From Lukewarm to Grand Fashion
President Julian Burruss assumed his duties at the State Normal and Industrial School at Harrisonburg in early July 1908 to little fanfare. The Daily News-Record, an active participant in securing the school for Harrisonburg, provided an office and quoted his first-impression of the town as "a modern and progressive community."
The school existed in name only, without a building or faculty member or student. But the 33-year-old Richmonder planned to effect State Superintendent Eggleston's charge to create a "great school [that] when completed …will be beyond comparison the most beautiful, most comprehensive school of its kind in the South - and indeed will have few equals anywhere."
He reserved celebration and ceremony for laying the first cornerstone of Science Hall (now Maury) on April 15, 1909. Town stores closed through mid-day, and citizens gathered to parade or watch. From Court Square half a mile south to the campus, mounted police led school children who marched to the Daily News-Record band. Carriages carried the Board of Trustees and town officials, followed by Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows and Masonic groups.
Five months later, two buildings welcomed faculty and students on opening day, Sept. 28, 1909. The faculty numbered 15, including the president. Young ladies numbered 150. And over the next decade all numbers increased - in fact, so successfully that the school lost its head. Burruss accepted the presidency of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in June 1919. And the State Normal School at Harrisonburg cast about for a new chief executive.Samuel P. Duke arrived on July 1, 1919 to a less welcoming community than greeted his predecessor - as the newspaper account made clear. It failed to cite his achievements and emphasized those of the local favorite passed over. William T. Sanger, former dean, "had the endorsement of Professor Burruss, of every county school superintendent in the Valley [and] Harrisonburg and the Harrisonburg School Board, in addition to the Merchants Credit Association and political leaders … He was also endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, the faculty and alumni of the Normal School."
Little press followed Duke's arrival, no official celebration was held, and his opening faculty address on Sept. 25, 1919, came as close to an inaugural address as there would be. Nevertheless, Duke said, "I am especially glad to be associated with this particular normal school because of that splendid spirit of personal devotion and professional zeal that has characterized every endeavor of this institution."
He praised his predecessor's accomplishments, the "loyalty and devotion" of the townspeople, and promised little change in policies that had been "well formulated" in the best interests of the school. His confidence and enthusiasm won converts. The faculty tendered a written statement of loyal support. And Duke displayed no dismay at any challenge - even at the hobbling balance of $324.34 in the school account on opening day.
Over the next 30 years from his inauspicious start, Duke earned his nickname "the builder." He expanded the campus from 10 buildings to 22 and tripled faculty numbers from 33 to 101, while the student body quadrupled from 310 to 1,264. The name changed twice, first to the State Teachers College at Harrisonburg and then to Madison College.
His career closed due to a sudden stroke in the fall of 1948. By spring of 1949 it was clear he would not return to office. He was named president emeritus, and the refurbished Zirkle House across Main Street became the Dukes' final home.
By the time G. Tyler Miller was appointed president, the college presidency carried more panache and the school planned a more correspondent celebration. But Miller arrived on campus, as Duke had, to a faculty questioning his fitness for the job. Ray Sonner quotes his saying, "I did not possess a master's degree or a doctorate … Also, I had been state superintendent and felt that there was a lot to be done in this post. When one adds these to the fact that my entire life had been spent in public education, I did not consider myself a prime candidate for a post in higher education."
Governor William Tuck disagreed. He saw Miller as "endowed with sterling virtues and … a man of integrity and courage … a natural aptitude for leadership and … all of the qualities so vital, if not indeed indispensable, in a successful executive." And the celebration that followed left no doubt of public approval.
With tasteful dignity, the inaugural exercises opened at 11:00 a.m. on Dec. 10, 1949, in Wilson Hall to an organ prelude. The college orchestra accompanied academic procession in caps and gowns headed by Governor Tuck and the president's party. The latter interminably included 130 delegates from other colleges and universities, officials of the commonwealth and members of the General Assembly, delegates from national and state learned societies and educational organizations, and division superintendents of schools. Then an invocation by the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia preceded a song by the College Glee Club. M'Ledge Moffett (Class of 1911), dean of women at Radford College, gave made a speech in appreciation of Duke.
The governor issued a salutation preceding an address by J. Hollis Miller, president of the University of Florida and a former school roommate of the new president. Blake T. Newton, president of the State Board of Education, inducted Madison's third president.
Tyler Miller's response stilled any doubts as to his intellectual prowess and vision. His scholarly address advocated "full legal authorization for the admission of men students" plus establishing post-graduate programs and revising admission standards to "insure better selection of capable candidates for the teaching profession."
Another glee club rendition and simple benediction by local Methodist minister H. Conrad Blackwell ended formalities. A reception and luncheon in Harrison Hall closed the festivities that had begun the night before when the college faculty honored Dr. and Mrs. Miller with a reception.
For the next 22 years, Miller implemented his vision and enhanced the reputation of his co-ed college. In 1971, he welcomed retirement, eager to hand the presidency to Madison's fourth president Ronald E. Carrier. Dr. Daniel McFarland headed the inaugural committee.
Once again, pomp and circumstance within tasteful dimensions marked an official afternoon ceremony on Dec. 4 in Wilson Hall after a buffet luncheon. Again music showcased college talent An organ prelude heralded the academic procession-limited to the faculty and platform guests-and a welcome from the Acting Provost John E. Davis, Jr. An invocation preceded music by the College Chorale and Concert Band. Multiple brief greetings followed from SGA President Patrick McLaughlin, Professor McFarland, Alumni Association President Chester Bradfield, Mayor Roy Erickson, Virginia State Sen. George Aldhizer, II and Mary Washington College Chancellor Grellet Simpson.
Russell Weaver, rector of the Board of Visitors, invested the new president, the first with an earned Ph.D. Carrier's inaugural address recognized major problems facing higher education and affirmed his passionate confidence in educators' ability to meet the challenges and counter criticism. Then Clark Kerr, chairman of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, addressed the audience, his assessment reinforcing the new president's insights and visions for the future.
A reception in Warren Student Center linked afternoon and evening festivities when the SGA hosted a splendid Inaugural Ball for both the past and new presidents and their wives. The celebrations reflected joint happiness.
Through nine decades each president has placed his own imprint on the future. As Moffett said at Miller's inaugural, "you receive as president…the mantle of your predecessors, who have laid well the foundation and built a structure of stability of purpose, breadth of vision and strength of character in the performance of its function as a college. May this heritage prove to be a light for the pathway of your own endeavor…"
By Nancy Bondurant Jones