Expressions of Remembrance: April 16th 10th anniversary exhibits

As part of Virginia Tech’s annual observance of its Day of Remembrance, condolence items and artifacts received by the university in the days that followed April 16, 2007, will be displayed at several locations across campus. The displays are among several “Expressions of Remembrance” that will be located in Newman Library, Squires Student Center, Moss Arts Center, and Holtzman Alumni Center; they are free and open to the public.

Each year, in observance of the Day of Remembrance, University Libraries at Virginia Tech displays materials from the April 16 Condolence Archives and invites the community to reflect and remember.

Below is a list and photos of exhibits all around campus. For more on each, please see the press release and the We Remember website.

Sending You All Our Love

The exhibit will include materials received from other colleges and universities, as well as some of the large white boards and signs created on the Drillfield the week of April 16, 2007. Additional items include flags, t-shirts, and condolence books, and a quilt from the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance at State University of New York College at New Paltz. The exhibit title came from one of the quilt squares, each of which was made by a SUNY student.

This display can be seen April 8-16 in the Old Dominion Ball Room in Squires Student Center.

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Remembering Those Lost

Artifacts include flags flown over the Statue of Liberty and at Tikrit Air Academy in Iraq by soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom; Farham Aboussali’s painting Ceremonial Eternity; Carol Davis’ 32 hand-decorated eggs; Marilyn Rogge’s painting of a child releasing a red balloon; a KoKeshi Doll from the U.S. Navy Fleet Activities, Yokosuka, Japan; and some of the paper cranes received.

This display will be held April 8-16 at Newman Library Special Collections (first floor). Part of the exhibit is in the windows of Special Collections onto the cafe, open during library hours. A second portion of the exhibit is inside Special Collections, open Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm.

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A Community of Learners, a Legacy of Achievement

A selection of books will be displayed to honor of the students and faculty lost on April 16, 2007.

This display will be held April 8-16 at Newman Library Learning Commons.

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Communities of Caring

A digital exhibit featuring community expressions of support from the April 16 Condolence Archives.

This display is available online at http://digitalsc.lib.vt.edu/exhibits/show/april16/introduction.

Communities of Caring April 16th 2017 digital exhibit
Communities of Caring April 16th 2017 digital exhibit

April 16 Condolence Archive display

Items include cards and letters written to police and first responders; a display of the badges of police units who came to help Virginia Tech; Cheryl Thompson’s painting, Remember the 32; condolence books; quilted squares from Union Village United Methodist Church; black marble laserworks by David Cunningham, and April 17th Hokies United by Miss Price’s second grade class from Riverlawn Elementary, Fairlawn, Virginia.

This display will be held April 12-May 3 at the Holtzman Alumni Center.

Passages

A quiet, contemplative space for remembrance and reflection, this display will include prayer flags from the Virginia Tech Graduate Arts Council, Hillel, Living Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the New River Valley and photographs from the community.

This display will be held April 12-16 at the Miles C. Horton Jr. Gallery and Sherwood P. Quillen ’71 Reception Gallery in Moss Arts Center.

The Crush

A Young Blacksburg Woman Falls Victim to Infatuation

We may be just a little late for Valentine’s Day, but of course the subject of love is never passé. And that brief, trite introduction leads us to the 1919 diary of a young Blacksburg woman named Olivia Tutwiler. Pouring her heart into a small composition book, this young schoolteacher gave vent to the frustration and consternation caused  by a crush that she had on a cadet at nearby Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute—now Virginia Tech. Along the way, Tutwiler provides us with some insights into what life was like for a young woman in a small, sleepy college town a century ago.

The diary spans the first two months of 1919 and was written by Tutwiler while she was away from work—her school in nearby Riner, Virginia, apparently having been closed during an influenza outbreak. Purchased at a local estate sale 95 years later, the diary was donated to Special Collections last year. Whether Tutwiler maintained a journal only during this short period or was a lifelong diarist, we don’t know.

Tutwiler’s diary is somewhat unusual in that the entries are written as though addressed to the object of her affection.  The entry for January 1 sets the tone for much that follows: “So dear boy I saw you again to-day and spoke to you too. … Oh boy if you only knew how much I love you.” On the following day, Tutwiler provides a description of the young man: “I couldn’t help thinking of you. I like your black hair its [sic] so nice and crisp with just a little bit of curl and blue eyes. What makes you have dimples and be so altogether good looking and adorable,” she writes.

For the next several weeks, Tutwiler chronicles her failed attempts at winning the affection of this young man. Each time romance seems about to blossom, however, her desires are waylaid by a a miscalculation, the cadet’s reticence, or Tutwiler’s own pride and code of conduct. On January 5, she summarizes the challenge of her lovelorn melodrama:

You’re really the most extraordinary boy I’ve ever seen. No one seems to be able to get anything out of you one way or the other. I used to think you cared a lot for me but I’ve evidently been mistaken from all I hear and see. Its [sic] a funny thing how boys will be in love with one girl and still try to make all the others think he’s wildly in love with them by acting if not speaking. They all seem to do it and I suppose youre [sic] no exception to the rule.

Frustrated by the young man’s seeming hesitancy and insincerity, Tutwiler on January 14 reports taking the as much initiative as she dared within the strictures of polite society of the day:

I had to see you so I called you up to come down tomorrow night so I could see about the bastket-ball game + candy pull…. And you’ll never know that it was mostly to see you. How your voice changed when you knew it was me over the phone. Like you were so glad. Were you? I do hope you will take me to one of the games. And I went in the drug store just to see you too. Foolish and crazy but you don’t know so what difference does it make?

Just who was this reportedly handsome fellow, who won the heart of at least one steadfast  admirer? Unfortunately, his identity will have to remain a mystery. Throughout her diary, Tutwiler refers to her beloved only as “dear boy.” She slips on one occasion (January 18) and uses his given name, Charles. A little digging found that there were no cadets named Charles in the VAMC class of 1919. There were two in the class of 1920, but neither had black hair. The class of 1921, however, had no fewer than five students named Charles—plus a Charlie—all with dark hair. Of these, only Charles Thornton Huckstep had hair with “just a little bit of curl.” Though his hair doesn’t appear jet black in his photo, he  seems the most likely candidate.

Charles Huckstep, class of 1921. Could he have been the "dear boy" to whom Tutwiler was writing?
Charles Huckstep, VAMC class of 1921. Could he have been the “dear boy” to whom Tutwiler was writing?

Given the lengthy discourses about her crush, we might be excused for imagining Olivia Tutwiler pining away alone in her room and for expecting her diary to hold nothing of interest. In fact, however, Tutwiler lived a very active social life, and her diary would be of interest to local historians as a record of a young woman’s activities in Blacksburg early in the 20th century. Tutwiler frequently attended VAMC basketball games, parties (including her own Valentine’s Day party), and movies. She also picked up some temporary work at the Extension Service and was active in her church.

Also of interest to local historians would be Tutwiler’s mentions of the flu epidemic, soldiers returning from service in World War I, and road and weather conditions. Researchers might also benefit from her passing comments about acquaintances, such as this catty remark on January 7: “Miss Logan has her spring hat already [sic]. Doesn’t it seem foolish to be wearing one with snow and ice on the ground?” She also briefly shares her opinion of a number of cadets.

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Even as Tutwiler set her heart on an unobtainable suitor, so too did she inspire unreciprocated feelings among several other young men. January 5: “I like Bush a lot and I believe if I’d fall in love with him.” January 17: “Its [sic] funny that you and Fred should both like the same picture isn’t it. He insisted that I give him one this afternoon but I didn’t.” January 23: “[Johnnie] asked me if I wanted to wear his V.P.I. class ring.” January 25: “Oglesby insisted on one of my pictures but nothing doing.” February 9: “I didn’t know [Pat]’d ever try to kiss me but he did twice and I had to tell him a few things.” February 17: “Had a letter from Hampton to-day and he said … how much he loved me…”

When Tutwiler finally returns to her school on February 2, we learn something of her experiences as a young teacher in a rural community, as she navigates between parents and school officials. At her boarding house, she endures local gossip and less-than-desirable living conditions, while at work, she contends with a crowd of indifferent and unruly students, as in this entry from March 4: “Gee but I’ve had a time to-day. I just got so mad at dinner when two of my kids set the field on fire. The seventh grade just doesn’t seem to know a thing…. I kept Frank and Fred in until 4:30 to day [sic] and made them learn poetry. They certainly are bad. I had to slap both of them to-day.”

Never far from Tutwiler’s thoughts, however, is the elusive cadet.

By January 27, Tutwiler is already questioning her feelings: “Do I love you or do I not?” Her entry of February 6 reflects deeper thoughts, as she questions her motivations: “I want you oh so much dear dear heart or is it only what you stand for now.” Her February 25 entry finds the young teacher looking into the future, wondering what it will bring: “I would like to know how all this is to turn out and whether you’ll ever love me or I’ll ever love Bush. We may all drift apart and perhaps I’ll fall in love with some one else.” By this time, just a few weeks after commencing her diary, Tutwiler seems ready to admit a temporary defeat and look for love elsewhere.

Mentioned only a few times in passing within Tutwiler’s diary is the name “Bunker.” Henry Harris “Bunker” Hill, a native of Scottsville, Virginia, obtained both his bachelor’s (1907) and master’s degrees (1909) in chemistry at VAMC. By the time Olivia Tutwiler was pouring her deepest feelings into a composition book, Hill had already been employed as a professor with the university for a dozen years.

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Henry Harris “Bunker” Hill, VAMC class of 1907.

In 1922, Olivia Tutwiler married Hill, and the couple would have two children. She continued to teach, eventually opening a school of her own in the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. She retired from education in 1969, following a 50-year career. Of teaching, her obituary quotes her as saying “I certainly have had a good time teaching and I surely do hate to quit. I have been most fortunate, not only to have a job I like to do but to be paid for it.” Though things didn’t take the direction she wanted in 1919, Olivia Tutwiler seems to have had a happy life. One has to wonder, though, whether she sometimes took out her diary after a long day and pondered over her youthful infatuation.

You can read Olivia Tutwiler Hill’s diary in its entirety here. We’ll soon add a complete transcript of the text. The diary’s finding aid contains more biographical information on Tutwiler. We also hold the papers of “Bunker” Hill, the finding aid for which may be found here.

Presidential Inaugurations and Virginia Tech

Well, tomorrow is the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, so I decided to scour our collections for items pertaining to presidents. At Special Collections you can find all sorts of material related to presidents – presidents of the U.S., presidents of organizations and businesses, and, of course, presidents of Virginia Tech. If you search our blog and our finding aids, you’ll find all sorts of posts and collections referencing all these presidential types. But I’d like to highlight items related to the presidential inaugurations of the U.S. and VT presidents that we maintain.

United States Presidential Inaugurations

The Highty-Tighties, Virginia Tech’s very own Corps of Cadets band, has performed for numerous U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt at an exposition in 1902 and in the pre-inauguration celebrations for Barack Obama’s first term in 2009. They have also gain national recognition through their performances at twelve inaugural parades, starting with Woodrow Wilson’s second inauguration in 1917 and ending with George W. Bush’s second in 2005. The band was also invited to play at William Howard Taft’s inauguration in 1909, which they were unable to attend, according to letters in Pres. Paul B. Barringer’s records, RG 2/6. During the mid-20th century, these parades doubled as band competitions, and the Highty Tighties won first prize three years consecutively in 1953, 1957, and 1961, the last year of the inaugural parade competition. Special Collections has photographs and other items related to the Highty Tighties at a few of the parades in the Historical Photograph Collection.

Special Collections also holds invitations to several U.S. presidential inaugurations in our manuscript collections. We also have materials related to the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration and a tintype from Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign. Below are inaugural invitations and programs for Zachary Taylor in 1849 from the Robert Taylor Preston Papers, Ms1992-003; Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 in the John Henry Johnson Scrapbook, Ms2009-053; and Richard M. Nixon in 1969 in the Earl D. Gregory Collection, Ms1972-004.

Here are items from the press packet for the inauguration of Harry S Truman in 1949 in the Evert B. Clark Papers, Ms1989-022:

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Virginia Tech Presidential Installations

Being the repository for the University Archives, Special Collections, of course, maintains items related to the inaugurations or installations of the university presidents. For example, we have a video of James D. McComas’ inauguration in 1988 as 13th president of Virginia Tech. Several of the records of the presidents have files related to their inauguration ceremonies, including Walter Newman in RG 2/10, Boxes 2-3; T. Marshall Hahn in RG 2/11, Box 97; and William E. Lavery in RG 2/12, Boxes 1-2. Additionally, items related to the installation ceremonies are located in the Record Group Vertical Files and the University Libraries library catalog.

From the First Lady’s Table: Dining with Cora Bolton McBryde

 

Cora Bolton McBryde
Cora Bolton McBryde, image courtesy of Janet Watson Barnhill

Not much is known about the early first ladies of Virginia Tech, but we can learn more about Cora Bolton McBryde through recent gifts to Special Collections from Janet Watson Barnhill. These gifts include Cora’s silver Tiffany stirring spoon, which, Mrs. Barnhill notes, is “engraved and worn from stirring puddings;” a tin Kreamer Turk’s head or turban pan (similar to a bundt pan) that was used by Cora Bolton McBryde; and the McBrydes’ gold-embossed fiftieth anniversary (1913) cookie plate. These items complement an earlier gift of Cora Bolton McBryde’s cookbook, the subject of a previous blog. The fragile cookbook has returned from Etherington Conservation Services for restoration and now may be viewed in Special Collections.

front view of Cora Bolton McBryde's Stirring Spoonn
Cora Bolton McBryde’s Tiffany stirring spoon, front, image courtesy of Janet Watson Barnhill
image of back of Cora Bolton McBryde's stirring spoon back view
Cora Bolton McBryde’s Tiffany stirring spoon, back, image courtesy of Janet Watson Barnhill
close-up of spoon handle with monogram and decoratin
McBryde monogram on Tiffany stirring spoon, image courtesy of Janet Watson Barnhill
cookie plate with handles and decorated with gold grapes and grape leaves
McBrydes’ 50th anniversary cookie plate (1913), image courtesy of Janet Watson Barnhill
Kreamer tin turban or Turk's head pan, image courtesy of Janet Watson Barnhill
Kreamer tin turban or Turk’s head pan, image courtesy of Janet Watson Barnhill

Born August 4, 1839, Cora Bolton was the first of ten children of Dr. James Bolton and Anna Maria (Harrison). Dr. James Bolton began his practice of medicine and surgery in Richmond, Virginia, but temporarily abandoned it to attend the Episcopal Theological Seminary near Alexandria where he was ordained. He took charge of a church in Richmond, but a year later he resumed his practice of medicine. In 1855 he opened Bellevue, a private hospital in Richmond, and maintained it until 1866. During the Civil War, it was used primarily for medical purposes.

Janet Watson Barnhill wrote in an email of September 24, 2013, that Dr. James Bolton “was one of the doctors for R. E. Lee and worked tirelessly in Richmond during the Civil War. I gather the family took care of many injured patients at home, so I believe she [Cora Bolton] was well suited for the job of being the First Lady of VPI. I think women are much overlooked in history!”

Sepi toned image of McBryde and BOlton family members on front steps of the President's House. Image courtesy of Larry McBryde.
McBryde family on the steps of the President’s Home, Christmas, 1891. Back row, from left, Maria Lawson “Diah” Bolton, Anna Maria McBryde (Davidson), Channing Moore Bolton (1843-1922), Elizabeth Hazelhurst Bolton, Meade Bolton McBryde, Cora Bolton McBryde (1839-1920), President John McLaren McBryde (1841-1923), Dr. Robert James Davidson (1862-1915). Front row, left to right, Susan McLaren McBryde, James Bolton McBryde, Belle Campbell Bolton, Charles Neil “Saint” McBryde. Image courtesy of Larry McBryde.

Cora Bolton married John McLaren McBryde on November 18, 1863. They had eight children. When McBryde became president of Virginia Tech, then Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (V.A.M.C.), in 1891, the family moved into the original President’s Home, which was built in 1876 and is now part of Henderson Hall.

Image of family at dining table in a room with two sideboards and a china cabnet
President’s Home dining room, January 1892. President McBryde at the head of the table and Cora Bolton McBryde is facing him. To her right are Meade Bolton McBryde, and Charles Neil McBryde. To President McBryde’s right are Channing Moore Bolton, Channing’s daughter Belle Campbell Bolton, Susan McLaren McBryde, ?, Channing’s other daughter, Hazel Bolton. Image courtesy of Larry McBryde.

The college lacked adequate facilities for an infirmary for the student body. An outbreak of contagious diseases during the 1898-1899 session forced the college to allow many of the sick to remain in their rooms because there was no space for them in the infirmary. McBryde urged the Board of Visitors to approve funding for a “well planned and thoroughly equipped infirmary.” He also suggested in the president’s report of June 20, 1899 that a “new house for the president could be built for a few thousand dollars and his present house, with a few changes, would make an adequate infirmary.”

Family outside with trees and campus/town in distance.
President and Clara Bolton McBryde and family on the grounds of the President’s Home in the Grove, Top row, from left, Anna Cora Davidson, Maria Lawson Bolton, Maria Bolton Davidson; middle row, Felix Webster McBryde, President McBryde, Carolyn Webster McBryde, Cora Bolton McBryde. Dr. John McLaren McBryde, Jr., John McLaren (Jack) McBryde. Bottom row, Flora Webster McBryde, James Bolton McBryde, Susan McBryde Guignard, Mary Comfort. Image courtesy of Larry McBryde.

The new president’s home was built on a hill overlooking a marshy area, which would be converted into the Duck Pond in 1934, and Solitude, the homeplace of Virginia Tech. The tree-covered hill was known as “the grove.” The McBrydes moved into the newly built Presidents House (Building 274) in April 1902.

To learn more about the history of The Grove, the food that was eaten there, and the people who lived and worked there, see The Grove: Recipes and History of Virginia Tech’s Presidential Residence by Clara Cox. The book includes recipes from seven First Ladies of Virginia Tech: Eleanor Hutcheson (1945-47), Liz Otey Newman (1947-62), Peggy Hahn (1962-74), Peggy Lavery (1975-87), Adele McComas White (1988-94), Dot Torgersen (1994-2000), and Janet Steger (2000-14).

Baby on president's lap with Mrs. McBryde touching his hand.
John W. Watson, Jr. with President and Clara Bolton McBryde. Image courtesy of Janet Watson Barnhill.

Janet Watson Barnhill’s grandfather, Dr. John Wilbur (Quiz) Watson (1888-1962), was professor of Inorganic Chemistry (1913-56) and head of the Chemistry Department at Virginia Tech (1936-1942 and 1956-59). A student at Virginia Tech from 1905-1907, he transferred to the University of Virginia where he earned his doctorate. He returned to Virginia Tech in 1913, and in 1916, he married Anna Cora Davidson (1893-1928), whose father, Robert James Davidson, was professor of Analytic Chemistry and Agricultural Chemistry and was first Dean of the Scientific Department (1904-1913) and then Dean of Applied Science (1913-16). Davidson Hall is named in his honor. Born in Armagh, Ireland, Davidson, like President McBryde, was at South Carolina College before coming to V.A.M.C. He married Anna Maria McBryde, daughter of President and Cora Bolton McBryde, on May 2, 1892. Janet Watson Barnhill’s father, John Wilbur Watson, Jr., was born in 1917 and graduated from Virginia Tech.

As Janet Watson Barnhill wrote in an email, “I wish there were more information about women in our historical accounts! We can be certain they didn’t sit idly by while drama whirled around them!”

Capturing Virginia Tech’s past through VT Stories

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Although we have a lot of important records and collections in the university archives that document Virginia Tech’s past, there are still countless stories, traditions and experiences that have never been recorded. But these personal stories are just as important to understanding our history as any document from the President’s office or the Office of Student Affairs. And that’s where the VT Stories project comes in.

Since 2015, a team of current students and faculty have been recording oral history interviews with Virginia Tech alumni, capturing the stories and experiences of VT students from the 1940s all the way up through the past decade. The goal behind this project is to promote engagement between older Hokies and newer Hokies, with current students interviewing alumni to learn their history and make mentoring connections, in addition to sharing and preserving stories from Virginia Tech’s past that may otherwise be lost.

With the public launch of VTstories.org this month, I thought I’d share a little bit about the project and Special Collections’ role. The project was started in 2015 by the President’s Office and is managed by faculty and staff in History, English, TLOS, the Alumni Association, and us here in Special Collections. After the interviews are recorded by the VT Stories team, fully transcribed by a professional transcription service, reviewed by the interviewees, and permissions are granted to share the stories with the public, the master files and documents are deposited in Special Collections. As the completed oral histories trickle in, the full audio and transcripts are uploaded to VT Special Collections Online, where they are available for listening in their entirety.

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Lisa Ellison, Class of 1986, listen to her story here

A lot of the technical skills and workflows that we developed for the VT LGBTQ Oral History Project  are being used for the VT Stories project, including the use of the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer  developed by the University of Kentucky. A good thing too; with over 60 interviews already recorded, and many more planned, it helps having a blueprint for managing an oral history project this big already in place.

Just a handful of the interviews are available online so far, with many more to come in the next few months. In addition to the full audio and transcripts available on our site, VTstories.org features sound clips, photos and write-ups on the interviewees, plus more information about the project and its participants. Check it out!

Native Voices: or, The History of Whitepeople

On September 16, 2016, Newman Library began hosting the Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness exhibit. The exhibit was developed and produced by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and came here as part of a tour put together by the American Library Association’s Public Programs Office. It will remain on display in the library’s 2nd floor commons until October 25 when it will leave us to continue its tour.

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The Native Voices exhibit on display in Newman Library

This post isn’t really about the exhibit. If you want to know more about it, The National Library of Medicine has a website with tons of info. The reason I mention the exhibit is that it prompted me to look through our collections for items that would complement the exhibit and be appropriate to highlight during Native American Heritage Month (October 10 – November 15). I managed to find some interesting items in our collection of Michael Two Horses’s papers (Ms2006-001). They aren’t spot on with the focus of the exhibit but I think they are worth sharing – especially considering that Banned Books Week happened recently.

Michael Two Horses was a visiting professor at Virginia Tech from fall 2003 until his unexpected death in December 2003. He was affiliated with the Sicangu Lakota and the Wahpekute Dakota. During his time at Virginia Tech he taught as part of the American Indian Studies program, the Humanities Program, and served on the Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity. We acquired two boxes worth of his papers following his death including academic and personal writings, research for the classes he taught, the transcript of an oral history he gave, various writing samples, and some artwork.

When I was reviewing the materials in this collection looking for something to share, I came across a letter he wrote in response to an email while he was a professor at the University of Arizona. The initial email took umbrage at some of the texts Professor Two Horses was using in one of his classes. His response was eloquent and well presented. After reading it, I checked and we have copies of all three texts included in the collection! I want to share the letter and show you the texts that prompted the complaints.

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This is the complaint that was submitted to the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona. There is a handwritten note from “Shelly” to see her about the email.

Professor Two Horses’s response was a little over two pages in length. As Professor Two Horses indicated in his response, the texts were used to illustrate how elementary texts incorporate stereotypes about Native Americans. These texts illustrate to students how those texts appear to Native American students.

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Page 1 of Michael Two Horses’s response.
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Page 2 of Michael Two Horses’s response.
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Page 3 of Michael Two Horses’s response.

 

 

WARNING: Reading the first two texts can provide a bit of a jolt for Caucasian Americans because (a) they aren’t used to being identified with any sort of modifier (they’re normally just “Americans”), and (b) they aren’t used to reading about themselves in this type of tone. When reading, be sure to think about children’s books about Native Americans – these are spot on parodies of them.

First up: The Basic Skills Caucasian American Workbook

Book 2: 10 Little Whitepeople: A Counting Rhyme

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Here’s the cover of the second book: “10 Little Whitepeople”. It is also embellished with dollar signs as illustration.

Book 3: The Truth About Columbus: A Subversively True Poster Book for a Dubiously Celebratory Occasion

Professor Two Horses’s comments about the third book just speak to the research that has been done into the history of Christopher Columbus and the fact that most American schools taught a limited scope on the subject.

I hope glimpsing these challenged titles was enjoyable for you and made you think a little about the Native American perspective. If you want to see everything they have to offer, we have all three among many other interesting papers from Michael Two Horses in the Michael Two Horses Collection (Ms2006-001). We would be happy to share them with you in our Reading Room.

William “Uncle Bill” Gitt, Virginia Tech’s Original Campus Character

A century ago, the most recognizable face on Virginia Tech’s campus probably wasn’t that of the college president (Joseph Eggleston) or the football coach (Charles Bernier) but instead belonged to a beloved figure now all but forgotten in campus lore, William Grove “Uncle Bill” Gitt, Virginia Tech’s original campus character.

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William “Uncle Bill” Gitt.

Born to William and Amanda Gitt in Montgomery County, Virginia, in 1860, Gitt soon afterward moved with his parents to Newport, in neighboring Giles County. There, the Gitts operated the Gitt House, an inn that became a popular stop for cadets, especially during outings to nearby Mountain Lake.

According to biographical information appearing in the 1918 Bugle and Col. Harry Temple’s The Bugle’s Echo, Gitt enrolled in what was then Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1877. Having failed every subject during his freshman year at VAMC, Gitt began searching for employment. He somehow alit in New Haven, Connecticut, where he clerked in a 99-cent store for about a year before joining the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth as a circus clown. After a single season, Gitt left the circus and worked successively as a brakeman, fireman, and conductor on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, but he returned to performing for Barnum & Bailey three years later. He remained with the circus for several seasons, including a European tour, but an injury in 1891 forced his retirement from performing. After retiring from the circus, Gitt worked at several jobs in Chicago, where he is said to have saved the lives of two children. He was later employed as a railroad brakeman for four years, then as a bartender in Huntington, West Virginia, for another four years.

In 1907, Gitt returned to Blacksburg, where he operated a street corner stand, selling fruit, candy, and knickknacks. He soon became a favorite local figure of Virginia Tech’s cadets, who probably enjoyed the many stories he undoubtedly shared of his life and travels. Fond of composing bits of doggerel for every occasion, Gitt always ending his poems with “Uncle Bill—That’s all,” and it was by this stock phrase that the cadets invariably referred to him.

In a move that was mutually beneficial, the university allowed the perpetually down-on-his-luck Gitt to move into Room 102 of Virginia Tech’s Barracks No. 1 (now known as Lane Hall) in 1911. In exchange for his room and a salary of $7.50 per month, Gitt performed various tasks for the cadets, as summarized in The Bugle’s Echo:

He handled incoming and outgoing express packages. The cadets left their bags of soiled laundry in front of his room, and he looked after them. He mailed letters, sold stamps, and ran errands such as buying cigarettes. He sold smoking equipment such as pipes and matches, and sold apples and notions, tickets for athletic events, Lyceum shows, and the Pressing Club. He operated a telephone service…, relayed messages, and went to cadets’ rooms to call them to the telephone. He collected items for charities and acted as a coordinator between the boys and community projects and actions. He cashed checks at the downtown bank for the cadets and operated a lost and found service. He maintained a bulletin board in the hall outside of his room on which items of current interest were posted, including intercollegiate athletic scores….

Finding his salary to be insufficient, Gitt subsisted on gratuities as well as commissions on the sales of event tickets and fees for other odd jobs. Fortunately for him, faculty members frequently invited him into their homes for dinner.

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An advertisement for one of the services offered by Gitt (from Ms1964-006).

Here in Special Collections, we’re fortunate to have a journal maintained by Bill Gitt (Ms1964-006). Covering a period of 10 weeks in the fall of 1912, the journal is titled “Dope Sheet and Daffy Dill.” Always given to rhyme, Gitt couldn’t help but refer to himself as “Old wobbly Uncle Bill / owned by the boys on College Hill / Rah / That’s all.”

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Cover of Bill Gitt’s 1912 journal (Ms1964-006).

In addition to describing his daily work and activities, Gitt’s journal chronicles his health problems and his dire financial condition. Throughout all, however, he tries to maintain a positive attitude, and the entries are full of slang and poetry. On November 28, 1912, he wrote: “I am thankful that I am as well situated as I am. I have a good warm room, electric light, and plenty to eat, and clothes and shows. And the boys are my friends. I would not get by on $7.50 a month, if it was not for the boys.”

Elsewhere, Gitt chronicles life among the cadets, mentioning fights, celebrations, and football games. He makes frequent mention of his roommate, Rusty the dog, who served as a college mascot, and of the cadets, invariably referring to them as “my boys” and with genuine affection.

By 1918, Gitt’s health had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer tend to his demanding duties at Virginia Tech. After Gitt underwent a surgical operation in Roanoke, an alumnus obtained for him a job in that city’s Traveler’s Hotel. Medical bills soon eroded his savings, however, and Gitt had to move into the Roanoke City Almshouse, the last refuge for the area’s indigent and aged in the days before government assistance.

Gitt2
Bill Gitt’s bad leg, probably a result of the injury he sustained as a circus performer, forced him into early retirement.

Bill Gitt remained a beloved figure to students and alumni. Following his move to Roanoke, the cadets pooled their money and purchased for him a phonograph and a collection of his favorite records. They were sent to Gitt in Roanoke, accompanied by a letter of appreciation signed by every cadet.  Each year, he received a complimentary subscription to The Virginia Tech (today’s Collegiate Times). Despite his difficulties, Gitt revisited campus on several occasions and attended the annual Thanksgiving Day game between VPI and VMI until he died.

One cadet’s feelings about Virginia Tech’s first campus character were recorded in a 1917 Roanoke World News article:

 Every one that knows Virginia Tech is sure to know Uncle William, for he is truly a part of the College. At any rate, the boys are very fond of the old man; and if any one would like to hear some real interesting experiences, just have a chat with Uncle Bill—That’s All.