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James G. Leyburn (1902-), The Dean

Mrs. Charles Jones in Children of Pride wrote of the noble, old and pious Presbyterian families. In Virginia she was referring to families such as the Leyburns. The editor of "The Presbyterian," John Leyburn, was a close friend of Charles Jones. He was also one of the trustees of Princeton College.

General Lee used to visit at their house, Elmwood, near Lexington, Virginia, and one of the memories of the Leyburn children was making a daisy chain to put around Traveller's neck. Lee had come calling on their father and left Traveller on the lawn. The daisy chain was looped around Traveller's neck, and the children were admiring their creation when Lee came out. Lee delighted the children by picking up little Edward Leyburn so he could pat the daisy bedecked horse on the nose.

Edward Leyburn grew up to become a Presbyterian minister. His home combined background with education, and talk at the manse was not restricted to gossip and personalities. Conversation in the manse was often intellectual, an interplay of books and ideas. Into this high thinking family a son, James Graham, was born--January 17, 1902.

Reared in this atmosphere, Jim naturally went to college (Duke), where he graduated in economics, then took a Master's in it. He did another M.A. in the same subject from Princeton, and then received a Ph.D. from Yale in sociology.

Margaret Mead did work in the South Seas. Leyburn did work in the no less exotic atmosphere of the Caribbean. There he did an arresting work, Voodoo and Catholicism in Haiti. He also wrote a book, The Haitian People, which won the Anisfield-Wolf Award in 1941 as the best book on race relations.

He was at this time a professor at Yale. He also wrote a Handbook of Ethnography and a book, World Minority Problems, in 1947. Reflecting interest in early America, he did Frontier Folkways, and later on in 1962 at Washington and Lee, The Scotch-Irish, A Social History.

The town of Lexington, Virginia, where Dean Leyburn was to go when he left Yale, sits among green and pleasant hills. Into these valleys came the Presbyterians in the 18th century. Near Lexington is the town of Fincastle used by Ellen Glasgow in Vein of Iron, her novel on the spirit of the Scotch-Irish South.

The world view of these pioneers included God, and they had many appealing churches. The one at Fincastle is on a hill overlooking the valley. The church has two columns and above these a steeple whose cross sparkles in the sun to shine like a mirror above the mountains on bright days. Marble grave monuments, natural as rocks, surround the church entrance.

Such churches demanded schooled ministers, and the school at Lexington, later Washington and Lee, was founded in 1749 to train ministers. For these Calvinist pioneers, similar to the settlers of New England, were bent on literacy. Their school appears to have been a nameless academy when a wave of Revolutionary enthusiasm among the Presbyterian patriots caused them to name it "Liberty Hall". The school was also moved nearer to Lexington proper to land given by two of the Presbyterian devout: Samuel Houston, father of the Texas hero, and Alexander Stuart, ancestor of "Jeb".

One of the students who attended Liberty Hall was John Chavis, a famous black teacher and Presbyterian minister of ante-bellum North Carolina, a man distinguished in black history.

Around 1795 George Washington was given shares of canal stock by the legislature of Virginia. He felt that he could not receive such largess, so he decided to pass it on to the struggling institution, Liberty Hall.

The college to honor the gift changed the name to Washington College. It continued as such until the Confederate War. At the outbreak of that struggle its president, George Junkin, Presbyterian clergyman and father-in-law of Stonewall Jackson, refused to follow the Confederacy. After tearing down a "secession symbol" placed on the campus statue of George Washington, he fled to Pennsylvania in a coach.

When the Confederate effort failed, General Robert E. Lee became President of Washington College. He hoped to set an example of reunion and peace for Southern youth. At General Lee's death the name of Washington College was changed to Washington and Lee University.

General Lee's going to Washington College was a blessing at the time, but it was one with a future backlash. Lee brought fame to the college. His influence brought needed endowments, and his prestige attracted on a wide basis. It had national appeal as a high toned Virginia school. Southern families of aristocratic outlook sent their sons to "W" and "L" to be schooled. It was "General Lee's College."

General Lee had wanted only one rule, that every student should be a gentleman. Lee had what it took to make the boys gentlemen, but after his death the definition of what constituted a gentleman became debased. It often meant simply coats and ties for classes. And some said the boys did behave as gentlemen. They were notorious for being drunk as lords.

The conception of education at the college, at least unofficially, seemed to have slipped to that of a Chesterfield's finishing school. Dr. Johnson remarked of Lord Chesterfield's letters that they taught the "morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master."

The root difficulty at Washington and Lee lay in the 20th century in the football ethos and the fraternity system. The small college was supporting a football team far too grand for its size. The result was that the emphasis on football had warped the values of the school.

The fraternity ethos complemented the football obsession. The fraternities were the social center of the school: snobbish, drinking entirely too much, family conscious, largely morally devoid. It was hard to believe parents paid for them.

It was a fraternity situation of a type that Woodrow Wilson found in Princeton at the clubs and which defeated him. The boys at Washington and Lee at this time stressed a collegiate "fancy dress ball" and made plans for their dress months ahead. Cocktail party superficiality was the rule everywhere. The affiliation with the Presbyterian Church had long lapsed. The main academic pressure, if it could be so designated, was to make a "gentleman's C". Coats and ties were always worn outdoors. It was a finishing school.

In no place was this better proved than in many of its alumni. They came roaring back on football weekends, drunken armies wearing polo coats to pass the flask and cheer. They were a potential mob instantly inflamed.

The president of the college from 1930 to 1959, possibly the worst time, was a man who in his speeches to the students spoke of golden haired little girls and that sort of thing. He walked jauntily swinging a cane. The cane, which had belonged to Woodrow Wilson, was given to him by the second Mrs. Wilson, a friend with whom he seemed to have much in common.

The curriculum, as one might have expected from the situation, reflected the values of the school. It was deficient in the humanities. Conspicuously lacking or weak were offerings in drama, music, philosophy, and art.

The idea of going to Washington and Lee as Dean must have appealed to Leyburn sentimentally. His father was an 1887 graduate of the college, and his family had long been associated with it. Yet this fact had to be faced: there was no resemblance to the older school. No matter how provincial Washington and Lee had been as a Presbyterian school, it had been classically schooled and morally oriented. It had never reached the bankrupt provinciality of country club and finishing school. It was about the last place one would have expected dignified, orderly, high thinking Dean Leyburn to appear. Fortunately, he had a dry sense of humor. He took the job as Dean in 1947.

In taking the academic administrative post, Dean Leyburn must have known very grave problems, some beyond immediate solution, were facing him. He was, after all, a learned sociologist.

As he accepted the responsibility he must have been aware that if he did not make changes, his conduct would seem morally deficient. If he made effective changes, the solutions would be upsetting to many.

Dean Leyburn was a man who thought ahead morally. Each day had a devotional and meditational time. He was not an irresponsible man. His life was a moral commitment. The Presbyterian tradition was tested when Leyburn decided to go.

Dean Leyburn began with a plan which the Ring Tum Phi, the university newspaper, named the Leyburn Plan. It stressed a new approach to academics and an "integration of knowledge." This involved cooperation among academic disciplines and the creative involvement of students in their work. The "humanities and fine arts" departments were enlarged, and a fresh emphasis was given to music, drama, and art. Many new and gifted teachers arrived.

Social changes were pressing. A small college of less than 1500 was playing football with larger universities. To see that the "Washington and Lee Swing" kept playing after football victories was creating a false set of values. More important college values were overlooked.

It was felt football had become professionalized and something apart from the ordinary boy. It had ceased to serve its purpose for the boy, a purpose that had once been very good, often effective, but had been lost in the professionalization.

The slogan for the de-emphasis of football became "give the game back to the boys". And in 1954 the Trustees did just that. They de-emphasized football in every way at their command. Smaller colleges were played. The team was opened to boys who were often not good players, but wanted the fun. Campus professional athletes were abolished, and an entirely different attitude about football came into being on the campus. Football became a sport and was no longer a cult.

The rage of the alumni knew no bounds. While the Trustees must be given the credit for the action, many of the alumni felt that behind this they saw Dean Leyburn's fine Italian hand. Consequently, their attitude toward Dean Leyburn could only be compared to a Sicilian vendetta.

In this period some other colleges were attempting to deal with football and its effect on education. The historian, Henry S. Commager, wrote in "Interscholastic Athletics," in 1958, "It was a calamity that Harvard and Columbia did not follow the example of the University of Chicago in abandonment of intercollegiate football. It will be a calamity if high schools generally do not take to heart the logic of the University of Chicago decision on their own academic level." (From the book, The High School in a New Era, by Francis Chase and H. A. Anderson.)

Washington and Lee did not abandon football. It de-emphasized it by playing only equally small colleges, and returning the game to the boys for fun. It removed the almost hysterical pressure and brutalizing drive to achieve a score at the cost of social participation and character. There can be little doubt that, as Commager pointed out, many high schools and private schools were, and for that matter, are in a somewhat similar position of false values.

In 1956 Leyburn retired as Dean. The reason given was that he wished to return full time to the classroom. If so, it was odd, since the Leyburn Plan, the announced goal of his administration, had not been fully carried out.

As Dean Leyburn left to return to the classroom, many problems still remained. The power of the fraternities was left largely unbroken. Further academic reform was needed. But Leyburn had largely succeeded in his aim as Dean, which was to make Washington and Lee a great teaching university.

Dean Leyburn believed that many students went to great research universities, believing they were great teaching ones. Many great and rich research universities offered bad teaching. The great did research with select graduates. The students were deprived of contact with first rate minds even though they were often paying fantastic prices.

The success of Washington Lee under Leyburn did not go unnoticed. In 1956 the Chicago Tribune named Washington and Lee one of the ten foremost men's colleges in the nation as referred by a poll of educators.

After his resignation as Dean, Leyburn stayed on to teach. Some of the wits said that for the first time since he became Dean, Washington and Lee became a great teaching institution.

Leyburn was a one man symphony in teaching. Only at a small college could he have had the opportunity to teach many different courses. Only a small college experience for the students, apart from the merciless specialization of enormous universities, could have allowed young men to study under a mind of widely integrated knowledge.

A student might take Leyburn's course in Greek or Latin classics, then his ancient history, political science, and regular sociology classes. Leyburn also presided at informal seminars in economics, and gave an annual piano performance, because he was talented pianist. He gave this annual performance in Lee Chapel before the white marble statue that marks the grave of Robert E. Lee.

Outside of the college he finished the week by teaching the college age Sunday School Class at First Presbyterian, where the students came to hear him exegete and expound the scriptures from their original tongues. As a ruling elder of Old First, Stonewall Jackson's Church, the one with the copper ball taken from a whiskey still on top of the steeple, he preached at times when the minister was absent.

He did most of this competently, sometimes cleverly, often profoundly. What he could not do was preach. His sermons did not spark. He needed a small room and a few students to flame.

Whatever was said of Leyburn's doing all this, and much was, the fact remained students were enabled to see learning as being. He could capture his student's imaginations.

There were other teachers at Washington and Lee scientifically trained, many-faceted, and with good values, but often they did not catch the imagination as Leyburn did. That ability is to teaching what love is to the Thirteenth Chapter of First Corinthians.

Leyburn lived with some elegance in a small stately columned house once occupied by Stonewall Jackson. At five every afternoon those passing heard to the piano ring out as Leyburn began to practice. Many times his figure could be seen later on in the night reading and making notes beneath a favorite lamp.

He did not own a television. He attended live concerts and plays, took advantage of most campus opportunities, took trips to Europe and New York to do research. While he enjoyed parties, he rarely appeared at cocktail affairs, but was more often found at dinner parties making a point of economics or waxing classical over the wine. Being single, it was noticed that at home when he ate alone and was served by his housekeeper, considerable style was kept in the serving and the silver.

He never rode when he could walk, and he was a regular walker. His automobile, which he kept for emergencies, did not have a thousand miles a year on it. It was a used car dealer's dream.

Over the years to many graduates of the university he became a symbol. When Washington and Lee graduates met, they found common ground in discussing tales of Leyburn. His presence and devotion changed and covered much. He stood for more than sentimental memories, yet he spoke of " the dear old school." At such times some melted. Others brought up the weather.

Dean Leyburn seemed to find great depth in his faith. "Well, you know what kind of Presbyterian I am," he said at times. He was not simply Presbyterian and staunchly Protestant by accident or birth; he was both by virtue of sophisticated theological struggle within himself. He also found in Protestantism virtues parallel to classical life. A list of the Roman virtues and Protestant values such as obedience to God, gravitas, pietas, simplicitas, constantia make interesting analogy.

It was natural in time that he had to go. A possibly unfair but still mandatory retirement age was reached. He had changed little. His hair was whiter. His back was still as rigid. He was still "Leyburn of Washington and Lee."

As he retired he might look back over occasional victories. In 1968 the reform of the Leyburn Plan were implemented fully. The furor caused by de-emphasizing football and giving it "back to the boys" was long over. Even the most truculent had been convinced when Sports Illustrated ran an article endorsing the change at the school.

Last, but not least, was the change in moral tone and the new sense of purpose that Leyburn had brought to Washington and Lee. No man since Robert E. Lee had been so great an influence at the University. He had restored its sense of values.

Others were aware of this. The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot said his spirit "inspired a generation of students and brought Washington and Lee to the front rank of small men's schools". The Advance said he, "may well have been the most powerful and salutary influence at Washington and Lee University in this century".* The World News spoke of him in terms of "orderliness and high purpose".

There were problems at Washington and Lee as he left. The power of fraternities remained unbroken. The position of the small private college was threatened by costs and inflation. The role of a men's school that offered a masculine mystique was being questioned.

When Dean Leyburn went to Lexington from New Haven he took with him literally tons of books. The years added more. As the time for retirement came, he packed his tons of books. But before going he gave the 1972 Washington and Lee baccalaureate sermon on the sin of sloth.

Sloth is the final of the seven deadly sins: envy, lust, gluttony, pride, anger, covetousness, and sloth. It is possibly best expressed by the Latin word acedia. It is considered a very serious sin in traditional church thinking. In extreme form it is deadness of soul, but in its milder form apathy and uninvolvement. It may be seen in the apathetic attitudes of many regarding institutions. The term acedia comes from the Greek word for "not caring." St. Thomas Aquinas thought of acedia as opposed to the joy of charity.

When he left Washington and Lee he moved to his farm, "Spring Hill," near Martinsburg, West Virginia, which was bought by his mother's ancestors from Lord Fairfax in the 1740's. It has remained in the family since then. The farm now produces watercress in large amounts in a very modern way.

Across western Virginia to reach Martinsburg is a beautiful journey consisting of mountains and valleys and green hills. It is the area to which Dean Leyburn's pioneer forebears came in the 18th century, hardy Scotch-Irish pioneers.

Looking down from the tops of the mountains it seems a criss cross tartan of color, brown roads leading through green fields, gaps of blue sky veined by black ridges, fields of autumn leaves crossed by barren trees. On the tops of the hills the tartaned colors wave and a strong wind goes through, as if a gallant and determined spirit is going by.

 



N.B.

A Prebyterian professor who had a salutary effect on some University of Virginia students in the 19th century was W. H. McGuffey. He made a favorable Christian impression on many of his students. McGuffey was a professor of moral philosophy. The Rev. McGuffey was a Presbyterian minister as well as the editor of the famous McGuffey Readers.

Some longing for the days of McGuffey Readers organized in 1935 the William Holmes McGuffey Federation. At its meeting in Oxford, Ohio in 1976, a former Marshall University professor and president of the foundation, was quoted as saying: "Today you have kids graduating from high school who can't spell and . . . write. They would have NEVER gotten out of a McGuffey-taught class like that."

The Readers were rather conventional, stereotyped on sex roles and silent on social issues, but they did teach industry, kindness, obedience, courage and honesty.

It is interesting to note in regard to Leyburn's attack upon the teaching in prestige institutions that an eleven member team visited the campus of Harvard University in May, 1977, on behalf of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. This committee reported in part an "average quality of teaching that is incommensurate with the otherwise well-deserved reputation of the university."

 

 

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