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.
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.
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.
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.