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Oral History Interview with
Jeremiah (Jerry) Gaines, Jr., class of 1971
Kennelly: Were you in the Corps of Cadets?
Kennelly: How did you fit that in with everything else?
Gaines: Well they had a real interesting situation there. They had T Company, and even Frank Beamer would remember this because Frank was playing then. There was a company that was designated just for the athletes. We have an F Troop.
Kennelly: F Troop?
Gaines: F Troop. Yeah, it's just a saying, you know. The Corps was regimented, regulations and all, in the sense that we didn't hold so tightly to all the rules. But we drilled and everything. Ironically enough one of my roommates, Will Carroll was T Company Commander our senior year, and see we kind of reversed roles there because I was the president of the Monogram Club, and he was vice president of the Monogram Club. He was T Company commander, and I was his executive officer in T Company.
He was a fighter pilot, and Will was killed shortly after we graduated. He was flying a fighter. He was here in the U.S. He was on the West Coast, but his plane went down, and he was killed.
Gaines: Vietnam was on, and he was tied up in all the training for that. But he was on a training mission here, and his plane went down.
Kennelly: Oh gosh. Well how did you find the climate of the Corps as far as race goes?
Gaines: The environment of the Corps was pretty much the environment of my athletic environment. It was essentially the same because we were not housed on the Upper Quad where the Corps was. We were housed down in the dorm where we normally stayed. The only exposure I got to the formal Corps was in class and just walking around people that you met incidentally, you know, walking along the sidewalk. So that rat year we didn't know anything about that.
Kennelly: So you didn't have any of the hazing?
Gaines: No, none of the hazing, and hazing was very popular at the time, but I got enough hazing as an athlete, so we didn't really need all the rat year stuff.
Kennelly: So you did get hazing as an athlete?
Gaines: Oh sure, but again it was not like the hazing that you got perhaps with the Corps, and you don't mind so much. There was initiation for the Monogram Club and all that, which is the usual stuff, but nothing really outlandish. So you dealt with it.
Kennelly; So I suppose then when you were the officer, the president of the Monogram Club, you were hazing the ones that came after you in whatever way they do that?
Gaines: Good natured hazing, and as a matter of fact hazing got a bad name because everybody started getting real sophisticated in the things they decided to start doing to people. We didn't do those things. I'm not even going to suggest some of the things we did, but was not nearly as bad as some of the things you see that qualify as hazing now. We didn't put anybody in any danger or anything.
Kennelly: So at that time when you were here when you went to class would you be wearing the Corps uniform?
Gaines: Yes. There were certain days that you wore your uniform, and certain days that you didn't have to. Certainly on the days that you had class, you had to wear your uniform. Actually, I thought that would give me just a little more credibility and a little more status on campus, but one day I was walking out--it was by Lee Hall in fact--and someone threw an egg out of a window, and it splattered at my feet and splashed up on my pants, and I didn't respond very well to that.
Kennelly: Did you say something?
Gaines: I went up and talked to him.
Kennelly: What was the outcome?
Gaines: Well as it turned out, he was a very small guy. I looked up and saw him duck behind the window, so I saw which window it came out of, so it wasn't too hard to figure out which room it was. So I went up and paid him a visit, and when I saw him, it wasn't even any need to be angry because he was just a little shrimp of a guy, and it wasn't even worth getting upset over. Just one of those things you had to deal with I guess.
Kennelly: Yeah. Well what about the--I think during that period you were here that the Confederate flag was quite, very much in evidence. They were still I believe taking it out in football games. I don't know about other athletic events but running around football games, and also there was the playing of "Dixie."
Kennelly: By some parts of the Corps...
Gaines: A lot of kids here, like I said, I was not perhaps the activist that I maybe should have been. I felt though--I objected to the symbolism that those things brought to the school. I delved into, I got deeper into what I had to do and tried not to let that be a distraction. That to me I felt would have been too much of a distraction, and I could have been easily drawn into that and actually caused myself more trouble than I could have been able to deal with.
The people who got involved with that movement with the Confederate flag and Dixie did a great job, made a great statement. But I just could not risk what I had at stake. I had to make my statement in this area; those guys had to make it in theirs. And so I felt like mine was important enough too to hold almost sacred. Athletics was a big deal, and the proof is in the pudding. Now everyone knows what athletics has brought to this school now. I just drove past the stadium, and I remember what the old stadium looked like, and the south stands now you know there was nothing there but bleachers and the big score board with a turkey head on it. That's all there was, and for it to have come as far as it has, athletics have made a tremendous contribution to putting this school on the map. Now there are people on the West Coast who know where Virginia Tech is, there are people in Texas who know where Virginia Tech is, and I think even all those years ago, I could not risk being perceived as a trouble maker in any way even though it's good to make some noise every now and then about an injustice, but I think I had too much at stake.
Kennelly: Actually with the flag, I think it was the coaches who stopped the Confederate flag because of recruitment, because they thought it would hurt recruitment.
Gaines: That came later. Initially the seeds of that movement started with the students many of whom were long-time friends. Yes. That movement started. We would meet in dorms and discuss what do you think about this and what might be done to see what we can do to change this, and there were some strong statements and some shouts went out about it. One of my friends Larry Beale who became a lawyer as a matter of fact after all of this, was a great noisemaker as far as that's concerned, and he made great statements about it. Jim Watkins--remember that Jim's a dentist today, and Jim made great strides, and they are just a couple of the names--guys who actually took charge of that responsibility of making that known, and they did a fantastic job. They did, so they kind of end up being my heroes too.
Kennelly: Different paths.
Kennelly: What about just as far as the community of Blacksburg? Did you get involved with people in the community much? I think you said there was only one hamburger restaurant. Was there any place you'd go to have a cup of coffee.
Gaines: No. I never ever felt comfortable in town. Never. Not, not, I say that basically, initially the first year to year and a half. I did not feel comfortable there. I felt alienated there. I felt at home with the guys that I knew. The guys that I knew were basically athletes, so that's who I was most comfortable with. That's who I spent my time with. I knew no place to go, and even on weekends when guys went their separate ways wherever they went, I didn't know any of those places. And to have gone into town would have just been another strange thing to me. I had no desire at all. I would just as soon have stayed in the dorm as to try to find some place to sit down and have a cup of coffee.
Kennelly: You didn't get involved in like church or anything?
Gaines: No, and for the life of me, I don't know why. I think again even though church had played such a big role in my upbringing, I didn't know initially the layout of the town. Like I said, it was much harder then. But I didn't know which church was which. I certainly--to see a black person from town was rare enough. I couldn't imagine a church for blacks at the time here. I didn't have any idea where they were. So I just never went. My mother was not pleased by that.
Kennelly: She'd ask you I guess. I think we mentioned earlier about your being the teacher of the year, and I just wondered what was the secret of your success as a teacher?
Gaines: Again I have to give credit to my parents and my heavenly father that placed me in that position to do that. I think my father--we should have put it on the headstone for him--he taught us that in order to find worth in yourself you had to go out and give yourself to someone else. This man was all about helping people. It's all he ever taught us, and we have found fulfillment in that ourselves so that when we breathe our last, we can lie down and smile because we will have known that we made a positive difference in things for some people because we chose to care about them.
I just had the same discussion with my children in my living room last night before we left, and they were talking about how needy people are, and indeed there are so many people it doesn't really matter. People try to find their happiness in things, in money, intelligence, and causes, and that's not really where it's at until everyone starts seeing that in order to make it all work you've to go help somebody. That's why the slavery and the segregation issue was such a negative thing. If you're not going to help, you actually hurt yourself in doing that. If you would choose to go and put another people down no matter who they are, if they are people, and you put them down, and you keep them oppressed, you actually do at least as much damage to yourself in the long run.
I look at this life. My brothers and I have a motto that life is just something to do until you live. So we deal with the issues now and make sure that no matter what it is we do, no matter what career choices we make, we have got to get into the business of helping people, and for me a school environment was a perfect venue for that. It was perfect. Nine out of ten teenagers are needy. They don't know who they are. They need people to tell them who they are, and then you have to be skilled enough to convince them that you know a little bit more about who they are than they do. That's a hard sell, but after some years of doing that--it was easier to learn to hurdle than it was to learn to do that, but eventually you do that long enough, and now its been 31 years.
Kennelly: You've been an educator for 31 years?
Kennelly: Now you're a principal?
Gaines: I'm an administrator. Yes.
Kennelly: In your professional career was race ever an issue?
Gaines: I don't think so. As a professional educator, I would not allow race to be an issue. I think with the injustices, and there certainly have been some, I try to be the one to come in and smooth that. I don't think you are going to get rid of racism in America. I think it's always going to be there to one degree or another. It all depends on what setting you're in. I try to make sure that to the extent that I was exposed to those circumstances, I would try to make a positive difference in it. If I saw someone being oppressed, to pick them up and tell them that they were indeed somebody and they had every right to their piece of the American pie as everybody else.
I could not show biases as an educator to one type of kid or another. Because, of course, especially in that military area where I live, there were all kinds of kids. There were Hispanics and Koreans and Orientals as well as blacks and whites, so I had to play the game. As a coach of that equal, and I guess I taught them that the best disguised blessing on earth was hard work. Work at it, and it doesn't always work out for every one, but it sure gives you a little bit of an edge if you can learn to work and appreciate it.
Kennelly: So you were teaching in an integrated or very integrated setting?
Kennelly: Like an urban setting?
Gaines: It wasn't urban. It was suburban. It was in the suburbs, a rather affluent environment as a matter of fact, but it was always--I don't think I ever taught at a school that had more than a twenty percent minority population. Those kids were worth something too and were worth saving too, and I knew how to play for success in that environment because I had already been through it. That was my own personal experience. That's what I knew, and so I could deal with them in the environment that they had to deal with, and so it was where I was supposed to be.
Kennelly: Did you enjoy the coaching aspect?
Gaines: I always enjoyed coaching, and I didn't give up coaching until the birth of my own children. Again it was a time thing, and I knew that they needed the time too. Whereas I was coaching three sports, I had three kids, and each time one of them was born, I gave up a sport, and the most time consuming, of course, is football. It just takes up so much time, then I gave up track, and then the last thing I did was cross-country. I eventually gave that up as well.
I enjoyed coaching very much, and I always thought that it would be tougher to be the athlete than the coach, and it is not even close. It is much tougher to be the coach because you have to feel for all the kids on the team instead of just for your self. If I went out on a track as a competitor and had a successful day, it was very gratifying, and that was wonderful, but it was just me. If I coached a team that went out and won a championship, that's the ultimate thrill. We won our share of championships, and it was very good, and I just put that all into the puzzle pieces that become a part of the makeup of what makes you you.
Kennelly: Are any of your children pursing athletics?
Gaines: They participated in athletics in high school. When they got to college, they realized what I already knew, and that is that these days athletics at a university college level is business. It's not sporting anymore. It's business--especially football--the big money-making sports. It's business, and you are a commodity. So they had to make some tough choices. Do you want to give it the time that's necessary here, and then do the career thing as well? They chose their career so their high school years ended their athletic careers. That was the end of that. They were really good athletes in high school, but they chose to be better students once they got here, and they have been--I'm happy to say--very successful.
Kennelly: Did you go into the service?
Kennelly: Did you go to Vietnam?
Gaines: No, my orders were cut to go to Vietnam just as Vietnam ended. Just as the war ended. It was winding down, and as a matter of fact, I got out of active duty a little earlier because of that, because it wound down so suddenly.
Kennelly: Do you think that the Vietnam War affected peoples' thinking about race relations?
Gaines: There was a story I heard about some guys, one guy in fact, who was killed in Vietnam, and he wanted to be buried in the town's cemetery, but he wasn't allowed to be buried there because there were no blacks buried there. I wondered what are people thinking. Are all the white corpses going to get up and say, "Well there goes the neighborhood"?
Kennelly: It's crazy.
Gaines: It made no sense, but that was the thinking of the day, and as unrealistic as that is like black blood that was shed is somehow less precious than white blood that was shed. It's the same cause. But I think that sort of thinking as well as the treatment of all of the soldiers, all of them, who came back from Vietnam are what makes people go out and demonstrate in support of troops today. Because those guys--a lot of my peers, a lot of my friends--a lot of them didn't come back from Vietnam though some came back with one leg. Some came back blind and no arms, and they were treated like dogs, and I really, really have a hard time not being bitter about that. About the way these guys were treated. They did not elect to go there. They were doing what they were supposed to do just like soldiers today are doing, and I think that because of what America now realizes as a terrible injustice to our soldiers who came back from Vietnam, they are making sure that it does not happen again. And it should not happen again.
I had a lot of friends who died over there. There were names all on the pylons on War Memorial of some guys who have given their lives over there too. It's an amazing thing. You go over and you fight for the freedoms that people exercise here, and yet it seems so against you. I just wish--even though I support peoples' right to demonstrate,it bothers me that they don't see the possible damage that they might be doing to the psyche of those soldiers when they're over there in those holes, and bullets are flying over their heads. I don't know if those of us here who exercise our freedoms here--I don't know. I sometimes wonder how they would respond under those circumstances. Demonstrate yes, but support the troops.
Kennelly: I just wondered how or if the black power and black consciousness movements affected your thinking about race.
Gaines: I know I keep saying this, and I don't want to sound redundant, but my parents wanted us to think about justice. They called it righteousness. Righteousness meant fairness. If racism was an injustice, as we all know it was, then it was not a good thing, and it should end. So the black power movement as far as violence is concerned, I could not support violence because violence was wrong in any venue. I could not support the violent take over of things, but at the same time I don't know what Martin Luther King, I think Martin Luther King probably helped gain us more advances than the Black Panther party perhaps, but I'm not so sure that the Black Panther party didn't wake up some people to say hey, maybe we are doing this injustice, and maybe we need to change it.
Again it's something that I would put it--my forehead is not even big enough, my intelligence not broad enough to make a judgment about why God chose to let those issues turn out like they did with Martin Luther King's being assassinated and the Black Panther party's being just eradicated. Again the statement was made, and I hate to say it, but you don't want to see a Watts or situation like that, you know, the burning and the killing and the looting. It's appalling to see, but the statement gets made.
I just wish there were better ways of doing it, so I stopped looking so much at race and started looking at the heart of mankind. If I read a bible, and the bible tells me that a man's heart is desperately wicked, then I see that, and I see that in all venues, all races. It's there. Everybody. There's mafia in Russia, and there's mafia in Japan as well, so I have to say, "Well, what then matters most?" What matters then most then is the heart that beats inside a person's chest, and so you try to develop the heart of people. That's why my life has been what it is. I started that in my family like my dad did, and I certainly have done that in the classrooms, in the schools where I have worked my entire career.
Kennelly: Powerful. Just a few more questions. How many of your children have attended Virginia Tech?
Kennelly: I wondered if they made any comments about how they found the climate here as far as race goes?
Gaines: I don't know the details or the specifics. You would probably know more about this than I, but they're not happy right now with some of the decisions the board of trustees has made. They're not real happy with it at all. My oldest one who will be coming back to grad school is, would be the mouthpiece. She would be very vocal. She has actually talked to, she discussed an issue that she thought was racially motivated with the president of the school. At one point, she communicated with his office. He set up an appointment with her through his secretary, and she went over to visit with him about it.
Kennelly: One on one.
Gaines: Yes. Which I thought actually was a great thing on the part of both of them. Now I don't know why this particular stance is being taken, but I know, and I'm living proof that you have to level the playing field in whatever way possible, and I think a lot of people are ignorant as to exactly what that involves. They don't know, and so they'll make strong and, from their point of view, knowledgeable statements about it without really knowing really what's involved, how difficult it is. Because it's different growing up in America as a minority especially through the decades of years that I have seen, and I've seen some amazing transitions. Whereas we've come a long way, but all that these actions tell me is that the battle is far from over.
Kennelly: So what issues do you think still need civil rights advocacy?
Gaines: I think the world makes right and wrong Chinese Calculus when it's really two plus two. It's not really all that hard. I think that corruption has sneaked into every facet of what we do. If I went back to the Nixon era and all the shenanigans that went on then, ever since Watergate, if I look at the whole picture, everybody has been about being in everybody's business. Hence the growth of all the tabloid magazines, the growth in the number of different talk shows, the growth of everybody, the paparazzi, everybody wants to know what everybody else is doing. Everybody's in everybody's business, and so I again have to draw back and say, "Well what is the purpose of all of this? What difference does all of this make?"
The corruption is there. I saw it then. I see it now, and so I have to stand up and say, "Well if it's there, if it's real, and we all know that it is, then what am I going to do about it?"
I can stand up and scream and yell and complain at the office around the water fountain, but that's not going to help things, so the way I address it is I deal with it in my own little world in the realm that I can touch, and that's the kids, and I can share that with my audience which is basically faculty, my student body, the community at large, and that's where I'll make my statement because that's the most effective I can do. I'm not going to go on Oprah and yell and scream. It's not my world. That's for somebody else to do that. In my own little world, I'll make my statement there.
Kennelly: Is there anything else you'd like to add, or something that I haven't asked you, that you'd like to bring up?
Gaines: It's difficult to say. I get motivated by the questions that you ask. Are there any other questions you have?
Kennelly: Do you think the interview would be different if I was a black interviewer?
Gaines: No. No, I think I may have chosen a couple of different words, but the meaning would have been exactly the same. The couple of words would have been just that--just a couple of words.
Kennelly: Because of a different type of vocabulary?
Gaines: Exactly. It wouldn't have made any difference generally speaking. I don't even know why I've had so much to say. I didn't know I had all this in me to say. I never really gave it a thought. Like I said, I've been busy doing my career. I've been busy raising my kids and being the husband that I think I needed to be, and playing all my roles as properly as I'm instructed to.My bible is my owner's manual to life. So I have to go by it. So I have to change the oil and check the tires whenever it tells me to. And that's what I do. If anybody has objections about that, I'll be off of the scene in a little while. They don't have to worry about it.
Kennelly: Thank you very much.[end of interview]
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Last Updated on: Friday, 20-March-2009 3:36 EDT