Today’s interview is
with Professor W. Gerald Akers, a professor emeritus at Old Dominion University.
For many years, he was a member of the Foreign Language Department of
the school and also the head of the Division of Humanities.
The first questions
that will be asked and discussed will be about the professor’s own background,
concentrating upon his preparation, academic and otherwise, for a career
in college teaching, and for any other careers he might have considered
or that he actually may have pursued before he entered the field of college
Akers: I had been
interested in foreign languages, among other things, from my earliest
childhood, and prepared to teach them, first the romance field in my
college work at Ashland College and Asbury College in Kentucky, and
later at the University of Kentucky, where I did a master’s degree in
Spanish, as it happened. During that year, I became interested in German,
and specifically in the matter of going to Germany to study, which I
was able to do in 1928, spending three years over there in Germany and
Austria and receiving my doctor’s degree from Heidelberg University
in 1931. At that time I had secured, in advance, a position at the University
of Cincinnati in the German Department, but my father, who happened
to be president of Asbury College in Kentucky, started angling around
for what he thought would be a better job, and I ended up finding I
had an offer from William and Mary for their new Division here in Norfolk,
which had been founded the year before 1930. So the upshot was that
after coming home from Heidelberg and marrying in Kentucky, I proceeded
at once to Norfolk. At that time the College consisted of one abandoned
school building, the former Larchmont School, and a big black sign with
gold letters was on the front saying "Norfolk Division College
of William and Mary." I started that year teaching German and Spanish,
and also at the parent college in Williamsburg, where I was asked to
commute three days a week by boat and train to teach a couple of classes
of Spanish in the newly restored Wren Building at the College.
Sweeney: When you
came to the school in Norfolk, what were your first impressions of the
Akers: Well, they
were a pleasant bunch. It was in the beginning of the Depression; everybody
was poor. Those who came here were those who, for the most part, didn’t
have money to go away to school. I would not say the level of academic
interest was particularly high. I would say about average. On the other
hand, it did happen in those early years that those who finished a two—year
course here at this college, which was until the mid-l950’s a two—year
college, provided a high proportion of the Phi Beta Kappa crop each
year in Williamsburg. Many of the small group who did finish here went
to the parent college in Williamsburg, and I recall that, in one year,
the figure in the early 1930’s was something like this of 16 Phi Beta
Kappa seniors, 11 were products of the Norfolk Division, and this was
a majority of the total number from the Norfolk Division. But, on the
whole, I would say that they were about average.
Sweeney: Did you teach any advanced literature courses in those junior
Akers: No. There
were courses only through the second year, and there were no course
numbers higher than the 200’s, and while these included a survey of
literature, it was hardly even that, say, an introduction to German
literature or French literature or Spanish. In those days, interestingly
enough, the College of William and Mary, including the Norfolk Division,
of course, required one year of Latin or one year of Greek to be taken
in college by every student studying for a bachelor of arts degree.
So, in those days, the enrollment in Latin and Greek was rather high,
and, when some people came to school with some background in Latin,
there were occasionally advanced courses in Latin. I taught these for
a few years.
Sweeney: In those years of the Great Depression, could you give me
some information on the faculty compensation?
Akers: In my first
year here, which was 1931 to 1932, four of us came new to the faculty
having Ph.D. degrees, and I was the second highest paid of these four,
with a salary of $2,500. There were two persons, all told, on the faculty
receiving a little more than this. Most received less, and, if I’m not
mistaken, one instructor received as little as $1,400. This was augmented
slightly, in the case of some, by teaching evening classes.
Sweeney: In those days, of course, the faculty was quite small. Today
it’s much larger. Did they seem to be very close knit? Do you recall any
extraordinary personalities from those early days?
Akers: Yes, we
knew each other fairly well. Of course, being a small number of 20 or
so, there were a number of very striking personalities. One was Dr.
Ernest W. Gray, who died just a few months ago, April 1974, who remained
here from 1931, about the time that I came, until 1947, being assistant
administrator in the latter years here. He was Head of the English Department,
a very incisive, keen mind, greatly respected by his students, inspiring,
interesting, and remembered vividly by hundreds of former students in
this community and elsewhere. I recall that among the little group of
new people who came in that second year as faculty members, of whom
he and I were representatives, I, as a brand new teacher with my diploma
hardly dry, thought of Dr. Gray, who must have been nearly 30 years
old, as an experienced man of the world who had been around. He had
his doctor’s degree from Harvard and had taught for two or three years
at Brown University, so it seemed to me that he was a man of experience.
As it turned out, the farthest point west that Dr. Gray had ever been
in his life at that time was Norfolk, Virginia. There were other interesting
and notable people. Dr. Perry Y. Jackson, in chemistry, who remained
until the time of World War II, when he went to Annapolis to teach in
the Naval Academy. There was Dr. David Prosser, head of the department,
actually probably the only teacher of economics, a man who commanded
a great deal of respect and who was considered a competent and interesting
teacher. In the field of biology there was Dr. E. Ruffin Jones, Jr.,
son of a prominent local clergyman and known for his severe standards.
The rumor was that he considered it a rule to flunk 1/3 of his biology
101 class each semester. I don’t know if that was true or not, but he
was certainly a very competent and very demanding teacher. There was
Professor Arthur George Williams, the only older man on the faculty.
Most of us were in our 20’s or early 30’s. Professor Williams had been
head of the Department of Foreign Languages at the parent college in
Williamsburg but had been lured away from there by the newly—founded
Atlantic University at Virginia Beach, which was established in 1930.
He remained there one year, having been attracted there by a higher
salary offer, but came back to William and Mary after one year, namely
in the fall of 1931, his place in Williamsburg having already been filled
by Dr. John R. Fischer. He was offered the job of the head of
the Department of
Foreign Languages, such as it was, at the new, small Norfolk Division,
of which I was the only other full—time member. Professor Williams was
a very remarkable man, another one with high standards, a deep background
of scholar ship, and a very colorful and interesting figure. He died
of a heart attack in 1937, and I succeeded to the headship of the small
Foreign Language Department. I remember him with great affection.
Sweeney: What were your impressions of the early directors, H. Edgar
Timmerman, Dr. Gwathmey, and Dean Hodges?
Akers: Mr. Timmerman,
who was here for two years, his second year being my first, was from
New York State. He said he had been trained for the Episcopal clergy
but never entered that field. He was a blustery, get—it—done sort of
fellow. He seemed to be well liked by the students, and the High Hat,
the new student paper of those days, referred to his getting out in
the hall and bellowing to the boys to quiet down, but they loved it,
and we thought of him as a reasonably efficient director. Incidentally,
the tiny office in which he held forth and his successors after him,
a little room or small double office on the main floor of that old school
building, the Larchmont School Building, which was the only building
of the college in those days, was the entire administration section
of the campus. That tiny room was the director’s office and his secretary’s,
and the business office and the registrar’s office and the dean’s office
all rolled into one. He was followed in 1931 very briefly by Professor
Edward Gwathmey. Dr. Gwathmey of the English Department of William and
Mary, described as a Virginia gentleman and scholar, was a very charming
man of whom I don’t remember much because by Christmas— time of the
same year, after only a couple of months with us, he was called to the
presidency of Converse College in South Carolina, where he served for
many years, having retired, I believe, only recently. He was followed
by Dr. William T. Hodges, who had been Dean of Men at Williamsburg,
the parent school, and who was also in charge of the Norfolk Division
and other extension operations of the college. He came here rather unwillingly,
leaving Williamsburg where he had been at home for many years. He immediately
took over and devoted himself unstintingly to the development of this
small, poor, and struggling two—year branch of William and Mary. The
story of his tenure from then until 1940 is one of hard work, diligence,
keen interest, and certainly a great deal of sympathy and personal interest
in the students. The latter days were clouded by dismissal on charges
tampering and other
matters, which were a very tragic finish to a career of devoted service.
I think most of us were fond of Dr. Hodges as a person, and there probably
has never been a more popular citizen of Norfolk, both among the students
who knew him and the people of the city. We sometimes disagreed with
Dr. Hodges on financial matters on priorities, as the word would be
nowadays. He was interested in campus beautification, for which I think
we still have to thank him, and also in athletics, which was not very
popular in those days even among the students. Those not directly involved
in athletics tended to resent in those Depression days the great amount
of attention and financial backing that Dr. Hodges devoted to that activity.
But, I think, if one were to characterize him in a word or two, it would
be: kindhearted to a fault.
Sweeney: Did you feel that William and Mary held
too tight a rein over the Division?
Akers: Yes, I
did, and I think we all did. This was probably not intentional, but
was the result of the unnatural and artificial, as it seemed to us,
relation between the two schools. The actual reason for the founding
of this Norfolk Division was, it was commonly believed and still is,
the wish of the late president, J. A. C. Chandler of William and Mary,
to forestall the taking over of the lower Tidewater area in the higher
education field by the newly founded Atlantic University in Virginia
Beach in 1930. President Chandler moved to establish the college here
to give William and Mary a foothold. He need not have worried, as it
turned out, because Atlantic University lasted only a little over a
year, folding up at Christmas time in 1931. In fact, a number of its
students came here to the Norfolk Division and finished their two—year
college career with us. The College of William and Mary then found itself
in the possession of a branch in Norfolk, the nature of which was found
to be very basically different from that of the parent college, which
was a rather small I think the enrollment in those days was somewhere
around 1,400 ancient school, well known in its small way, and respected
in a quiet semi—rustic setting in historic Williamsburg, which at that
time, 1930, had not yet been restored as it is today, though it was
in the process. The newly—founded school in Norfolk was a small urban
junior college and was destined to become, as it now is, an urban university.
Its functions, then, were very different from those of the parent school.
But it seemed to us that, right or wrong, the administration in the
parent school and perhaps to a lesser extent the faculty had no great
interest in this Norfolk Division. Their primary interests, quite properly,
were in the parent school, William and Mary, and, to put it bluntly,
I think at times
they must have felt us to be a kind of annoying, irritating excrescence.
This may be a little harsh, but it always seemed to us that on the rare
occasions when administrative officers came from Williamsburg to visit
us that they had, perforce, but a small understanding or even concern
for the problems and work of this urban school; that their primary interests
were in William and Mary proper, and they conceived of this Norfolk
Division as a small feeder of students from the lower Tidewater area
to William and Mary proper. A striking exception to this would be Dean
Hodges, who, of course, was a Williamsburg man much of his life and
devoted to the College of William and Mary. When he came here and even
before, he was sincerely interested in the development of this school.
And to his name I might add that of Charles Duke, which will come up
later, bursar of the College in the 30’s, who in 1940 was sent here
to succeed Dean Hodges, no doubt also against his will, but who took
tremendous interest in developing the school here and who was a very
able and efficient administrator.
Sweeney: Could you describe the library facilities
in those early years and, if they were meager, did the faculty members
themselves build up the collections in their areas of specialization?
Akers: They were
meager indeed, I think a thousand volumes or so, and as late as the
mid—30’s, if I recall these figures are available in the little three—volume
history, Annals of the College of William and Mary in Norfolk, covering
the first three decades —— there were perhaps only 5,000 volumes in
the mid-30's. The faculty contributed a little, but on their meager
salaries they could not contribute much except perhaps an occasional
textbook or reference book which they felt they could dispense with.
But the facilities were certainly meager, as were all the facilities
here in those Depression years.
Sweeney: Were there any extra—curricular organizations dedicated to
the study of German literature or any modern foreign language literature?
Akers: No, there
were not. The enrollment was small. The students were only first and
second—year students. There were only a couple of literary organizations:
the boys’ group, which was the first one, called itself the Byrd Literary
Society, named for Senator Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.; and the girls’ organization,
which called itself Philomathia, was organized in 1932 or so but, I
think, lasted only a couple of years. There were some student interest
groups in other fields like chemistry and biology, and there were, of
course, social clubs from almost the very beginning. It was an interesting
thing, however. The college had a population of, when
I came, about 500,
and this shrank in the following Depression years until war time when
it was down to less than 400, perhaps 350. There were no dormitories.
The entire student population lived in the city or in the vicinity,
so they commuted to school and there was extremely little social or
organizational life on the campus. It was a rare and difficult thing
to lure a group of students or others to the campus at night because
it meant a long trip by streetcar. Also, a large portion of the students
worked. Classes were held on Saturday mornings as they were in Williamsburg
in the first few years, which was a great problem for many of the student
body here, many of whom had jobs, and classes on Saturday morning were
unpopular and often poorly attended. But at noon on most days, and by
four o’clock on all days, the campus was quickly emptied.
Sweeney: Down through the years, how did the method of instruction
in foreign languages at the school change? Of course, in more recent years
you’ve used audio—visual techniques, I suppose, but could you briefly
Akers: I’m afraid
there wasn’t much change in the early years. It was mostly what would
be called traditional approaches to foreign language teaching. Most
of us kept abreast of the latest literature in the field. It was not
until the 50’s that serious interest in things like foreign language
laboratories, recordings by records and tapes, became the rage. This
rage has subsided a little bit in quite recent years. But I would say
that fairly traditional methods prevailed. Under that term, however,
I would include emphasis on oral practice, which was at least an aim
if not always actual practice in the classroom, but serious changes
did not come until the advent of language laboratories in the 1950’s.
Sweeney: It seems that, from an early date,
the faculty participated in events planned for the edification of the
community. How did the lecture series the public series in which you participated
during the 1935—36 academic year —— come about?
Akers: Well, in
those days the city had a population of about 130,000. There was pretty
strict segregation, so that one thought in those days in terms of a
white audience for a gathering, not that blacks would have been forbidden
to come, but the tradition was very strong, so that there was perhaps
a public of 80,000 people that would be white people —- in the city
of Norfolk on whom the college could draw or conversely who would draw
upon the college for a portion of its cultural life. The resources then
were rather meager, as the audience was, so that the new college, small
and feeble as it
was, was regarded
as a source of cultural activities, lectures and so on. And it made
some effort, also, to make itself available to the public. I don’t remember
exactly how that particular series in 1935—36 came about. I was just
back from Panama, where I had been on leave for a year teaching in the
Canal Zone. I remember I was one of those asked to give a lecture and
show a film of the Panama Canal Zone and so forth. This was attended
by a very small audience in the only auditorium we had, which was the
auditorium of the Old Larchmont School building, which was in the early
years the only building of the College the same auditorium, by the way,
where Lewis Webb, later president of the College, had as a first grader
recited poetry at school programs. I think that lecture series was not
any very notable event. Some of the lectures were extremely interesting,
including particularly one by Dr. Gray which I dimly remember, but somewhat
more important were those a few years later given at the new Norfolk
Arts Museum building downtown, which filled the auditorium with several
hundred people. By this time the College had become a little better
known. Also, the Norfolk Society of Arts and various other clubs, including
men’s service clubs and others in the city, had from almost the very
first begun to ask the faculty for lectures on various subjects, and
this has persisted to the present day.
Sweeney: Professor Akers, how long did faculty members at the Norfolk
Division continue to travel to Williamsburg, and if you might recall it
must have been rather difficult to travel up there in the winter with
the ferry and the various delays and hazardous driving conditions. Do
you have any recollections in respect to that?
Akers: Yes. As
for teachers from here going to Williamsburg, I was the only one whom
I can recall who did that. And this was in the year 1931-32, my first
year here, second year of the Norfolk Division, when I traveled to Williamsburg
three days a week to teach a couple of classes in second—year Spanish.
They happened to be short—handed in that department at the time. I remember
Mr. Timmerman’s laughing over how pleased he was that this little school
which had been supported in respect to its faculty by commuting faculty
from William and Mary in Williamsburg was reciprocating by sending one
of its own faculty (since I was officially Norfolk Division) to help
out in Williamsburg. This made a very interesting experience for me,
and a very pleasant one. I would take the steamer Virginia at the foot
of Brooke Avenue, which belonged to the C & 0 railroad, to the dock
at Newport News, get on the train there and proceed at once to Williamsburg,
and then usually walk from there to the College, three days a week,
and come back in the afternoon the same way. On the boat, which was
ride from the railroad dock in Newport
News to Norfolk, I would have an hour in which to correct papers and
otherwise pass the time. This was not unpleasant, even in the winter.
Now and then, when I went by bus, which I occasionally did, if the bus
were late or if I missed connections it was disconcerting. The reverse
process, by which the parent faculty provided instruction here at the
Norfolk Division often three days a week or perhaps more, was much more
important in the first year. Most of our small faculty were commuting
teachers from Williamsburg in the various departments, including foreign
languages, and of those who continued to come from Williamsburg, I think
over a period of perhaps six years at the most, one was in foreign languages,
Professor Robert McClellan, who taught Greek and Latin and later on
French and who, incidentally, was the compiler of the first three books
of annals of the Norfolk Division, covering the first three decades.
Sweeney: How large a role did foreign language instructors play in
the 30’s and 40’s in the Extension programs? Was there a demand in the
Norfolk community for instruction in the basics the fundamentals of foreign
Akers: Yes, there was some, and
in foreign languages as in other fields, our local faculty was used
by the parent college for extension courses in Portsmouth and in Norfolk
and outlying places. There were courses in first-year and second-year
Spanish and French. I remember teaching courses in second—year Spanish
in Portsmouth, for some reason or other, several years in succession,
and of course in the summer school, there was considerable demand for
this from school teachers and others from the city.
Sweeney: In 1937—38 you participated in a series of radio talks on
literary or social subjects. Do you recall the occasion for these talks
and any of the subjects you lectured on?
Akers: I can recall only one
or two. We were invited to do this by station WTAR. One was a talk about
foreign languages and their influence on English. As I recall, it was
a rather stilted and not very interesting talk to the general public.
But this was before the days of television, and radio made some attempt
to provide cultural as well as more popular programs. Another one which
I was asked to do just before World War II involved a rabbi from Portsmouth
who was also a student at our college and who was a Hungarian by birth.
He and I did a small series impersonating Hitler and the Chancellor
of Austria, Dr. Schuschnigg, I believe, conversing about the forthcoming
Anschluss, or union of Hitler’s Germany and Austria. There were a good
many appearances by faculty members on radio programs in the late 30’s
and during the 40’s.
Sweeney: In those early years, did you get the impression that the
people residing in Norfolk were proud that there was a school here or
even conscious of the role being played by the school in the area’s intellectual
and educational life?
Akers: My impression was that
they were quite conscious of it and to a certain extent proud. The school,
of course, was small. It had its share of mediocre students and faculty,
but there was at all times, I think, a noticeable group of gifted faculty
members, like those I mentioned awhile ago, to whom I might add the
name of Miss Alice Burke, a teacher of government, and several others
whom I should have mentioned, who were quite respected in the community,
and rightly so, and remembered still by their students. I think the
attitude of the community was very favorable and even affectionate toward
the dear old Norfolk Division, as it was rather laughingly called (also
"Larchmont Tech" and other less complimentary but affectionate
Sweeney: In those early days in the 1930’s, as
you mentioned, faculty salaries seemed to be very low by today’s standards,
certainly at the instructor level. Was it difficult for the faculty member
to live on his salary?
Akers: It was not easy even then
although by, say, 1934, when the Depression was at perhaps its deepest,
prices were quite low. I remember a pound of very high grade of bacon
cost 22cents, but even that was somewhat of a luxury. In that year,
1934, if I recall correctly, the salary of all state employees, which
included William and Mary faculty, was reduced by, I can’t recall whether
it was 20 or 25%, which meant that most of us were living on a salary
of less than $2,000 a year, so that even in those days this was not
a very magnificent reward.
Sweeney: How was tenure granted in the early days? What criteria did
the faculty member have to meet?
Akers: There were no clearly—defined
rules of tenure. We were not even given contracts. We were given simply
a letter of appointment each year, and as far as I know there was no
definite regulation about tenure. This was a source of irritation on
the part of the faculty, who felt that, at least in the days of President
J. A. C. Chandler, one could be fired at the whim of the administrator.
I do not recall that anything of the kind ever took place at the Norfolk
Division or that there were any unjustified or tyrannical firings. But
tenure was a kind of a dream of the future in those days.
Sweeney: Was there any accountability as to teaching ability?
Akers: Again, not clearly defined.
But I believe it was recognized by the faculty and others that on grounds
of obvious in competence a person could be discharged.
Sweeney: As World War II approached and during the War itself, did
you participate in any language training program for the military in Norfolk?
Akers: Yes. There was demand
for courses in Spanish, in particular, and French, I think, but particularly
Spanish before the War and I think throughout the War. Also, later,
courses in Portuguese and German; no Russian that I can recall at that
time. But there were evening courses which were fairly well attended
by members of the military, particularly in Spanish.
Sweeney: Now we’ll take up the problems that
Dean Hodges had at the end of his career at Norfolk Division. First of
all, let’s take up the faculty’s reaction to Dean Hodges’ problems with
President Bryan of the parent institution. Was the faculty generally dissatisfied
with Dean Hodges’ administration and did they sympathize with him in this
specific problem that he was having?
Akers: These matters are fairly
fully dealt with in volume two of the annals of the College of William
and Mary in Norfolk, covering the second decade from 1940—1950. I will
only corroborate what is recorded there that there was a good deal of
dissatisfaction on the part of the faculty in the matter of priorities.
The effects of the Depression were still being felt in the late 30’s,
and let me see if I’m getting my dates right yes, and the fact of the
low salaries made a constant irritant so that, when it was felt that
an undue amount of time and money was going to athletics, for which
we felt the school was hardly suited, this was perhaps the major irritant.
When you say was their sympathy felt for Dean Hodges in his problems,
I’m not sure what you have in mind there.
Sweeney: Did the faculty feel that Dean Hodges was being unjustly
treated or that there had been a problem in regard to grades for a long
time and that it was about time that somebody did something about it?
Akers: The matter of grades is
one in which I had no direct connection. I learned about it after it
had been revealed by someone in the registrar’s office, but I think
most of the faculty did feel that
this was a serious matter on the
grounds that, for one thing, it was unfair to award unearned credits
and grades specifically in the case of, say, a boy who is trying to
get into a military academy and who by this device would inevitably
win out in the competitive field over other boys who might have had
an honest justification for getting into the academy. It would also
hurt the good name of the college, as in fact I believe it did, because
rumors were abroad for some time after this that students’ credits from
this college would be questioned by colleges and universities throughout
the nation. So it was regarded as a serious matter.
Sweeney: Why was it that Hodges had such support in the Norfolk community
and did this support continue even after the grades situation became known?
Akers: Yes, it did. Dean Hodges,
as I said before, was an extremely kind—hearted, hard—working man who
unquestionably had the welfare and interest of the students at heart.
He was generous to a fault, and was naturally liked and even loved by
the citizenry and by the students. I don’t know to what extent this
attitude was changed when Dr. Bryan, President of the College, sent
out a letter to several hundred people who had written to him supporting
Dean Hodges, and explained to them the facts of the case. This must
have, at least, enlightened many of the citizens who probably hadn’t
before known or given very serious thought to the actual issues involved.
But I’m sure that, even so, whatever their feelings may have been about
Dr. Hodges’ guilt in this particular matter, their feeling of affection
toward him survived this.
Sweeney: Dr. Akers, you served on the committee
of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors
which presented a list of grievances and suggestions for improvement of
conditions at the school to Dr. Bryan and Dean Miller in Williamsburg.
What was the nature of these recommendations, and why was the matter of
grades omitted from the agenda? Was this possibly an oversight?
Akers: This again is set forth
in volume two of the annals, and there is more there than I can remember
at this date, some thirty years later. The grievances mentioned included
primarily those I mentioned a while ago about financial matters and
over—emphasis of athletics. On this point I might say that in those
later years of the 30’s, for instance, I attended a football game in
the new stadium, Foreman Field, at which there was a total attendance
of about twenty, including fourteen students. We felt that with this
lack of interest in football, for such a small school it was wrong to
devote a large portion of the school’s budget to this activity. This
seemed to be also the attitude of most of the student body. About the
matter of grades and the fact
that it was not mentioned
at the interview with the Dean in Williamsburg, I think indeed it was
an oversight. I don’t know why that particular matter didn’t come up.
It was mentioned on the way home as the three of us came back, but there
had been so many questions about athletics and the honor system and
salaries —there was of course no definite salary scale, which was not
the fault of Dean Hodges. Bu
the fault of Dean Hodges. But we felt that there were problems with
a great many matters of faculty—administration relationships. For example,
the fact that the Dean would call the faculty to decide on some matter
like: shall we continue to have football, accept the faculty’s decision
of "No," then the next day unilaterally reverse this decision.
All this took up the hour or so that was spent in the discussion and
since we had, as I recall, written down no specific list of grievances,
somehow the one concerning the grades was lost in the shuffle.
Sweeney: Could you give me some insight on the origin of the AAUP
Chapter here — on how many members it might have had, what its goals were,
and how successful it was in attaining its goals?
Akers: I can’t remember when
the AAUP Chapter was founded. It must have been probably in the late
1930’s and included a majority of the membership of the small faculty.
It was probably as much of a social club as anything else because it
had very little influence. It was favorably regarded by administrator
Lewis W. Webb during his days as director and provost, and we always
felt we would get a fair hearing from him. In fact, I think he regarded
himself as a member of the organization, but it was not until quite
recent years in my memory that it became the influential organization
that it is today and commanded respect and was given a hearing at higher
levels. I remember it was a small and rather struggling organization.
I was president for two or three years by default, simply because it
was hard to find anybody to take the office. There were many discussions
of academic matters and sometimes of salary and so on. But my memory
of the early years is not very vivid.
Sweeney: In the 1940’s, certainly by the end of the Second World War,
‘47, ‘48, ‘49, was there any considerable sentiment in Norfolk and at
the Division to sever the ties with the parent school in Williamsburg?
Akers: Yes, there was. As I remarked
earlier in this interview, there was perhaps always a feeling here,
at least after the first year or two, that the aims and functions of
the parent school, William and Mary, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute,
which also planted a division here in 1931, were so different, almost
incompatible, that the relationship seemed an artificial one. I suppose
this was only natural, especially on the part of the child institution,
to feel some resentment toward the parent. But this was certainly true.
Sweeney: Did the faculty respond favorably to Mr. Duke’s administration
of the college, and what were some of his greatest achievements and failures?
Akers: On the whole, yes, they
responded favorably. Mr. Duke on his taking over in 1940 (I believe
it was) established a small advisory committee of the four senior professors
and others elected by the faculty who met with him weekly. While we
didn’t exercise a great deal of influence, Mr. Duke at least kept us
abreast of what was going on, occasionally asked our advice, and soon.
Later some differences of opinion developed between him and Dr. Gray,
for example, who later became one of two co—directors of the school
following Mr. Duke’s tenure here, on matters that I cannot very well
define. I remember that Dr. Gray made a statement that Mr. Duke had
more of an "institutional" approach to curricular matters
and others than a student—oriented one —— I’m sorry I’m not very clear
on the points of difference that emerged. I do recall this, that in
his later years and after (Mr. Duke had returned to Williamsburg as
a business manager bursar, it was called), he quite adamantly took what
I might call the Williamsburg position, that this College, the Norfolk
Division, must never entertain the idea of becoming a four—year college.
It could expand horizontally, he said, but not vertically. It must continue
to regard itself as a division of the College of William and Mary. I
suppose that this was the most serious point of cleavage between Mr.
Duke and the faculty members here, who couldn’t help envisioning the
growth of this college into a four—year institution. It was, after all,
the only institution, barring the new Norfolk unit of Virginia Union
(which later became Norfolk State College), in this whole southern Hampton
Roads area, and the thought that it should remain only a small two—year
college feeding the College of William and Mary, which was after all
rather a national than a Tidewater institution, seemed to us illogical.
But Mr. Duke felt that this was the way things should be and that any
activities or expressions on our part about expanding this school into
a four—year college, much less an urban university, were, in a word,
Sweeney: During the 1940’s and 1950’s, was there any appreciable improvement
in the library’s holdings in foreign language materials?
Akers: This again is recounted
in the annals. I think the growth was extremely slow, and not until
the late ‘50’s was any serious effort made to increase those holdings.
The library was housed
in one large room on the ground
floor of the Old Administration Building in those years, and even at
the time when the college was looking forward to becoming a four—year
institution, which was in the mid-5O’s, it was realized that one of
the most serious obstacles to recognition and accreditation was the
gravely deficient size of the library. I can recall that the library
budget, if you could call it that, in the ‘40’s, was likely to be a
few hundred dollars and in, say, the philosophy department it might
be fifteen dollars for the year.
Sweeney: There was no counseling for the college students in those
years. Did the students often consult faculty members with their personal
Akers: I don’t know whether I
can respond on the word "often." They did, certainly certain
faculty members in particular who were the confidants of the students.
But I would guess I’m only guessing now less so than in later times
when counseling services were provided. I get the impression, rightly
or wrongly, in these latter years, including the latter years of my
tenure here which ended in 1972, that an enormous proportion of our
student body have at least perceptibly valid problems, family, home,
and personal problems. This may have been true in those days too, the
‘30’s and ‘40’s, but I think we were less aware of it because there
was less organized attempt to offer counseling services to the students.
Sweeney: In respect to the organization of the
Department of Modern Languages, when was a separate department created?
Akers: Frankly, I don’t think
there was ever any actual pronouncement of creation. In fact, though,
there was a department containing two members and certain part—time
members from my first year, which was 1931—32, and the Head for the
next six years, approximately, was Professor Arthur George Williams.
But, while the various departments were unofficially referred to as
departments and had unofficial heads, I think this simply grew over
the years rather than that at any time it was officially announced that,
e.g., the Foreign Language Department is headed by Dr. Akers, or the
English Department by Dr. Gray.
Sweeney: In continuing with the question on the department chairmanship,
as chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages, did you encounter
any difficulties in recruiting faculty members?
Akers: Yes. Not in the early
years, when there was not much recruiting to be done. In the late ‘40’s,
following World War II, we expanded a little bit, and I remember spending
good deal of time trying to acquire
a new Spanish teacher, but this was not particularly difficult. It became
particularly so later on in the ‘60’s. By this time I was no longer
chairman of the department, having been away for three years and succeeded
by Dr. Rogers Whichard (who just recently retired) in the ‘60’s, it
became quite difficult to find faculty members because the Depression
was over and our college was not very competitive. I remember going
to a South Atlantic Modern Language Association meeting in 1966 in Charlotte,
North Carolina, and almost being laughed at by the few candidates that
were available for university jobs in Spanish because of the low competitive
rank we had in salary offerings among other Southeastern colleges and
Sweeney: In May of 1953, you completed a self—evaluation study with
Professors MacDonald and Pliska. Could you recall why this study was undertaken
and any difficulties you encountered, and the conclusions that you reached?
Akers: Here I’m embarrassed by
my poor memory because I can recall being considerably concerned at
the time, and I’m only hoping that Dr. Pliska perhaps may be of more
use to you here than I am. I know that one of the concerns, as always,
was that of faculty salaries, and it must have been about that time
that I undertook, whether as a part of this study or an independent
activity I don’t recall at the moment, a salary study of salaries here
as compared with other occupations in the community. I came up with
the discovery that the median salary for the faculty of the Norfolk
Division of William and Mary—VPI in the early 1950’s was a little less
than the average for the better—paid stenographers in the city, such
as those of the C & 0 Railroad. But as to the remainder of that
inquiry on self—evaluation, I am sorry to say that I have not been able
to locate any files on this, and I again can only hope that Dr. Pliska
will help you out a little more.
Sweeney: Unquestionably, the feeling was growing in 1950 that the
College should become a separate four—year, degree—granting institution,
both in the community and at the school itself. Did you play any role
in this movement in the ‘50’s?
Akers: I don’t recall my playing
any active role or anybody else’s doing so, though the feeling was certainly
growing in the community, and I was interviewed, as were others here,
by an official from the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities,
which was making a study of the matter. I remember he asked me this
question: Do you think that, if a four—year college should be established
here, it should be on the basis
of this present William and Mary
institution in other words, should grow out of it? I told him I certainly
did, but I don’t recall my having taken, or any other faculty member
having taken, overt action or publicity in this field in the ‘50’s.
It seemed to us that it was only a matter of time until it would happen,
and this indeed proved to be the case.
Sweeney: During the late ‘50’s and the decade of the ‘60’s and even
the early ‘70’s, the College grew tremendously in faculty, and it seems
that they may have become more involved in their own pursuits. Did you
notice a decline in a sense of community among the faculty during that
period of about 15 years from 1957, say, to 1972?
Akers: I think probably so only
to the extent that might be expected from sheer growth. We were no longer
quite the small, closely—knit group that we were in the early years.
During three crucial years of that period, I was absent in Turkey from
1962—65, during which time we did break loose from the College of William
and Mary and become Old Dominion College, and this happened in August
of 1962, but I’m not sure the sense of community declined. I think that
the faculty still felt a certain esprit de corps. During my absence
the faculty senate was formed, which was an evidence of this. I was
pleased to see that this was already a vigorous, if new and perhaps
fumbling, groping body in 1965 when I returned to the college.
Sweeney: You served as the Head of the Division of Humanities in the
1950’s. What were your duties in that capacity?
Akers: This was rather a figurehead
position. It may have been more important in some of the other divisions.
The so—called Division of Humanities, which included a number of different
departments languages, music, art, history, English and so on lasted
until about 1964, when I was absent. And on my return in 1965, the new
College had been divided into a series of schools so that the so—called
divisions of humanities and so on no longer existed. Actually, my functions
were purely nominal and in point of fact were limited to occasional
resolvings of small squabbles between departments over use of this or
that facility and also the routine making of recommendations for the
salaries of the various department heads each year. Incidentally, I
almost automatically recommended the highest possible raises on the
grounds that anybody would deserve such raises as were available because
the limits were so tight that almost anyone who had given reasonable
service could be expected to deserve such increases as were available.
But the Division of the Humanities was largely a ceremonial title.
Sweeney: President Webb in a recent newspaper interview said that
he advocated the school change from college to university status even
though it wasn’t ready for it. Do you feel that in the 1960’s and when
you came back from Turkey that the school was progressing too quickly
for its own good and that it didn’t have adequate planning for the steps
that were being taken?
Akers: I suppose that criticism
could be made, though I am hardly inclined to be one to make it. It
would be very difficult and, I suppose, just at a guess, there have
been few colleges in the history of this country who have carefully,
step by step, planned for their evolution into university status. Certainly
there have been many more which have been given that title or which
have taken that title with less grounds than we had. This is only a
negative comment, but I tend to be very uncritical on this point, whatever
solid grounds it may have. I think certainly by now it was high time
that we should be a university. I am inclined to think that the title
was deserved when it came and that such rapid progress as took place,
perhaps headlong, was inevitable.
Sweeney: President Webb served as the director and president of the
institution from 1946 to 1969, and he seems to have done an extraordinary
job. Are there any comments you would like to make on his administration?
Akers: I remember when President
Webb, then a young instructor, first appeared here on campus in the
summer of 1932, say, nine months after I did. He was very well liked
and respected in those days for his hard common—sense, no—nonsense approach
to things. He kept this up all through his long tenure, first as director,
co—director, and then provost, and finally president of the College.
I think there had probably never been in the history of education a
harder—working, more devoted and dedicated administrator than Mr. Webb
was. The faculty, all through that period, I think I can honestly say,
felt that he was devoting a great deal of his time and energy to their
interests. He fought hard, of course, for improved budgets from the
state government in Richmond, which was always an uphill and very frustrating,
discouraging fight, and I think he richly earned the honor and esteem
that he holds today for his long years of devoted and dedicated service.
Sweeney: You mentioned the state government in Richmond, and that
brought to mind the subject of my doctoral thesis, which was the Byrd
organization. I was wondering, in those years in the 1940’s
and ‘50’s, did the faculty here bear
a great deal of resentment against the political organization that was
running Virginia because of the meager funding that the institution was
Akers: The answer is yes. Very
Sweeney: Could you provide some background on your teaching experience
in Ankara, Turkey, when you were associated with the George town University
Akers: Yes. I must not say too
much about that, at the risk of being too personal. I was tapped by
Georgetown University in 1961 to go over there and serve as vice—director,
as it turned out, of the so—called Georgetown University English Language
Program, which was part of U. S. Aid under the State Department and
which had two major functions. One was to train in conversational English
those Turks in government positions, about 200 every year, as it happened,
over a period of some 15 years, who were sent by their government at
our government’s expense, to the U.S. to study such things as public
administration, irrigation, education, airport management, and everything
that was one function of this Georgetown program. Another was to train
Turkish teachers of English for the schools of Turkey, and I was instrumental
in sending perhaps 30 such people, carefully selected, to the United
States to various universities to work for master’s degrees in the teaching
of English. Another function was to provide textbooks in English for
the schools of Turkey. I was there three years and did very little teaching,
actually. This was an unofficial job. Some of us officials in this little
Georgetown group were asked to teach at the University of Ankara in
the department of English. I did this for three years, but only one
hour a week a great pleasure and unpaid. I look back on those three
years as ones of great enjoyment and reward, and came back to Norfolk
to Old Dominion College in 1965, after a very pleasant experience. I
remember that when I was first approached in 1962 to take this job,
I was not at all eager to do so, having had dangled before me the prospect
of a Fulbright job in Germany as an administrator, but my wife and I
finally decided, We’ll go to Turkey. I was sorry it had to be for two
years. I wished it could be for only one because who wants to go to
Turkey for two years? So I finally decided I would say yes, and approached
President Webb with this request: "Lewis, I’ve been asked to go
to Turkey, and they want me for two years. I guess the dear old Norfolk
Division can struggle along without me for that long," and he
said, "Yes, and you should
know that we can only give leave of absence for one year, but I will
guarantee that if you wish, when the time comes, let me know and I will
go before the Board and they will undoubtedly approve my request for
your second year’s leave." Well, this happened, but then came the
third year because the Georgetown Program was not due to phase out until
the end of what would have been my third year. I was asked to stay on,
and wrote a rather flippant letter to President Webb back in Norfolk
saying, "Dear Lewis: they want me to stay on a third year to save
the expense of finding a new man for filling out this job until phase—out
time, so I do hope that the dear old Norfolk Division can struggle along
for a third year without me
for a third year without me," thinking, of course, he would answer,
Certainly, go right ahead. Instead, I was surprised to receive a letter
somewhat as follows: "Dear Gerald, I’m surprised you didn’t know
that colleges never give leave of absence for more than two years, and
I’m not willing to go before the Board making a request for such a dangerous
precedent. I’m afraid you’ll have to come back. Also, it seems to be
difficult to find German teachers nowadays, and Dr. Whichard says he
needs you." I was very disappointed at this, and my colleagues
over there on both the Turkish and American sides said "Try again."
So I composed, without much hope, a very tearful letter to President
Webb, telling him how Turkey was going to fall apart without me, and
they wanted me to stay and so forth. To my surprise, a few weeks later
a letter came back from President Webb, as follows: "Dear Gerald:
I have decided to go before the Board and ask for a third year for you,
not because I think Turkey needs you as badly as you say it does but
because you have been here 31 years, and when I make this request to
the Board on your behalf, I don’t feel that I’m setting myself a very
uncomfortable precedent." So I stayed in Turkey the third year.
Sweeney: When you came back to Norfolk in 1965—1966
and then on into the late sixties — of course these are the years of the
Vietnam War —did you notice a change in the students here, and did they
reflect national trends toward student activism?
Akers: Yes, this was noticeable
to a very slight extent in my first year back on the campus, which was
1965-1966. There were hardly any long hairs in that year. They appeared
a couple of years later. But it was certainly a revolution that took
place in the attitudes, not to say the appearance, and the activities
of the students in the next few years, although I think it’s safe to
say that it was much less violent upheaval here than on
many other campuses. I might say
in this connection, going back 20 years or so, that just after World
War II a very noticeable change in the atmosphere took place in 1946
and 1947 as a new wave of veterans of the various armed services flooded
into our campuses, swelling our ranks. The attitude of these boys (and
one or two girls) was so much more serious and purposeful than that
of the average happy—go—lucky American high school graduate that it
imparted a very wholesome atmosphere to the campus. While it didn’t
increase the proportion of geniuses, it did have, I thought, a very
salutary effect upon the serious attitude toward getting something out
Sweeney: Continuing on this line, in the last couple of years of 1972
and 1973 have the students, with the changes in the curricular requirements
and the doing away with so many required courses — do you think there’s
a tendency on the part of the st
a tendency on the part of the students to just not really plan out their
courses of study and just take the degree as kind of a matter of course?
Akers: Yes, I would guess so,
but here I’m guessing because I’ve been retired for two years, since
the summer of 1972, and I’ve only done a little substitute teaching
since then. So I can only give from hearsay the opinions of my former
colleagues. I’m a little worried by the reports — I don’t know how accurate
they may be— of the students’ attitude toward the need to learn anything
serious or difficult. I don’t know whether they even worry about the
word "relevant" any more. But, as an old—timer, I think that
some time we must, and they must, come back to the feeling that four
years at the university is not just a time to play around and go through
the motions but that some things need to be learned for one’s own use
and enjoyment of life. As my late colleague, Dr. Gray, said, "Education
is for the purpose of increasing our ability to enjoy," and this
ability can be won, I think, only through knowledge, which, though hard
and sometimes toilsome to attain, is, like virtue, "its own reward."
Sweeney: Did you notice a change in the atmosphere of the school,
and especially the relationship between the faculty and the administration,
after President Bugg assumed control in 1969?
Akers: No, I can’t say that I
noticed any great change in attitude. There are always some stresses
between administration and faculty under any administrator, and this
happened to be a time of readjustment and restructuring, what with the
abolishing of the new faculty senate and the creation of the university
senate, which involves students, administrative staff, and faculty.
But this came at the end of my career,
and I don’t feel able to make an adequate or valid comparison of this
period with the years preceding.
Sweeney: As a last question, then, reflecting upon your career, could
you describe your greatest satisfactions and disappointments, and did
your career at the college leave you with a sense of fulfillment?
Akers: On the whole, it did.
I look back on the years and think of many shortcomings, ways in which
I might have been a better teacher; perhaps the most important one would
have been to demand more of the gifted students. But on the whole I
have no serious regrets. It’s been a very pleasant and happy life. I
made many friends, some of whom have died in recent times, and I have
come to love Norfolk very much. My wife is a native of Norfolk, and
while she and I after our three years in Turkey had become so enamored
of the Turks as a warm—hearted people that we seriously thought of retiring
in Turkey, we have changed our minds and are happy to remain here where
our roots are. And I find great pleasure in being able to come to the
campus where I still have an office and use the library and associate
with my former colleagues on this piece of ground which I’ve seen grow
and change very remarkably in the last 43 years.
Sweeney: Thank you very much, Professor Akers, for this most informative
and enjoyable interview.