundered our: "I will have order in this class. I am talking to you, Mr. ____." A pin dropping could have been heard for the rest of the lecture.

Prof. Charles Vawter, a very young man just out of the University of Virginia, was in charge of mathematics. He was clever and very well liked.

Profs. EA. Smyth, T.P. Campbell, and RJ Davidson were also very respected, and Prof. SR Pritchard of electrical engineering did a wonderful job for the men in his branch. He stood very well with the General Electric Co., and with Westinghouse, and he had no difficulty in getting his graduates into the test departments of those companies.

Prof. W.H. Rasche of descriptive geometry, mechanical drawing, and kinematics, was the nearest thing to a genius that VPI has produced. He was not a good teacher; he understood his subject so completely that he was impatient with those who did not instantly grasp every problem. He was irascible, sarcastic, and biting in speech, but the students respected and admired him. I had the distinction of giving him his nickname of 'Bosco.' When the Corps was taken to the State Fair at Richmond in May, 1990, the carnival section had a side show whose 'barker' shouted: "Come and see Bosco, the great snake-eater. He eats them alive."

Rasche, as a youth at Miller School in Albemarle County, was a belligerent boy, who, on being asked his name would reply: "William Henry Fitzhugh Lee Rasche. Want to fight?" Since I liked descriptive geometry and had no trouble with it, I coached men who flunked and received 'conditions' permitting them to take another examination. My charge was five dollars if the conditional examination was passed, and no charge if not. I had only one failure and made more money at coaching than I did my first year after leaving college. There was some belief that Rasche and I had an arrangement whereby he flunked them, I coached them and got them passed, and we split the proceeds!

Rasche corresponded on equal terms with faculty members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then the most prestigious of engineering colleges, regarding obtuse problems of kinematics.

In my day, athletics consisted of football and baseball only, Basketball was in its infancy and was not played at VPI. The cold spring weather made baseball difficult and ruined many pitchers arms. Football was then an amateur game, and hiring players was not supposed to be done. The University of Virginia employed a 220-pound fullback on the subterfuge of an athletic scholarship. Our amateurism at VPI was guaranteed by our poverty- we had no money for hiring players. Our team was only able to make trips to other colleges for games because Prof. CE Vawter personally advanced the money for railway fairs. The teams in those days were not as heavy as teams now are. A 190- pound man was a rarity, but I believe they were hardier in those days. The modern $100 football suit was unheard of; players wore shin guards and hard rubber nose guards, with a little padding for shoulders. Helmets were not permitted unless a player had a soft spot in his head. I never saw but two helmets in my time at college. Because Sally Miles of our team had a sensitive place on his head, which if hit would make him unconscious and raving for hours, he wore a leather helmet. A VMI player, an Oklahoma Indian as I remember it, has a silver plate in his head and also wore a helmet.

We had a baseball game with VMI in Roanoke several years before my time, which ended in a fight, and athletic relations were suspended until 1900. We resumed relations with a football game in 1901 which we lost, 5-0 due to our left end, LL. Jewell, getting his collar bone broken in an early play and finishing the game without letting the team know it. The VMI quarterback discovered the weakness of our left side, and directed plays against it. Gen. George Marshall played on that VMI team. Jewell afterwards was in charge of building the locks of the dams on the Panama Canal for McClintock- Marshall Engineering Co. He was a brilliant student as well as a good football player. I do not believe any of our present subsidized players will ever be able to fill such a position as Jewell achieved in the engineering world. It was a point of pride with us that we had two mementos of successful drill competitions against VMI. One was the Corps color, the Virginia flag, won at the State Fair in Richmond on a rainy muddy day. When the command was given to lie prone and simulate firing, the VMI cadets hesitated to soil their coatees and thus gave a ragged performance, whereas our fellows did not fail.

For another competition, the VPI Corps asked the commandant to give them extra drill at night and won the competition. The prize for this competition was four Civil War, muzzle-loading cannon. The prize enabled VPI to form its battery, which was (or at least claimed to be) an elite unit in the Corps. All members of the battery had to be at least six feet tall in order to be strong enough to handle the guns and limbers by hand. Naturally the 'Rats' in the battery were the mules. I was transferred to the battery in the middle of my 'Rat' year and did my share of hauling the guns around. We were equipped with sabers instead of rifles. To this day, I remember in detail the saber drill.

The Corps now is dwindling yearly. In a few years it will go out of existence, unless a pretense of a Corps has to be maintained to secure a Federal money grant. Of course, a school of 13,00 students, including girls, cannot be a military college; but to use old graduates it seems a pity to see the end of the old Corps.

During each session, the German Club held several dances in the library room on the second floor of one of the two academic buildings. Final Ball was held on the second floor of the Mess Hall and was the big affair of the year. Visiting girls were entertained at faculty residences or in the two small hotels of Blacksburg. In those days there were no movies, no automobiles, and no television. The college library had 1,800 books, compared with the half-million volumes in the present library; but as a regular patron I was able to make acquaintance with such works as Thackeray's 'Vanity Fair,' Tolstoi's 'Anna Karenina,' and others of equal value. We did not have quantity, but we did have quality in the library.

I already have described our latrines. For bathing we had to use the following technique: On Saturday evening, at 7 p.m. call to quarters, we attached a rubber tube to the exhaust cock of the room's steam radiator and placed the other end of the rubber tube in the room's three-foot-diameter galvanized iron tub. Since the radiator pressure was never over one pound, and since 200 radiators were being drained of steam simultaneously, the pressure was so low that by 9 p.m. tattoo, the water had reached only a 70-degree temperature. Taking turns, the room occupants sat in the tub, soaped, washed and dried. To equalize things, the room occupants took weekly turns at who should get the first bath and who should follow, using the dirty water. I don't suppose the students of today would tolerate such conditions, and would protest in the modern collegiate manner by a delegation to the president with banners lettered with obscenities.

Our mess charge was nine dollars per month, which comes to ten cents per meal. That was just about what it was worth. The meat was usually "growley," consisting of a stew made of ground bones and meat. The mechanical engineering section had designed and built a small 4 by 6 inch vertical steam engine that operated the grinder. In the fall, at the beginning of school, the mess superintendent laid in a supply of turkeys. Cold storage was then in its infancy; by November, the turkeys were blue at all the joints. Turkey was served on Sunday; the remains and scraps were ground up and served as "growley" for the rest of the week. Once or twice in winter we had griddle cakes at breakfast. Cooking 3,000 griddle cakes was quite a job. Once at breakfast we had eggs, which provoked 'cheep, cheep' all over the mess hall in pretense that the eggs had hatched out.

Life at VPI in my day was, as can be seen by the preceding description, a Spartan existence. Yet, I wonder if it did not produce a better citizen than the present sybaritic regime. It certainly did not produce a set of students who, having everything, demand the additional right to run the college, enforcing their demand by seizing classrooms, breaking college property, bearing placard obscenities, and yelling other obscenities at the college president. Our 1902 class motto was Forsitan et haec olim miminisse juvabit- "Perhaps later it will be pleasant to remember these things." I wonder whether the present-day students would wish such a motto.

J. Ambler Johnston 1904

I enrolled at VPI at the turn of this century. In September, 1900, I rode from Christiansburg to Blacksburg in a hack. A hack was simply a spring wagon with a canvas top. There must have been eight or ten of us- all total strangers in the hack that day. I don't remember but one boy in the group. That was Jim Werth, who entered the sophomore (1903) class.

The first time I went to Blacksburg from Salem was by horse and buggy. My father and I left Salem after breakfast, drove up what is now US Rt. 11, stopped at Elliston at the Big Spring for lunch, passed an old station called Montgomery on the Norfolk and Western Railroad, by the old White Sulphur Springs, and came into Blacksburg via what is now VA Rt. 603. We spent the night in what I think was called Kipps Hotel, near the later Norfolk and Western railroad station.

My father had made an appointment with Dr. John M McBryde, the president, and we were nicely entertained the next day and shown around. This trip caused my father to decide to let me go to VPI, which I had wanted to do for several years.

I was only 15 years old when I went off to college, wearing my first pair of long trousers. It is utterly impossible to explain to anyone today what a crude institution VPI was at the time. I hardly see how in the world the faculty and administration were willing to stay at such a bumpkin kind of place. There were only two barracks buildings- one, Number 1, which is now Lane Hall, and Number 2, which was the forerunner of the present Rasche Hall (being the extreme northern end of the Rasche building). Lane was then called Barracks Number One, and Rasche Hall was Barracks Number Two. The site on which the newer wings of Brodie and Rasche Halls stand were then academic buildings: Academic Number One and Academic Number Two. The present Mall was not in existence. President McBryde lived in what is now a portion of the infirmary (Henderson Hall).

In my years as a cadet they built many other structures. Barracks Number Three is the present northern extension of Brodie, and Barracks Number Four is the present southern extension of Major Williams Hall. The old Science Hall is the present northern end of Shanks Hall. That completed the living quarters and instructions quarters with the exception, of course, of the Mess Hall, which has long since been demolished. The line now occupied by McBryde, Holden, Patton, Burrus, Pamplin, and Davidson halls was the site of faculty residences. Approximately where Price Hall now stands was a veterinary science structure- just a little old residence- and we used to go there and watch them castrate horses for the people in the surrounding country. They did it right out in the yard; no fence or anything else was around the area.

The site of the present Newman Library was the residence of Prof. T.P. Campbell. In the general area of the Coliseum and Lane Stadium were the barns and a tremendous water tank that you could see for miles and miles. The tank took its water supply from an excellent spring east of the present stadium. That same spring supplied water to the town of Blacksburg as well as campus. Down that valley where the stadium now is was a mill race where the water from the spring went around "Smithfield" plantation into a mill. I understand that the mill is going to be reconstructed, but no one will ever be able to rebuild a mill race from the spring.

I will never forget one incident about "Smithfield." One Sunday, while out walking with a group of cadets we came to "Smithfield" and found the doors open papers scattered all over the floor- in short, utterly abandoned. In looking at some papers on the floor of the first room on the left as you enter the front door, I picked up and read a letter from someone in the US Army in Mexico to the Secretary of War (Preston). The writer told of having met a charming and interesting gentleman from Virginia by the name of Robert E. Lee. I put the paper back in the pile. It was probably swept up later as trash.

The barracks in which we lived at that time contained simple rooms- no water facilities, no toilet facilities, nothing but a wash basin and a bucket of water. The latrines were outdoors and consisted of a long, one story affair behind Barracks Number One. It was a '50- holler' with flies and rats- I mean real rodents- and cadets all on equal terms.

Life then was crude by present-day standards. For example, dances were held in the old Gymnasium, which stood on the street corner north of the eastern end of the present Mall. The Gym was nothing but a barn. Although it had an excellent dance floor, it had absolutely no toilet facilities. I was told that in the girls' room were numerous 'thunder mugs.'

Catalogs of that day will tell about the number of students and faculty; but needless to say, they can never explain the spirit that was at VPI.

When school opened in September, 1900, there were not enough rooms in the two barracks to accommodate two cadets to a room. So, I was put in a room with two juniors of the Class of 1902. One of them, Barton, had led the class scholastically in his freshman and sophomore years. This enabled me to become acquainted with most of the juniors- an opportunity that few 'Rats' (freshmen cadets) had- and this caused me to know those wonderful fellows of 1902 better than I did the 1903 class.

Being too young and ill-prepared, I came near flunking out the first year and had to attend summer school in order to enter the sophomore class. In the Class of 1902 was another cadet who also was obliged to attend summer school because of his youth. During the term we occupied adjacent rooms. That fellow was Donaldson Brown, and it was that summer school experience which caused us to know each other in a way otherwise not likely.

We were both so impecunious that we had but one pair of white trousers between us good enough to go to Saturday night dances at the Yellow Sulphur Spring (to which, of course, we walked). One Saturday, Don would sport the white trousers, and the next Saturday I did so. He later became vice president of finance of the General Motors Co. For him the Continuing Education Center is named. His brother Thompson became vice president and general manager of DuPont Co.

During that summer I was coached in mathematics with the result that in my sophomore year I was no longer the dumbbell of the 1904 class. Again, in 1902, Purviance Tams coached me in descriptive geometry and mechanics, causing me to feel closer to him than otherwise I might have been.

In my sophomore year, President McBryde so influenced the state legislature that it granted VPI an appropriation of $120,000. Students lit a bonfire in joyful appreciation! On Dr. McBryde's return to Blacksburg, we met him with the band and escorted him to his home.

I also remember that Dr. McBryde had been practically run out of South Carolina by Ben Tillman, who said, "I don't want any of these damned scientific agriculturist. I want horny-handed sons of toil who are accustomed to following the plow."

Dr. McBryde brought with him most of the full-professor members of the University of South Carolina faculty- men of brains such as EA. Smyth, RJ Davidson, SR Pritchard and T.P. Campbell- all of whom enabled their students at poverty stricken VPI to take their place in the world by sheer ability.

The classes of 1901 and 1902 (the seniors and juniors in my freshman year) always stood out in my mind as about the first of the McBryde regime. Out of the these two classes in that little school way back in the mountains of southwestern Virginia came top executives of General Electric, Westinghouse Electric, Pennsylvania Railroad, DuPont, General Motors, and so forth.

One truly outstanding professor was LS Randolph, for whom Randolph Hall is named. He seemed to inspire his graduates, and they never forgot it. He was not much of a pedagogue, but a wonderful teacher who was way ahead of his time. He never followed the regime of the average college professor, and he would not tell you even how to solve a problem. Yet he would give you the problem and tell you to go to the library or to his library and get the answers. Absolutely no question of cheating arose; you were told what to do and where to get the information, and the rest was up to you. Most of the boys who came from Prof. Randolph's class did well in life after leaving VPI.

One of the most prominent and best- loved members of the faculty was Col. William Patton. He was a VMI cadet at the Battle of New Market, and he became one of the most distinguished civil engineers in America. Around 1895 he wrote a treatise on civil engineering that, for about 15 years, remained a textbook for nearly every college in the United States. Col. Patton was in his declining years when he came to VPI. Yet, he was a natural-born engineer and a teacher.

During my student days, from 1900 to 1904, three professors were brought in from the University of Virginia. One was John E. Williams, a professor of mathematics, later a dean, and one of the most beloved men whoever put his foot on he ground. Another was Carol M. Newman, for whom the Newman Library is named. The third one, not so well known, but equally beloved was Hugh Worthington.

I should also mention the commandant, J.S.A. Johnson. He was six feet, three inches tall, straight as a arrow, taciturn and always appearing to us timid "Rats" as awesomely stern. In later years he became a professor of mechanical engineering and a warm friend of mine. He and 'Bunker' Hill (1904) comprised the entire unpaid, voluntary staff of the Alumni Association until just after World War I.

Looking back now on those days, one must realize that the Civil War was then but 35 years behind us. Every cadet had been born and raised in the era of poverty pervading the South, which was accentuated by the Panic of 1893. Many boys (and I was one of them) had never lived in a house with electric lights or central heating. Most of us had lived in homes with a 'chick sale' down in the garden. We were unaccustomed to modern living. All of this made us susceptible to discipline of a type unthinkable today.

There was within the VPI student body those days a spirit similar to that of certain Army recruits who don't look for comfort but instead aim to glorify the physical hardships, somewhat like people going camping- really having a good time out of the uncomfortable features. Some students came from homes of elegance and comfort, while others came from homes where facilities were no better than VPI's. It was a strict military organization; reveille in the morning, company formations and march to all meals, drill for one hour every day, retreat and taps at night, and inspections all night long by the sergeant of the guard or the officer of the day, everyone in his own room after taps, with no visiting allowed.

Hazing a 'Rat' was an acceptable institution and one on which I look back with no pride. It was generally done by sophomores of second- rate caliber and ability. They were known as great 'Buckers of Rats." If my memory is correct, not one of those individuals later distinguished himself in the world or in the Alumni Association.


In our junior year a group of congenial members of the 1904 class took rooms on the fourth floor of the southern side of Barracks Number Three and called it 'Junior Heights.' Out of that group came most of my long-term friends, with the exception of two dear friends who lived elsewhere: Bill Wine and Scribe Robeson. The next year the same group moved down one floor into what had been named by the 1902 class as 'The Midway.' In this group were four of the captains of the Corps and lots of lieutenants.

In 1901, just at the end of my 'Rat' year, the Corps made a train trip to the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, NY., where we put on a right big show. We were well-dressed, well-drilled, lived in tents, paraded every day on the great square, and got some very good write-ups in the Buffalo papers.

At the end of the 1902 term, we went to an exposition at Charleston, SC. We had a good time and passed in review before President Theodore Roosevelt with our band playing 'Dixie.' This was the first time I saw Fort Sumter, Fort Moultre, Saint Michael's Church, and so forth; and I think I got a good idea of Charleston harbor to help in later years when I read in earnest about the Civil War.

At the end of my senior year in 1904, the Corps went to an exposition in St. Louis we received some very good write-ups. The Corps was much larger, much more impressive, and I always look back on that as quite an affair. Almost the whole corps was entertained at the Anheuser-Busch Budweiser brewery. The idea of getting free beer was just too much for us. We guzzled.

I stated earlier that this era made us more susceptible to discipline than one today can imagine. During my VPI term many were fired out of school for breaches of discipline that today would be condoned. Our whole class was sent home for insubordination and allowed to return only under certain conditions. I shall never forget one cadet (whose name I had better not mention) who was back on the campus within 48 hours of his expulsion. On being asked why he made such a prompt return, he replied: "My old man met me at the gate with a stick in his hand and said, 'Don't you dare come through that gate! After all the sacrifices I've made to send you off to school, you go on back to Blacksburg; and if they won't let you return, don't come back here, you damned ungrateful scoundrel!'" That boy later became a prominent man, and he was a loyal VPI alumnus until his death.

People used to walk in those days. On Sundays we had little to do but go walking. You could find VPI boys over all of the country anywhere within 10 miles of Blacksburg. We walked to the top of Brush Mountain; we walked over to Roanoke Valley; and one time about four of us actually walked to Mountain Lake. On many an occasion we walked to Radford to attend a dance!

Football was as popular then as now, but baseball ran a good second. The parade ground, now practically a level field, was not level in our day. About half of the length was on one elevation and the western end was about six feet lower. Drilling was done on the eastern end. The football games were also played there. There were no bleachers. We stood up to watch football and baseball games. When the VMI baseball team came to Blacksburg, its first baseman was William Couper, who later turned out to be a great historian and a warm personal friend of mine. I so well remember the University of Virginia beating us in football, 16-0. There were not more than 500 people at the game.


As I now think back to the Class of 1904, it seems to me that all of the officers in our freshmen year were bigmouthed, flashy boys, few of whom graduated. A group that later made the 'Junior Heights' and 'The Midway' were, as freshmen, entirely unknown.

In the 1904 class were two outstanding men who entered VPI as sophomores: Scribe Robeson and Bill Wine. Robeson Hall is named for the former. The latter patented some 200-300 railway apparatuses, became a big manufacturer in Toledo, and maintained his activities. Around 1928, Dabney Lancaster (then State Superintendent of Public Instruction) and his assistant, Walter Newman, called me. The three of us tried to frame some way to allow Bill Wine- who lived in Toledo, Ohio, but owned a farm in the Wilderness of Virginia- to serve on the VPI Board of Visitors. Lancaster and Newman went to see Gov. Colgate Darden who stated that he could not appoint somebody to his Board of Visitors who voted in Ohio. So, we got in touch with Bill and persuaded him to transfer his voting residence from Ohio to Virginia; thereupon Gov. Darden put him on the Board.

It really is not a part of this turn-of-the-century relation to tell what W.E. Wine meant to VPI. The Wine Award is the only thing that present-day Techmen have to remember his by. It would take a combination of Dabney Lancaster, Walter Newman, and me to tell the full story, but it is safe to say that this one 1904 boy, inconspicuous as a cadet, did as much as any one person to change the whole outlook and attitude of the administration and Board of Visitors toward the alumni and vice-versa.

For example, it was at Bill Wine's home in the Wilderness that a little meeting was called when the total alumni fund amounted to about $2,000 from $2 annual dues. Present at the meeting were Dr. W.B. Martin of Norfolk, Billy Bowles from Washington, Stuart Moffatt from Staunton, Alumni Secretary Henry Redd, and myself. Wine outlined and proposed changes in the fund with the result that after one year contributions had risen from $2,000 to about $18,000.

For years and years after the establishment of the Alumni Fund, the Class of 1902 was always at the top in contributions. Billy McAnge, Purviance Tams, Don and Thompson Brown, and many more made several anonymous gifts

In those days it was considered 'patriotic' to bet on your side at a football game, whether you could afford it or not. Hence, easy bets were generally obtainable. Coming back from Sweet Briar, that year, we stopped in Roanoke to see the VPI-VMI football game. Each of us had in our pockets about $60 in cash, which was more than any of us had ever had to ourselves. We all bet the money on VPI- and doubled our holdings when VPI won the game.

In 1907, R. Carter Beverly (1900) suggested to me that we attempt the formation of a VPI alumni chapter in Richmond. With some difficulty we located 12 others, nearly all graduates of VAMC, older men, among whom were some prominent Richmonders who knew their way around with members of the state legislature. It would be another story to relate how they assisted the Rector of the Board, J. Thompson Brown, and President Joseph D. Eggleston a few years later.


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Last updated May 4, 1998