As early as 1883 and 1885, then president of Randolph-Macon College (R-MC) in Ashland, Va., W.W. Bennett, with the support of faculty (which included William Waugh Smith) approached the college’s Board of Trustees in an attempt to open some educational opportunities there to women. Both efforts failed. Years later, when Smith himself was president, he once again set out to convince the board. While the board members remained steadfast against opening R-MC to women, they did agree to the idea of a separate college for women.
Smith set out to find a place in Virginia open to such a novel concept—providing a rigorous academic program to women. George M. Jones, a stockholder of the Rivermont Land Company, suggested Lynchburg, a wealthy, growing city near the mountains. Passionate and determined, Smith convinced the company to donate the 20-acre site, as well as $40,000 in money and $60,000 in stocks, as long as Smith was able to raise $100,000 for the endowment in 90 days. He secured $106,000 in just 34 days.
He founded Randolph-Macon Woman’s College on March 10, 1891.
Today, exactly 125 years later, Randolph College faculty, staff, and alumnae and alumni joined together to pay tribute to Smith’s vision and ingenuity and to celebrate the Colleges rich past and bright future.
A nearly year-long celebration of the College’s 125th celebration commenced Thursday morning with a special campus ceremony in Main Hall. Paula Wallace, associate dean of the College, signaled the start of the festivities by ringing the Conway Bell, and Dennis Goff, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology, shared his thoughts on the history of the College as well as personal experiences from his 30-year tenure with a crowd of faculty, staff, and Lynchburg alumnae and alumni and friends of the College.
“I had taught a year at Hollins, so I thought I knew what to expect from students at a women’s college. Little did I know how much students here would challenge me,” Goff said. “I remember being so excited that the library was only a few steps away from my office and that I could easily get articles on inter-library loan with only a week or so wait. Let that sink in for a moment!”
Though the College has faced many changes over the years, including technology, infrastructure, and a transition to coeducation, Goff said one of its defining characteristics throughout has been the quality of its faculty and staff and the bonds they form with students.
“I think that Paula Wallace, who has been here a little longer than anyone else, would tell us that Randolph is defined by us—the faculty and staff who work here every day, often for decades at a stretch,” he said. “You only need to spend a little time on Facebook to see how much relationships with all of us have shaped students’ experiences here. We give that to our students for four years of their lives and they carry it with them and share it with the rest of the world.”
Wallace is the longest-serving staff member at the College, coming to then-R-MWC in 1973. “I’ve been at the College for about a third of its history, and it’s as vibrant as it was when I got here,” she said. “There have been lots of changes, as Dennis referenced, but I think the things that have stayed the same are the academic rigor of the curriculum and the educational program, the efforts to constantly learn how to build community, and the Honor Code.”
Students, faculty, and staff enjoyed an assortment of refreshments straight from a R-MWC recipe book, including traditional orange blossoms. Although the majority of the College’s current students were on spring break, Sarah Biegelsen ’17 was one of several who attended the brief campus ceremony and reception.
“It’s nice to be part of a school that continues to hold such high standards of education as its oldest tradition,” Biegelsen said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how much Randolph thrives in the years to come, and celebrating future anniversaries.”
About 43 birthday bashes hosted by alumnae and alumni chapters around the world are planned this evening; however, many who reside in the Lynchburg area were also able to attend the campus celebration.
“It’s an extremely exciting time for the College and great to be here for the celebration,” said Carla Blankinship ’06, human resources coordinator for the College.
“It’s a great opportunity to look back at all of our success and to think about what we can accomplish in the future,” added Jen Brestel ’93, alumnae and alumni admissions and events assistant.
The next 125th anniversary event takes place March 24, when the College will observe its annual Founders Day celebration. For more events and information about Randolph College’s 125th anniversary, please visit http://web.randolphcollege.edu/125/.