Saturday, August 3: It’s a hot & humid day in southern Virginia, but I’m determined to stop at the campus of my alma mater, The College of William and Mary, and traipse around taking some pictures. New inductees for the fall semester happen to be walking around the campus in large groups today for orientation and I keep running across their eager faces in my walkabout.
I attended the College of William and Mary from September 1974 to May 1975. After my first year there, I decided, in one of many career blunders throughout my life, to go to Riverside Hospital School of Professional Nursing in Newport News. After studying nursing for a year and thinking I had the symptoms of every disease I studied, and after several months working on the neurology floor of the hospital, I decided that cleaning bedpans, bedsores and open wounds were not for me, and I went back to the College to finish my education.
Though I originally wanted to be a Psychology major, every person I encountered questioned the practicality of that (What on earth will you do with that degree?), and I switched my major to an equally impractical major: English. I finished my B.A. in English in December of 1978 (after having lost credits during the year in nursing school), with a minor in secondary education.
The biggest negative of my time at William and Mary was that, since my family’s home was in Yorktown, only 30 miles away, I had to live at home and commute. This was a horrible experience for me because I didn’t have much confidence socially and always felt like an outsider. This was the biggest regret of my college years, that I didn’t live on campus; I felt like I missed out on a big part of growing up. I think that’s why I’m still trying to capture the young adulthood I missed out on!
The Sir Christopher Wren Building is both the oldest college building in the United States and a National Historic Landmark. The building, colloquially referred to as the “Wren Building,” was so named upon its renovation in 1931 to honor the English architect Sir Christopher Wren. Today’s Wren Building is based on the design of its 1716 replacement after the original building was destroyed by fire. Currently Wren’s relation to the building is being investigated (Wikipedia: College of William & Mary).
Most of my English classes were held in the Wren Building. In addition, I got married to my first husband, Bill, also a William & Mary graduate, in the Wren Chapel.
Here’s what the College has to say about themselves on their website:
William & Mary is unlike any other university in America.
We’re the second oldest college in the nation, but also a cutting-edge research university. We’re highly selective, but also public, offering a world-class education without the sticker shock.
Our students are not only some of the smartest in the world, but passionate about serving others and serious about having fun. Our professors are teachers, scholars and research mentors, the cornerstone of a thriving intellectual community that produces experienced, engaged, successful graduates.
We’re a “Public Ivy”—one of only eight in the nation. That means we offer a superior education that’s accessible to everyone. We love our hometown of Williamsburg and the amazing Commonwealth of Virginia and we’re proud to be one of the reasons for their economic success.
The College website talks about its History & Traditions with a great sense of humor:
Not many colleges can say they’ve canceled classes because ‘the British invaded.’
The College of William & Mary is the second-oldest college in America. The original plans for the College date back to 1618—decades before Harvard—but were derailed by an “Indian uprising.” We couldn’t make this stuff up.
On February 8, 1693, King William III and Queen Mary II of England signed the charter for a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences” to be founded in the Virginia Colony. And William & Mary was born.
Workers began construction on the Sir Christopher Wren Building, then known simply as the College Building, in 1695, before the town of Williamsburg even existed. Over the next two centuries, the Wren Building would burn on three separate occasions, each time being re-built inside the original walls. That makes the Wren the oldest college building in America, and possibly the most flammable.
William & Mary has been called “the Alma Mater of a Nation” because of its close ties to America’s founding fathers. A 17-year-old George Washington received his surveyor’s license through the College and would return as its first American chancellor. Thomas Jefferson received his undergraduate education here, as did presidents John Tyler and James Monroe.
The College is famous for its firsts: the first U.S. institution with a Royal Charter, the first Greek-letter society (Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776), the first student honor code, the first college to become a university and the first law school in America.
William & Mary became a state-supported school in 1906 and went coed in 1918. In 1928, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. chose the Wren as the first building to be returned to its 18th-century appearance as part of the iconic Colonial Williamsburg restoration. (William & Mary: History & Traditions)
The Sunken Garden is the central element of the Old Campus and is simply a long stretch of grass, lower than the surrounding area, that runs west from the rear of the Wren Building to Crim Dell pond. The area is very popular for students wanting to study outside or play games.
The Crim Dell bridge is a wooden bridge which is considered one of the College’s most scenic areas. Crim Dell itself is actually the pond that the bridge crosses over, but the bridge is commonly referred to as Crim Dell.
Crim Dell is associated with several myths and traditions.
It’s rumored that if two lovers cross the bridge together and kiss at the crest of it, they will be together forever. If that couple separates at any point thereafter, however, the lady must throw her ex-lover off of the bridge and into the water to break the curse of being forever single.
Another similar urban legend is that if someone crosses Crim Dell alone, they will be forever alone (Wikipedia: Crim Dell bridge). Oh dear, I cross the bridge alone today.
On a mounted plaque near the bridge is a quote by Paschall to commemorate Crim Dell’s dedication on May 7, 1966. It reads:
“…that one may walk in beauty, discover the serenity of the quiet moment, and dispel the shadows.”
I come across this statue of Thomas Jefferson, and right as I’m walking away, a group of new students come to the statue with a guide. The guide talks about the famous people who attended the college, including actress Glenn Close (1974) and political satirist Jon Stewart (1984). And of course good old Thomas Jefferson himself.
I continue walking around the campus, where I come across other old buildings and dormitories.
The Blair Building was named for the Reverend James Blair (1655-1743), the Founding President of the College (1693-1743).
I also come across the Tyler Family Garden.
I pass by the Sorority Court, where the Sorority Houses are. Since I never lived on campus and never knew anyone in these sororities, I never joined in the fun. I’m not a group-joining kind of person anyway.
And finally, before I leave the campus, I can’t help but make a stop at Lake Matoaka, The Lake was named after Chief Powhatan’s daughter, whose nickname was Pocahontas. The lake was constructed by English colonists some 25 years after the College was chartered in 1693, making it the oldest man-made lake in Virginia and one of the oldest in the New World.
Lake Matoaka holds many memories for me. First, one day when I was heading down to the lake for a canoeing class, Bill, who worked on the train at Busch Gardens with me, stopped in his orange Volkswagen convertible and asked me if I was married. Then he asked if I’d like to go out sometime. That was the beginning of our relationship.
Later, while we were dating, I continued to take canoeing classes on the lake. I never could gain control over my canoe and so was incessantly running into the shore or into other canoeists, namely Bill’s and my friends, Rick and Lilly. Lilly was always making fun of me for my spastic inability to canoe and we had a lot of laughs over this incompetence on my part!
After Bill and I were married in 1979 in the Wren Chapel, we held our reception at a covered pavilion beside the lake. The pavilion is no longer here.
Every time I think of The College of William and Mary, I think of the 1973 song “My Old School” by Steely Dan.
I remember the thirty-five sweet goodbyes
When you put me on the Wolverine
Up to Annandale
It was still September
When your daddy was quite surprised
To find you with the working girls
In the county jail
I was smoking with the boys upstairs
When I heard about the whole affair
I said oh no
William and Mary won’t do
The song has never made sense to me, and I’ve never been sure if Steely Dan was talking about a school in Annandale, Virginia (of which I don’t know any) or William & Mary. Because William and Mary is mentioned in the lyrics, the song has long been a favorite of William & Mary students and alumni. However the song is really about Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York and refers to an incident where the band members were arrested when they returned for a visit to the school in 1969. The charges were dropped, but the grudge held by the band for this harassment is the reason the song was written. Band member Walter Fagen was so upset with the school’s complicity in the arrest, that he refused to attend graduation (Wikipedia: My Old School).
Apparently, the band’s writer was not connected to the College of William & Mary and selected the College’s name simply because it fit the cadence of the song (Popular Culture References to William & Mary).
After my visit to the College campus, I take my dad’s advice and try out a Mexican restaurant in Williamsburg, La Tolteca, where I hope to satisfy my cravings for Mexican food by ordering a Chile Relleno and a Corona Light with a lime. The Chile Relleno is good enough, but not quite the decadent thing I am used to from all my years of eating Mexican food. It’s missing the batter and the excess cheese that a Chile Relleno usually has. The restaurant is quite festive and clean though.
I do enjoy fortifying myself for the long drive home, especially since I’ve opted to drive the 30 minutes back to Yorktown, so I can cross over the George P. Coleman Bridge and drive up the Middle Peninsula where there is absolutely no traffic!