Longwood's Bellwether

Published 2:38 pm Tuesday, November 19, 2013

FARMVILLE — Shortly after calling residential liberal arts education “one of the great revolutionary forces in all of history” and asking faculty, staff and students “who is ready to meet the challenge?” W. Taylor Reveley IV walked down Brock Commons to ring the Longwood University Bell.

Ringing the bell one time for every Longwood president has become an inaugural tradition.

But ring it with what?

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The 1,041-pound bell, kept at all other times on permanent display in the Greenwood Library, had no clapper.

Meet the challenge.

Push came to shove and nothing happened.

The clapper—removed so students cannot shatter the library’s calm—should have been installed for the ceremony and a rope attached for handy ringing.

In front of everybody gathered around him, Reveley had to think on his feet.

With no visible option or obvious means of ringing the bell, Reveley first punched it tentatively with a bare fist—his silent pain only slightly less audible than the hushed reaction of the bell—and then simply took off one of his boots and gave it a whack.

No clapper?

No problem.

Reveley put his best foot forward.

Challenge met.

Having just declared that Longwood is “at the cusp of such promise with unshakable purpose,” Reveley gave his rhetoric sole with unassailable determination.

The bell needed ringing. The bell got rung.

Reveley “walked” his inaugural talk with a boot.

And the students loved it.

In fact, they joined in, student after student using the president’s boot for a bell clapper as Reveley had done, until the 26th ringing, for Reveley, himself, sounded in the day’s gray tumbling twilight.

If every challenge is so creatively met together during his tenure as president, the Reveley administration will ring down through the annals of Longwood history as a bright morning sun lighting the way to the university’s future.

“The liberal arts of citizen leaders are for the challenges of free society,” he had told a standing room audience gathered behind the Lancaster Building on a cool autumn afternoon. “Perennially the same, perpetually new, as when two millennia ago Cicero in a republic forbearer to our own in an era of gathering clouds first exhorted the liberal arts.”

The grandson of a college president and son of a college president told students watching his inauguration “you know you ride a tide of history, with fulcrum years ahead, and already without the innocence of generations before, in a time with a weather-beaten sense more like fall than summer, though in a country still rich in a way no array of figures can measure.”

Noting the students are the same age as Longwood’s patron saint, Joan of Arc “at the height of her deeds,” Reveley rang a clarion call for the power of liberal arts in a post 9/11 world that sank into the Great Recession.

The world in which those students came of age.

“You know indeed that we live in hard times, with a future of vast possibility. With powerful desire, you want to be citizen leaders,” said the grandson of former Hampden-Sydney College president W. Taylor Reveley II and son of W. Taylor Reveley III, president of the College of William & Mary. “You want the guidance, the wisdom, of this ancient institution—ordained, maintained—as it’s been passed down from generation to generation, leavened with new knowledge, the liberal arts of citizen leaders.”

With sentences of assembled words that rang like a great bell of Earth, Reveley spoke softly but his meaning was loud and clear.

“You ask to learn history that will be a guide to the perennial inroads against liberty and to how America might find peace at home.”


“You ask to learn new languages and literature as a guide to our common humanity.”


“To learn the psychology that gives humanizing insight for equity and equality.”


“To learn the dynamic and rhythms of the art that gives peace and challenge to the soul.”


“The finance that unlocks our way from debt and accelerates enterprise.”


“The science that fuels our hope to explore the stars and to bring understanding, wonders, and solace throughout this world.”


“You ask to learn the methods of education itself that will lift the generations to come as citizens of this country and citizens of the world.”


And Longwood University, in a community Reveley described as a “Virginia crossroads, where—it is profound to note—the Civil War ended and Civil Rights began,” stands ready to meet that quest for answers and knowledge.

Former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles, who presided over the inauguration, declared the “powerful optimism” he feels because of Reveley’s presence as Longwood president.

Baliles and Reveley worked together at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and at the law firm of Hunton & Williams prior to that. The former governor spoke about Longwood’s new president from years of first-hand experience.

“He thinks in the broad sweeps of time, with the currents of history and trends of the future naturally at play in his considerations and in his decisions,” Baliles said. As befits a classicist and theologian, he also is mindful of philosophical principle and consequence, as well as the merits of fair treatment of each individual and circumstance. And as a Reveley—perhaps this passes in the blood—he has a delightful and powerful command of the language. Setting the course requires reducing ideas to actional words. Over and above words and ideas, as befits an old football player, Taylor also simply works like an animal and gets things done.”

W. Taylor Reveley III, who noted “it’s always fun to see one of the offspring go into the family business,” recalled his son asking him what it was like to be a college president.

“I said, ‘It’s a wonderful job if you believe in the school you’re leading. When you get up in the morning and peer in the mirror, you don’t have to wonder whether what you’re going to do that day matters,” he said. “It’ll matter, the only question is for good or ill. When you’re at the top of your game, you can in fact do serious good for an important institution, helping it seize its opportunities, surmount its difficulties, and rise to ever greater heights. You’re rarely bored, because the pot is always boiling. And you’ll certainly be given every opportunity to work like a dog. The job’s relentless.”

The father of Longwood’s 26th president then spoke of a college president who was feeling the intense pressure of the job and called a friend to ask advice.

The friend advised him to start running 10 miles a day.

“A month later the president called his friend back to say running 10 miles a day had worked wonders, no more stress. So his friend asked how the job was going, how the college was doing. The president replied, ‘Well, I don’t know. I’m 300 miles from the campus,” Reveley III said.
“Longwood,” he continued, “your 26th president might run 10 miles a day, but it’ll be around the campus.”

Whether he’s got running shoes on both feet or not.

Standing beside the clapper-less bell on Brock Commons, one boot on and just a sock on the other foot, Reveley was surrounded by cheering, smiling students after the bell-ringing.

The university bell had been discovered and restored in 1988 by the Longwood Archaeology Field School. It had been buried in the ground in the basement of Bristow Hall.

Cast in 1896 by the American Bell Foundry Company in Michigan, the bell was shipped to Farmville the following year.

One hundred and sixteen years later, its absent clapper would win a new Longwood president applause and provide a moment of bonding.

The visiting dignitaries, VIPs and community leaders were at the post-inaugural reception in the warm, well-lit confines of Blackwell Hall.

In the darkening chill on Brock Commons, Reveley would put the boot back on and go to dinner with the university’s students in the Dorrill Dining Hall.

That reception could wait.

The students had just received their bellwether.