In 2016, Randolph-Macon Academy celebrated its 125th year of university-prep education, standing on a proud heritage and promising future. Learn more about the Academy’s history and evolution below!
The Early Years
A New Wave at R-MA
The Rebuilding Years
The Early Years
The Early Years
An Academy is Born
The Early Years
A New Wave at R-MA
The Academy experienced many changes in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Vietnam War soured the population’s opinion of the military, resulting in a dramatic drop in enrollment at military schools across the country. In response, Randolph-Macon Academy took a hard look at its programs and determined that aligning itself with Air Force JROTC was more in line with its original charter as a college-prep school. Female students were admitted in 1974, and the Air Force program first began on campus in the fall of 1975.
The ability to deal with change is something on which Randolph-Macon Academy prides itself. In 1917 it changed from simply a college preparatory school to a college preparatory school with a military program (National Defense Cadet Corps) during World War I. In 1927 it witnessed a catastrophic change in the very building it called home as it burned to the ground on a frigid January evening. In 1929 it faced the Great Depression and a depleted economy. In 1933 it dealt with the closing of R-MA at Bedford and welcomed those students to its campus. In 1953 it made a significant change and became its own entity as it separated from Randolph-Macon College.
As shown, change is something R-MA is familiar with, but in the late-60’s to mid-70’s it dealt with not just a personal change, but a social change that was sweeping the nation. It was time to break past conventions and embrace a new world of education.
The desegregation of public schools was becoming more prevalent each year since Brown vs. Board of Education. In 1966 a statement signed by Robert P. Parker, President of R-MA and J. Douglas Potter, Lt. Col. Adjutant General AGC, read, “The President of Randolph-Macon Academy in consideration of the maintenance of a unit of the National Defense Cadet Corps program at the above school HEREBY AGREES that the school and the Cadet program will be operated without discrimination on the grounds of race, color or national origin…” Despite the school’s new policy, the first black-American student would not attend R-MA until the fall of 1971.
This brings us to an important year of change in R-MA’s history. 1974 marks two different “firsts” in R-MA history. It was the first year a black-American student graduated from R-MA, and it was the first year females were allowed to attend R-MA for the regular academic school year.
The first black student to join the alumni of R-MA was a young man named Kervin L. Williams from Winchester, Virginia. He had the forethought and maturity to realize that public school was not facilitating his needs as a student in his formative years. Rather than sit idly by he was proactive and developed a solution to obtain a higher level of education. Williams worked hard, served tables, and saved his money in order to attend R-MA as a senior in the fall of 1973.
Williams considered his admission to R-MA as a blessing. He always had a hard time in math class, but received a great deal of support from his teachers and classmates. He believes the help he received enabled him to graduate in the spring of 1974. “I received so much support from that place. There is no reason to fail there,” said Williams.
Several months after Kervin Williams graduated from R-MA the Academy would welcome its first ever female students. Girls were able to attend the R-MA summer school program since 1966, but the 1974-75 school year was the first for female cadets.
The admission of females to R-MA seemed like a win-win situation. It provided these girls with an opportunity at a higher level of education and it could potentially increase enrollment in the post-Vietnam era. “The faculty seemed to favor having females in the school,” said Ron McManus, Assistant to the President in the mid-70’s. “Not only to help enrollment, but also perhaps to elevate the academic program—to bring civility back.”
The first female to graduate from R-MA was Mary Brooke Massie ’76. Massie graduated with honors from the University of Virginia (UVA) in 1980 and graduated from UVA’s School of Law in 1983. This type of academic success is typical among female students at R-MA and has certainly helped in the continuation of their attendance at the Academy. However, it played an important part in not only admitting more female students, but also providing accommodations for future female students.
McManus commented that the school did not make immediate accommodations, such as their own locker rooms and showers for the girls when they first arrived. This was a small matter compared to what the girls really wanted, a dormitory of their own. The construction of a girls’ dormitory was important to students such as Joyce Vithespongse ’87 because it would breed a close-knit community among the female population at R-MA.
Before the construction of Turner Hall in 1990, the girls lived in separate housing behind Boggs Chapel. They were geographically removed from the main part of campus and were not under the same roof as their peers. Vithespongse was able to find the silver lining anyway. “For girls it took extra effort to insinuate ourselves into the school and be an integral part of things. But that in itself was a good experience. In the real world, the workplace, or any hierarchical organization it’s something women encounter and learn to overcome.”
The plans for Turner Hall were unveiled in 1985 and construction was set for 1990 thanks to the efforts of Joe Silek Sr. and Bernard B. Lane ’46. Furthermore, the Coed Task Group of the Long Range Planning Committee of 1986 established the necessity of the continued female presence at R-MA through their study.
“As ever increasing numbers of women assume positions of responsibility in business, politics, the professions and the military services, the importance of a quality education for females—secondary as well as collegiate—is not only abundantly clear, but is fast becoming a fabric of our society… Preparatory schools restricted to single gender are severely handicapped in preparing the whole person to function effectively in a dual gender collegiate environment and a dual gender competitive society… If R-MA is to remain competitive in the private secondary school market and to maximize its capability of expanding enrollment to a level required to yield sound financial support, it must be positioned to offer a quality education in a healthy environment to young people of both sexes…”
This conclusion established the crucial foothold for females at R-MA and they have been a part of the school for 43 of its 125 years.
Change can present a great challenge, but also a great reward. It is an enemy of complacency and a friend of improvement. It helps us move forward in a constructive way. Change, though difficult, has served R-MA since 1892. It has given us the structure of the military, a beautiful Jeffersonian building, and a diverse student body comprised of students of many different races, sexes, and cultures.
The Rebuilding Years
The smoke enveloped the corridors making sight impossible and breathing torture. Boys of all ages frantically groped their way down staircases and hallways in a desperate search for escape. Those on the third floor were forced to fashion ropes out of their bed sheets and blankets and grapple down the side of the building. Others were compelled to jump out of windows as their classmates held out bed sheets to provide a safe landing. It was chaos, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the fire department, there may have been a fatality.
By the Lord’s good grace, all students, faculty, and staff were accounted for. Several students suffered injuries, but only one required hospitalization. The less severe injuries were treated at the Afton Hotel where boys received nourishment and the means to send postcards to their families in order to let them know they were safe.
The early morning air was filled with the smell of charred rubble as citizens of Front Royal gathered around the smoldering ruins of Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA). The once-stately building that stood tall and proud on this hill was no more. The people did not dwell on this tragedy, however; they instead went to work on a proper response.
A meeting was held in town at 11 AM, less than eight hours after the fire was discovered. The first order of business was to decide where to put the displaced students of R-MA. A committee was created to help find housing for the boys, and the people of Front Royal did not hesitate to help. After they tallied the number of volunteers, the committee realized they received 100 more than needed to house the R-MA cadets.
The 1926-27 school year began with 176 boarders and 23 local students; only 35 remained after the fire with an additional six new students for the second semester. These numbers did not temper the enthusiasm to rebuild in Front Royal. The executive committee of R-MA wrote to the Randolph-Macon College (R-MC) board of trustees:
“But considering the property values remaining, the financial assistance offered at Front Royal, and the valuable work being done in bringing a fine body of young men under the Christian influences found at our Academies and Colleges, during their early years from many sections of the country beyond our own territory, we consider the determination to rebuild at Front Royal eminently wise.”
The cost of R-MA’s new building was estimated by Messrs. John P. Pettyjohn & Co. to be $254,000. Front Royal stepped up, yet again, as local businessmen signed a $25,000 bond to go towards the building’s reconstruction. The new building was completed by October of 1927 and ready for R-MA’s 36th school session.
It was a striking colonial style structure with an elegant dome that could be seen throughout the entire town. It was located in the same spot as the original building in order to retain the swimming pool, which is still there to this day. Enrollment after the fire rebounded steadily, with 140 students enrolling in the fall of 1929, but adversity struck yet again.
October 24, 1929, also known as “Black Tuesday,” sent the United States economy into one of the greatest depressions ever seen. The magnitude of this event was so far reaching that it enveloped the entire nation, R-MA included. By the end of the 1931-32 school year enrollment was down to 119 students.
Meetings ensued regarding the status of the two Randolph-Macon Academies, one at Bedford and the other in Front Royal. Committees were formed to visit each school and report back to the R-MC board of trustees on the status of the schools, both physically and financially. Their first action did not work out well. Heavy borrowing and loans were approved to keep both schools running. This came at the cost of the faculty’s salaries, much like the early years.
The board eventually decided the best way to move forward would be to merge the two academies. At 3pm on January 26, 1933, it was decided that the Academy at Bedford would close and merge with the Academy in Front Royal by September of 1933. Great changes were about to be made.
Colonel John Campbell Boggs of the Bedford Academy replaced the Front Royal Principal, Charles Melton, who became a teacher at The Academy. The military feature was at risk of being abolished as well. Many people believed the military component was, “out of harmony with the ideals of the church,” and the proposed removal went through. However, a survey conducted by principal-elect Boggs showed that many patrons preferred the military feature. The decision was reversed and the military component was reinstated.
Colonel Boggs’ leadership would be tested in his third year as principal when the American Viscose Corporation, later known as AVtex, approached Front Royal about building a rayon plant in in R-MA’s backyard. Naturally, there were those strongly against the plant’s construction and those strongly in favor of it. Those who were left in the middle simply waited for an outcome.
Those opposing construction feared the ramifications of the plant’s presence in their community: pollution, repulsive odors, smoke, and the 6,000 employees the plant was estimated to hire. Mr. Hatcher, a member of the R-MC board of trustees, made some inquiries on behalf of the Academy. He wrote Colonel Boggs expressing that American Viscose assured him that the concerns of the community are unwarranted. They expressed that, “In very humid weather there might be slight odor, but you have a body of woods between you and the plant…”
Construction of the AVtex plant began and was in production of rayon material by August of 1940. Alumni and staff alike who were at The Academy between the years 1940 and 1989 can speak of the stench produced by the plant that permeated the school for decades. After battling government regulations, the plant was forced to close in November of 1989.
Enrollment was low at the beginning of Colonel Boggs’ time as Principal, but that would change as the 1940’s approached. The 1933-34 school year opened with just 99 students, but by the next school year that number increased to 134. The Academy’s largest spike in enrollment came between the years 1935 and 1936 when numbers went from 155 students to 214. The Academy saw its highest enrollment yet during the 1940-41 school year of 227 students. The Yellow Jackets were back on track, but then another global conflict arose.
World War II consumed the world as the Allies began to fight Hitler and his Third Reich. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America joined the war and it had a significant effect on the Academy. Maintaining and recruiting a faculty and staff proved difficult due to the draft. They were challenging years, but the Academy faced it with grit, honor, and patriotism. In all, 850 R-MA alumni served in World War II and 32 of those brave souls made the “supreme sacrifice.”
Post World War II brought many bright spots for The Academy. Students were excelling in their studies and going on to great universities. A student-published newspaper known as The Sabre was winning awards right and left. The Sabre and R-MA’s yearbook The Randomac received #1 rankings by the Southern Interscholastic Press Association. The Sabre also placed first in a competition held by the Columbia University Scholastic Press Association.
During this time of great success, another change was on the horizon. On November 28, 1952, R-MA legally separated from R-MC and birthed its first ever board of trustees. A new era was about to begin for Randolph-Macon Academy.
The Early Years
The early years of Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA) were indeed difficult and characterized by struggle. The Academy debt was up and revenue was low due to many unfortunate circumstances. A typhoid fever struck the campus in 1913 and cost the school $12,000 to combat ($298,531.84 in today’s money), ministerial students and sons of ministers received significant discounts on their tuition, and a lack of retention among its students and faculty caused the debt to build over the years.
A significant issue was the frequent turnover of faculty and staff, considering the Academy could not pay its teachers their full salaries. Only 75% of faculty salaries were guaranteed, and after several consecutive years of this minimal payment, the teachers began to accept the fact that 75% was all they were ever going to receive. The amount of ministerial students along with the number of minister’s sons who attended the Academy made it impossible to pay the teachers their full 100% salary, due to the discounts these students were given.
This depleted salary cap caused most teachers to leave after only one year, which impacted the retention rate among students. However, the turnover of teachers was not the only factor that diminished the retention rate. The inadequate heater in the dormitory made certain rooms unlivable during the winter time. Comfortability in the dormitory was a frequent complaint among cadets and the utilities of the building received a large amount of scrutiny as well.
Despite the early struggles of the Academy, things became significantly better as the 1920’s approached. The Academy replaced their steam heater and were able to pay their teachers the full salary they deserved. This helped retention and enrollment a great deal.
The 1918-19 school year was the first academic session at which R-MA had a waiting list due to maximum capacity. In fact, enrollment was so great that part of the local hotel was rented out by the Academy in case of overflow. Furthermore, the Academy’s greatest milestone came to them just four years later, in 1922: R-MA finally paid off all its debt from the construction of its building in 1892.
Charles Melton, the Academy’s principal at the time, told the Board of Trustees, “I desire to call your attention at this time to the liquidation of the longstanding debt on the institution, the last $3,000 having been paid off in April 1922.” The original debt stood at $28,000, but grew to $40,000 over the years. The typhoid epidemic of 1913 added $12,000 to this debt giving the school an overall $52,000 to pay off (that translates to $1,293,637.96 today).
Principal Melton gave high praise to former R-MA Principal and Randolph-Macon College (R-MC) President/Chancellor Dr. William Waugh Smith for beginning the liquidation process in 1900. Dr. Smith’s “heroic efforts” decreased the $40,000 debt to $17,500, not including the typhoid expenses, by 1915. After 1915, R-MA’s Field Agent and member of its Executive Committee, Dr. Homer Henkel Sherman was pivotal in the final liquidation of the remaining debt. His efforts, along with support from the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Church, liberated R-MA from its indebtedness and brought on five happy and fruitful years.
As a result of this climb in success, R-MA reached its banner year in 1925. The Academy built a new indoor swimming pool along with a gym, which later became an academic building known as Rives Hall. There was also an approval for $4,500 to be used for improvements to the physical plant. Enrollment increased by 31 percent and things could not be better for the Academy. Then came January 10, 1927.
It was a cold and quiet morning in Front Royal. The sun had not yet risen over the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River when fire sirens consumed the air around 4:00 a.m. Randolph-Macon Academy was on fire! Men and women throughout the town raced toward the raging inferno and did whatever they could to help. Somehow, perhaps through the good Lord’s protection, there were no deaths during the incident, just a couple of injuries as boys jumped from the third story windows onto bed sheets being held by their fellow classmates and residents of Front Royal.
The cause of the fire is unknown to this day. It began in the cellar of the building and spread rapidly. The phone lines were down so several boys ran to the house of the school doctor, Dr. Hansborrow, to tell him of the fire and to call the fire department. The fire truck finally arrived, but the hill was too icy for it to reach the burning building. The only thing left to do was to catch final glimpses of the stately building as it burned to the ground.
An Academy is Born
Randolph-Macon Academy was founded in 1892 by Randolph-Macon College and the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Church. The school was erected in order to prepare young boys and men for the rigors of college academics under the auspices of the Methodist Church.
In the beginning, it was a simple hill one-half of a mile away from the Shenandoah River, sitting at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This hill witnessed the construction of a town called Front Royal, a Civil War battle, and the growth of a society that would develop a desire for a “male school of high grade.” This is the story of that hill.
The year was 1892. Ellis Island had just opened its doors to the immigrants of the world, the Pledge of Allegiance was about to be introduced to the public school system, Edison General Electric Co. and the Thomson-Houston Co merged together to form General Electric, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was just 10 years old. The Wright brothers had not flown yet and the Model-T would not see Henry Ford’s assembly line for another 16 years. On September 6th of this year, Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA) opened its doors for its first day of classes.
The cost of R-MA’s beautiful building was an estimated $75,000. The New York Times claimed the building to be “…among the most perfectly equipped in the United States.” An editorial from the New York World said, “There is no such institution in the great state of New York, and it is much needed.” There was great excitement surrounding the new academy, but it begs the question of who, what, when, where, and why was this academy established?
The Baltimore Conference of the United Methodist Church desired a college preparatory school for boys within its bounds and under the patronage of the Methodist Church. Professors of Randolph-Macon College (R-MC) in Ashland, Virginia, also under the patronage of the Methodist Church, were troubled by how ill-prepared their students were for college academics. As a result, R-MC wanted the same thing as the Baltimore Conference: To start a second college preparatory academy to help prepare young men for the rigors of college academics “under the auspices of the [Methodist] Church.” (There was already such a school set to open in Liberty, Virginia, in 1890).
The Commonwealth of Virginia had a population of one and one-half million Americans, with one-third of them claiming to be Methodist. The desires of both the Baltimore Conference and Randolph-Macon College coincided, and the state of Virginia was the perfect place to fulfill them.
A large majority of this fulfillment can be accredited to R-MC’s president, Dr. William Waugh Smith. Without action an idea remains nothing more than an idea, and Dr. Smith embodied what it meant to be proactive. On March 14, 1889, Dr. Smith began a correspondence with the Baltimore Conference:
“To the members of the Baltimore Conference: Dear Brethren: The Virginia Conference, at its last session, adopted a resolution and appointed a Committee to take measures to establish a great Methodist Academy, and to invite the cooperation of your conference in the enterprise. As Chairman of that Committee, I ask of your body to set apart a suitable time when the enterprise may be presented to the Conference.”
The Baltimore Conference was receptive to Dr. Smith’s letter, especially after the report they received from their own Board of Education. The board revealed an increase in R-MC’s attendance from 109 to 194, that one-third of the student body were ministerial students, and 19 of said ministerial students were from the Baltimore Conference. After further correspondence, the Baltimore Conference agreed to help erect a “Methodist Academy” within its bounds. The question, which still remained, was where?
The answer to that question was left to an appointed Board called the “Building Committee of the Baltimore Conference Academy.” This Board, comprised of Dr. Smith and five members of the R-MC Board of Trustees, was entrusted to “select a site, secure contributions and take measures to erect the Academy.” They received two proposals regarding which locations to use for the new academy. The first proposal came from Middletown, Virginia, and the second was from Front Royal, Virginia.
The Middletown proposal, signed by C.W. Peery, G.W. Larrick, and David Harris, offered, “15 acres, including a lawn before a grove of 8 acres in the center of said site locates with 1/3 mile of the railroad station; 160 lots estimated at $200 each; and cash donations of $4,000.”
A very generous offer to say the least. The Front Royal proposal was signed by H. H. Downing, President of the Front Royal and Riverton Improvement Co., and it read:
“If the conference selects this point for the Academy and expends on the same not less than $20,000 nor over $100,000 the Front Royal and Riverton Improvement Co. will give five acres of eligible ground to be selected by an equal Committee from the Conference and Improvement Co., and in addition will contribute in cash toward the erection of said building one fourth as much as is expended on it by said Conference. This offer is conditioned upon the acceptance of this proposition on or before the 15th of October 1890 and if accepted upon the farther condition that work be commenced within twelve months from this date and prosecuted to completion with reasonable diligence.”
Front Royal became the chosen location of the new Methodist Academy. Logistically, it was the perfect location for a college preparatory school, or any business for that matter. The intersection of the Shenandoah Railroad and the Richmond & Danville Railroad was located in Front Royal. They each connected with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads at the Shenandoah Junction giving travelers access to cities in every direction. Washington D.C., Baltimore, Harrisonburg, Roanoke, and Salem are just a few examples.
Front Royal did not just suit the Methodist Academy logistically, but also culturally. Both Front Royal and neighboring Riverton had:
“Long been known as the home of an eminently moral and religious population, possessed of much culture and refinement… Both these towns, under the local option law of the State of Virginia, have voted against the licensing of the sale of liquor, and therefore have not a single saloon or bar-room within their limits.”
It was the perfect marriage between the Baltimore Conference, Randolph-Macon College, and the town of Front Royal. In the fall of 1890, the idea of a Methodist Academy within the bounds of the Baltimore Conference under the patronage of Randolph-Macon College came into full fruition. However, there was still a lot of work to be done before opening day. The plot of land had to be chosen, suitable faculty/staff had to be selected, and the building had to be constructed and financed.
The construction of the building was executed with minimal conflict and was ready for classes by September of 1892 as agreed upon. The building was one of the finest of its time. It was equipped with 370 Edison incandescent light bulbs, hot and cold running water, and a steam heating system. The dorm rooms were “large, airy rooms” supplied with washstands, a bureau, two single bedsteads, pillows, and chairs. Each room had its own window as well, so students could access the natural light and fresh air if they wished to have it.
Finding teachers did not prove too difficult a task either. B.W. Bond was named principal of the new academy beginning April 1, 1892. His responsibilities included supervision of the school, reporting to the President and Chief of the Board, and creating quarterly financial reports to said President and Chief. Among the first faculty members to be hired were Bolivar C. Nettles, Charles L. Melton, Miss Gertrude Blackwell, and Hall Canter. Dr. M.L. Garrison was the school’s physician and Mrs. L. Green was its matron.
It cost a substantial amount of money to construct a building and pay its faculty/staff. Dr. Smith played a pivotal role in financing the endeavors of the academy in Front Royal. His incredible efforts raised $460,000 in cash, bonds, and land; Randolph-Macon Academy at Front Royal received $90,000 of the sum.
The first day of class was September 6, 1892, just two days before the Pledge of Allegiance was first recited in the American public school system. After the first week of class, only 42 students were enrolled in the academy, not exactly the number R-MC Board members and the Baltimore Conference had hoped for. This warranted a recruiting trip for Dr. Bond in order to increase enrollment at the brand-new academy. By the end of R-MA’s first semester, there were 59 students enrolled on top of the hill.