The man who loved Hampden-Sydney
Nothing could have kept John L. Brinkley ’59 from becoming an integral part of the Hampden-Sydney story. Like the College itself, Brinkley was utterly unique.
His good friend and schoolmate The Rev. Dr. Edgar C. Mayse '57 says, "The first time I saw John, I knew right away that he was not going to be the typical freshman at Hampden-Sydney College. He was walking with a cane, with that air that said he had always walked with a cane. He was a character from the day he entered the College, and he knew it." As a student, his confidence, intelligence, and conviviality helped him make many friends and work his way into many facets of campus life. He must have felt an instant connection with this College in the woods and the young men who came here. As quickly as he could after graduating, he returned to teach and never left.
ABOVE: As a young student, Brinkley (back left beside Edgar Mayse '57) was self-assured, though small in stature. LEFT: Brinkley with one of the first copies of his book, On this Hill.
Those same characteristics that made him a unique student made him an equally unique professor. Yes, he sometimes threw pieces of chalk at students, but they were usually small pieces. However, he also rewarded students for particularly insightful comments or answers—first nickels, then quarters.
To many students, Professor Brinkley appeared gruff and unapproachable, but this was not the real man. Yes, he was demanding but he understood the value of working through adversity. Those who got to know him personally, either through fraternity life, classroom discussions, or just a common interest happened upon during a brief chat—those people found a man with a great appreciation for learning, for life, for humor, and for people.
After John Brinkley died, many of his closest friends and former students wanted to share their memories of the man who had a tremendous influence in their lives. By reading these memories, hopefully you too will get a better understanding of what made "Brinks" such a big part of this little college.
As a student, Camm Morton '73 developed a strong relationship with Brinkley. The professor offered many late-night meals and even loaned Morton his car to visit a high school sweetheart at William & Mary. Morton says that along with these acts of friendship, Brinkley's academic rigor had a lasting effect on him: "He made me strive longer and harder in class, on the field, and in life. Moro, as he liked to be called at the time, was a real difference-maker and a lifelong friend."
"He relished rhetorical flourishes that left most of us scratching our heads in joyful confusion. He captured the essential authenticity of an existentialist individual in the pursuit of truth-he was himself."
- FIL WILLIAMS '76
Not all former students remember Brinkley as a supportive counselor. Tripp Elliot '92 says, "I have the distinct honor of having been one of the no doubt hundreds of young men that he yelled at for missing class. I remember it distinctly. I was out on the lawn between Morton and Bagby, before the big sidewalks that are now there. I was mucking about with some friends tossing a Frisbee or a football, when all of a sudden Brinkley threw up the sash on the third floor of Morton and yelled down to me, 'Mr. Elliott, you are five minutes late for my class!' Terrifified of the campus legend, I rushed up to class, and he never mentioned it again. He had a droll sense of humor, at least from my perspective as a student, and a wealth of knowledge of the school's history."
Like Elliot being admonished from a Morton window, some sayings became shop-worn "Brinkley-isms," such as the one recalled by Tayloe Negus '88: "I remember going to Brinkley's office in the library where he was at the time writing On This Hill. I went into his office where there were papers everywhere. I suggested that he should be using a computer to get this done-that a computer would be much more efficient. He held up his pencil and said, 'This is my word processor, boy!'" That "word processor" of his went on to complete the scribbling of his 880-page history of the College.
John Macfarlane III '76 also remembers struggling to make it to Professor Brinkley's classes on time, but, unlike Elliot, this Kappa Sigma brother (who were always held dear by Brinkley) got a little extra help getting to Morton Hall by 8:30 on Friday mornings. "Dangerously close to exceeding the class cut limit, I remember, on more than one occasion, a sharp rap on Bedinger's and my Kappa Sigma House bedroom door at 8:15 am, from a stern Brinkley, holding a cup of ice-cold orange juice."
Undoubtedly, John Brinkley was devoted to his students, however few there may have been. In the fall of 2002, Tommy Burk '06, then a freshman baseball player, signed up for Latin 101 only after finding all of the Spanish classes were filled.
"The first class had 15 students in attendance," recalls Burk. "The second had around 10; the third had four. I had never been in a class this small and quickly learned that I had to have a full grasp of every homework assignment in order to avoid the stern, raspy shout of, 'Burk!' and a point of Professor Brinkley's cane. After my first semester with Professor Brinkley, I figured I was in for the long haul, so I enrolled in Latin 102. Again, the first class began with about 15 students in attendance. The second had about five students in attendance. To my amazement, upon hearing the bell ring for our third class to begin, I was the only student sitting in the classroom. For the next three semesters, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9:30 am, I alone had Professor Brinkley's full attention. My teammates on the baseball team told me I was crazy and that I'd never make it through. It was difficult, but I did."
Like so many other students, Burk says his classes with Professor Brinkley covered so much more than the designated subject matter. Latin classes also covered history, etymology, language, life, even baseball.
D. H. Lee Perkins '71, now a teacher of classical languages himself, remembers how working with Professor Brinkley one summer changed his life. Perkins was studying Roman historiography under Brinkley who introduced him to the writing of Albert B. Lord, a Harvard folklorist influential in developing a theory of oral composition. He says, "A few years later when I had passed my general exams in the context of a Ph.D. program in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, I was expected to become a teaching fellow in the College. Since I knew that Albert Lord taught a large undergraduate folklore course, I made an appointment with him to talk about the possibility of becoming one of his teaching fellows. Impressed by what Professor Brinkley had taught me about oral composition, Professor Lord hired me, and I remained one of his teaching fellows during the two years I spent writing my dissertation."
Professor Brinkley enjoyed telling a good story or joke and appreciated the art of oratory. As a student he was very active in the Union-Philanthropic Literary Society, Hampden-Sydney's debating organization. When he returned to teach at the College, he also renewed his connection with the UPLS. Fil Williams '76 remembers Brinkely, the lively professor at those meetings where he "witnessed his oratorical supremacy first-hand." He says, "Yes, it was in this forum where Brinkley, uninhibited by classroom formality or structure, could be most entertaining with rhetoric, logic, and wit. He relished rhetorical flourishes that left most of us scratching our heads in joyful confusion. He captured the essential authenticity of an existentialist individual in the pursuit of truth-he was himself."
After seeing Professor Brinkley at the front of the classroom for decades, some of us have a hard time believing that he was ever a student-a lowly freshman-but he was. When he first came to Hampden-Sydney in the fall of 1955, he was nearly waifish in size but his larger-than-life personality had already been set.
Henry Spalding, Jr. '57 recalled at his dear friend's memorial service: "With his ubiquitous umbrella-rain or shine-and his briefcase, he did not pose a threat to those of us chasing girls at Longwood."
ABOVE: Dr. Mary Saunders and Brinkley at St. Michael's in Cornwall, England, in 1995. LEFT: Brinkley enjoying the company of campus visitors.
Can you imagine having John Brinkley as your roommate? Raymond D. Houck '57 had the distinction as a senior when Brinkley was a sophomore. He says, "He came back from Farmville one day with a new fedora hat, which he squeezed and pounded into shapelessness, and then jumped up and down on a few times. He then put it on his head, looked in the mirror, and said, 'Now that is a hat! He was a martyr to chronic bronchitis, which gave his voice a harsh, barking character; and he seemed to enjoy cultivating ill health. 'I don't need a wife,' he would say, 'I need a nurse.' On one memorable occasion he stood before the Union-Philanthropic Literary Society (of which he was then the chaplain), overcoated, swathed in scarves, coughing and gasping, and said, in the service of whatever proposition he was defending, 'I envisage an America broken on the rocks of ill fortune, and I trust I shall not live to see it.' The walking stick, more brandished than leaned upon, also dates from this era, as do the cigars. He used to toss the cigar butts into a corner of the room. 'The aroma gives the place character,' he would say. You could smell your way from the front porch to our room."
That same year, Walter Walker '60 was a freshman who crossed paths with Brinkley outside of the classroom. "I remember John as a vigorous debater discussing British colonialism at the Union-Philanthropic Society," he says. "John carried the day against the British Empire with a desire to remove its detested red color from world maps. That same year John discusses in his history of Hampden-Sydney College the most memorable event of my freshmen year: the McIlwaine Hall fi re of 29 March 1957. His description of students turning on showers to frustrate the Farmville Volunteer Firemen is on the money!"
Rev. Mayse says as students the two traveled together often. "We were both from Charlotte, but neither of us had a car. For holidays, we caught the N&W train in Farmville, rode to Lynchburg where we changed stations and then on to Charlotte on the Southern Railway. John always carried a flask; 'just in case,' he said. 'If the train has a wreck or is hours late getting us into Charlotte.' It was always late getting us into Charlotte."
"John at times had a wicked sense of humor. Although I did not witness this event, others did and spread the word all over the campus. Professor Lee Ryan was having a very diffi cult time with a student in his French class. He asked John, who was not a member of the class, to assist him with a measure which might scare the bejesus out of the student and thus straighten him out. Dr. Ryan began to read the exorcism ritual of the Catholic Church while John began to chant the same in Latin. Various students started to moan and groan in agony. The cure evidently worked and the student reformed his ways and passed the class."
"John was just wonderful and he had a great sense of humor. When he laughed, he laughed with his whole self, all the way down to his toes. The only time he yelled at me was when I threatened to clean off his desk."
—JANE HOLLANDThose who got to know John Brinkley found him to be a devoted friend. Though he never married and lived alone, he was quite social and enjoyed good company. Rare was the visitor to his small house on Fraternity Circle (its mystery only contributed to his legend), but he was frequently found about town; Brinkley was a member of the Farmville Rotary Club for decades.
As students transitioned into colleagues and friends, they reaped the benefit of knowing John Brinkley. Bolling Lewis '81, who began working in the College's development office after graduating, says Brinkley was a tremendous supporter: "I began running more and thought about competing in a marathon. John had driven and supported then-President Si Bunting during numerous marathons and offered to do the same for me. He suggested the St. Mary's Marathon in Maryland, which Bunting had completed several times. It was small, with about 100 runners, and therefore the logistics were easier than a large one. In late January 1982, he drove us to the race and had everything planned out, including his ability to drive his car along the course while I ran. He supported me wonderfully and thanks to him I had a great experience. After the race was over, he drove me back to campus while I mostly slept in the back seat of his car—barely able to walk."
Though never much of an athlete himself, Brinkley did enjoy supporting the athletic endeavors of those around him. Baseball players likely recall the odor of cigar smoke behind home plate, just as football players dashing down the field knew they were at the 15-yard line when they passed Brinkley's wide-brimmed hat.
Being a bachelor at Hampden-Sydney allowed Brinkley to have many lovely relationships with his female colleagues. Dr. Elizabeth Deis recalls how much he loved going to the bake sale held by the Log Cabin pre-school, his neighbor on Fraternity Circle. For many years, parents of the Log Cabin children would raise money for the school each month by selling cookies and cakes in the College post office. She says John would buy up everything there was to be had and take it to the office of Jane Holland, the academic secretary in Morton Hall, for his colleagues in the building to enjoy. Ms. Holland says, "With a perfect smile on his face, he would fill the counter with snacks. He liked to say, 'I am river to my people.'"
But the snack sharing didn't end there. He was always sharing snacks with friends, especially those who knew where to look. Brinkley was known to keep a cache of small candy bars in a cigar box on his desk and particular drawers in his filing cabinet were filled with cookies, cakes, and crackers.
Holland says, "Had people not taken them, I'm sure his feelings would have been hurt. John was just wonderful and he had a great sense of humor. When he laughed, he laughed with his whole self, all the way down to his toes. The only time he yelled at me was when I threatened to clean off his desk. And then he truly yelled at me, but I only threatened him to get him to yell. He was a wonderful man. There are no words to describe him. He was one of a kind."
ABOVE: Brinkley with many of his "sons."
"As you know, John didn't use computers or typewriters; everything was handwritten," recalls Maureen Culley, the former secretary of the Dean of the Faculty. "So, he would send me his handwritten minutes from the faculty meetings for me to type. On the cover of his minutes would be a little note that he signed 'Love, JB.' Well one year he had surgery for a deviated septum and he was such a baby about it that I helped him with his bandages. To show his thanks, John sent me a dozen white roses and my student worker at the time, Joel Velasco '95, folded one of those notes with 'Love, JB' on it and put it in my flowers before I saw them. John and I had a great laugh about it at the time, but from that point on every month when he sent me the faculty meeting minutes he included a short love poem that he had written. He wrote a different poem every month for more than 15 years."
One of the first female faculty members at Hampden-Sydney College was Dr. Mary Saunders. Her office in Morton Hall was across the hall from Brinkley's office and the two quickly became friends. One of their favorite subjects for discussion was grammar, which leads her to this: "Here is one of my favorite Brinkley one-liners: 'Our dean is an eloquent man, but not, I fear, a grammatical one.' The chortling glee with which John rendered this verdict was as much fun as the observation itself."
Dr. Saunders, too, remembers Brinkley's fondness for treats and late-afternoon conversation in his office. When she was away for a long period recovering from an illness, he sent her notes and photographs of the campus in spring, as well as an "astonishing bouquet" of white and blue carnations. "I like to think," she says, "that I am the only woman ever to receive blue carnations from John Brinkley."
"John's humor was irrepressible: his everyday one-liners, his collection of block-that-metaphor howlers from the press, his stories, usually true. And the story that makes me laugh the most, the one that I summon for cheer in moments of gloom, is one I can't tell-because I don't have John's priceless delivery and because it is, well, not fit for all eyes and ears. It features, believe it or not, a visit paid to the town of Martinsville by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Details include a garment sometimes called a shimmy, which might or might not have required starch, an archangel, and a delightful, heavenly mistake. Some of you reading this will probably have heard it. Come back, John, and tell us again."
Macfarlane said in his eulogy to Professor Brinkley, "John thought of us all as family. When he called us 'son,' he meant it. And when 'son' turned to 'boy,' there was little doubt that we had crossed a line of propriety in a notable way. I never counted, but my guess is that, while a student, I heard more 'boys' than 'sons.' But, the blessing of each admonishing 'boy' was the accompaniment of necessary advice, followed by a loving rap on the head or, depending on the severity, glance of the cane. Fortunately, lessons were learned and, as time went on, all of John's boys turned into men and became his sons for life."