Getting Better with Time

Perspectives From George Bagby's 42 Years at H-SC

By John Lee Dudley '95

George Bagby Hampden-Sydney

The year was 1972. President Nixon went to China in February and in June, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. As the eyes of the world turned to the Summer Olympic Games in West Germany—and the subsequent terrorist attack—Hampden-Sydney
 College itself was going through a series of changes: S. Douglas Fleet had assumed the
role of chairman of the board of trustees; expansion of the new Eggleston Library was already underway; and preparations had begun for an elaborate national and institutional bicentennial celebration.

The board and the administration were wrestling with the issues of female visitation and coeducation. Though then-President W. Taylor Reveley II ’39 supported remaining all-male, he successfully encouraged the board to bring women onto the faculty and include them on the board of trustees.

Today’s students would recognize most of The Hill of 1972. They would get lost in the woods looking for much of current student housing, however, would likely drool over the chance to park in front of Cushing Hall, and would search hungrily for the Commons, then located in Winston Hall.

Meanwhile, the faculty was growing rapidly, having added 20 professors since 1965. The fresh faces on campus during the early 1970s included now well-known names, such as Brinkley, Franke, Martin, Silvera, Sipe, and the History Department’s Class of ’68: Amos Laine, Ron Heinemann, and James Simms.

New to the Hampden-Sydney faculty
 in 1972 was George Bagby, a fresh-faced Ph.D. candidate at Yale University who 
had spent two years teaching at LeMoyne- Owen College, a historically black college in Memphis, Tennessee. Now, for the past 40 years, the Fredericksburg native has taught American literature, with particular interest in poetry, nature writing, and African-American literature, among other genres.

The College was changing during the early 1970s—so was the entire country—and since then the College has changed much. Bagby points out that the student ethos at Hampden- Sydney, however, has remained remarkably the same during this time.

“We have a lot of capable students and
 a small number for whom the classroom is the center of their four years. But I think our students arrive here better prepared to write English than they did 40 years ago. The ’70s was a dismaying time for writing composition in high school. We don’t get perfect students, and I think the Rhetoric Program is a great way to help people become competent writers, of which there are few in the world. As [retired College Nurse] Linda Martin said—maybe 40 years ago—‘They are really nice boys.’ I think we have basically good guys here who, allowing for immaturity, grow into good young men.”

That transition from student to good man can take many years in some cases, which Bagby says is the chief challenge of teaching.

“You don’t see the results right away. You work hard, and what you are doing is planting seeds. Then you move on to the next plot that comes into class a year later, and you plant more seeds. It’s very fulfilling, however, to find out years later that someone who I thought was sleeping through the whole semester wasn’t in fact sleeping and was paying attention and got something out of it.

“The greatest thing about being a teacher at 
a small college like this is sometimes seeing people make tremendous growth in four years, not just as students of literature but also as people. That is rewarding. But I can’t tell you how many times I
 sat at graduation and saw someone cross the stage to get his diploma and thought, ‘That guy is still 17 at heart.’ Five years later, you run into him, and he’s grown up and doing good stuff and has become a good citizen. That is very rewarding, even if you don’t feel you had anything to do with it.”

Of course there are students who make great strides during four years or even the four months of a semester. Sometimes professors are surprised to learn of great talent that already existed in a student, and that discovery brings great joy.

“I would have a student in ‘American Literature Survey,’ for instance,” says Bagby. “And he would be slightly above average but would seem to me nothing extraordinary. Then he would read a story that he and Susan Pepper Robbins had worked on together, and I think, ‘My God, that was in this guy.’ It’s always wonderful to discover. And Hampden-Sydney students always seem to hide their lights,
 I think. It’s always nice to find that they have these secret talents.”

Though many students hide their talents and their passions, Bagby
 wears his on his sleeve. 
For one, he is unabashedly liberal in his politics. Some people may be surprised that a politically liberal professor would choose to make his career at a college that is known for its conservative students, but Bagby happily did. “One reason is that if you think that people could be more enlightened, this is a good group to work with. The other is, if I had concluded that most students here were hopelessly selfish and determined to make money ... I wouldn’t have stayed. But that is not the way Hampden-Sydney students are,” he says.

Of course, in an English class, the dialogue in the classroom is not particularly political. Bagby says literature is a wonderful tool for people to consider different points of view, to develop empathy for people whose situations are different from the readers’.

“Literature is very useful for that. And 
I don’t think those are political stands at all. 
I would assume that liberals and conservatives together could agree on the value of things like that, which is really what you get out of literature,” he says.

Many professors have come and gone from the English Department during Bagby’s tenure. He says jokingly that they “steal ideas” from one another. If so, he has stolen ideas from some of the greats: Drs. Larry Martin, Hassell Simpson, Mary Saunders. He says having Mary Saunders—a woman—on the faculty, and in his department in particular, was valuable. For many years, there were departments with no female faculty.

In addition to these greats of the English Department, Bagby also admires his newer colleagues. “The last six or eight years here in the department have been a happy experience. We have been good friends, good colleagues. We have gotten along. I haven’t seen any nastiness, and there was a certain amount of that 40 years ago. This has been a department in which, when we get together socially, we just laugh and have a good time,” he says.

Not only do they
 get along well, but also 
the current faculty is composed of well-trained academics—a trend that began with the growth of the faculty in the late 1960s and early 1970s.George Bagby Hampden Sydney

“When I got here there were still leftover military retirees who weren’t really academics. Now, I would say we have
 an amazing faculty for a school as small and obscure and all-male. These are people who are well educated—good teachers, good scholars— and almost insanely devoted. I think it’s just amazing. I don’t know what the future holds for Hampden-Sydney. The College has stayed true to basically full-time, tenure-track faculty members, but that is not the national trend. More than half of the people who teach in colleges and universities today are not full-time and tenure-track. Every year, more are hired to be adjunct or ‘contingent’ faculty, and that is bad in all kinds of ways.”

Bagby’s own academic career began as a Yale graduate student when he was enlisted to teach at LeMoyne-Owen.

“I don’t think I read a word by a black author during four years at Haverford and 
three years at Yale. But I started teaching at a historically black college in Memphis. There was a program sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, which tried to get graduate students to go teach for a couple of years at historically black colleges. The program did some useful things for the colleges involved, and it really educated the white graduate students.”

At the time, LeMoyne-Owen had a traditional English program with no specific African-American literature 
courses that Bagby 
remembers. “You could 
take Chaucer and not take
 Langston Hughes,” he says.
 “But it was clear that the 
students were reading black
 lit, and it was easy enough 
to work it into various 
courses during the year.”

Of course, never having read any black literature, Bagby dove into the
 genre and began teaching himself the topic. Teaching at LeMoyne-Owen and living in Memphis’ black community had a profound influence on Bagby. It developed in him a fondness for African- American literature and an understanding of the importance of black
 culture. In Prince Edward County, he and his wife Susan have been involved in the development of the Moton Museum and in other biracial activities.

“Black culture and black people have been an important part of my adult life. I just 
so much admire what black writers have accomplished. They’ve been given lemons and made incredible works of art.”

To this point, Bagby is writing a biography of Hollis F. Price, the president of LeMoyne- Owen from 1943 to 1970.

“He was impressive to me, like a lot of people from his generation—he was born in 1904—who were treated [poorly] for years and years and years and somehow came out not hating white people. I don’t think I could do that. Some of it, I suppose, is self-protection—you don’t want to be eaten up by hatred—but some of it is just being bigger human beings. It awed me then and it awes me now.”

In retirement, Bagby will be finishing 
his biography of Price. He also wants to get back to volunteer work and to support the public schools. “They have a tough job to do, everywhere and especially here. But they did a good job for our kids. They got a good education.” He would like to raise money for the Prince Edward County Schools Endowment.

“I would also like to get more black men from Prince Edward County to go to college. There 
is a long tradition, since we’ve been in this county, of black guys in the high school who could go to college and don’t.

George Bagby Retired

Ryan Carter [’13]
 and Christian Hebert- Pryor [’14] had a group called Visible Men, and they were having regular meetings with young, black males interested in going
 to college. They were the right people to be doing it: black guys who are in college. I don’t know how effective an old, white guy would be trying to encourage these guys. But it is a real loss for the community that so many young, black guys who could go to college—and do well in college and benefit from college—don’t.”>

Bagby’s own college experience was somewhat similar to that of his students. He graduated from Haverford College, which was then still all-male. He says with a smile, “I’ve just been visiting with a classmate—class of ’65— and we both went there thinking, ‘It’s all male; we won’t waste time chasing after women.’ Well you discover that you just have to chase farther because there aren’t any women on campus. Fortunately, Haverford is close to Bryn Mawr.”

Despite his own experience as a student at an all-male college and teaching at an all-male college, he would like to see women in Hampden-Sydney’s student body. “There just are too many times 
in class when you need 
their perspective. I tell my 
students this every time
 we read Daisy Miller—and
 they are very unsympathetic 
to Daisy Miller—that this
 is when we need to be coed,
 so the young woman sitting 
in class could give you the 
back of her hand across the 
face to show you that Daisy 
is really a sympathetic 
character.”

Nevertheless, Bagby loves Hampden-Sydney.

“It is a real achievement
 for Hampden-Sydney to
 have stayed concentrated 
on the liberal arts, 
concentrated on faculty 
in the traditional sense,
 spending the money that
 is required to keep the 
Rhetoric Program going
 with only 14 students per
 section. That is practically 
unique in the nation,
 I think. It is an expensive
 program to run, but it has
 made a real difference in
 our students’ lives. This
 says something remarkable
 about the College and the
 trustees and everybody
 involved, that they have 
continued to support that 
strongly. And I love these annual get-togethers of the alumni clubs to celebrate the Rhetoric Proficiency Exam. Is there any other college in the world that does that? I don’t think there is. And what is it all about? It’s about writing.” That celebration of writing will continue.

Hampden-Sydney’s commitment to teaching young men the value and skills of composition will continue. Life at the old College may have changed since George Bagby arrived here in 1972, but he believes those changes have been for the better.