Chapter 60: Look Away, Dixieland

Let me set the stage for the next few entries….

My college was Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  At the time I attended school there it was an all-male college.

And for those of you with dirty minds, let me get this out of the way right now.  I never had sex with any of my fellow students- or professors- during the entire time I was an undergraduate.

I realize, only I could be a Gay man at an all male school and manage not to have sex.  I’m special that way.  I’ve always been really good at missing opportunities for sex.

And homosexuality was still “the love that dare not speak its name” back in those days.

I’ve since found out there were quite a few of us around-concurrent with, before and after me– and most were more adventurous than I.  I’ve also discovered it seems about 90% of the Gay Alumni seem to have been members of my old fraternity- at various times.  We’ve compared notes….

In any event….

How did I end up at Washington and Lee University?  I’ve asked myself that a hundred times and tried to remember…

I do recall my Father telling me I had to go to College in Virginia.  He was adamant that I had to be close enough he could still reach out and control me as needed.  There went my dreams of Boston University….

Best I can recall, it was due to the intervention of Mrs. Cheney Walker Lea.

Let me further set the stage…

Not only was Washington and Lee an all-male college, it was surrounded by several all female colleges.  These included, Sweet Briar College, Hollins College, Mary Baldwin College and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

This made up for a very pleasant social network.  As I recall, it was possible to go to a big party at at least one of these schools just about any night of the week as long as you had a car or a friend with a car and knew how to schedule appropriately.

As for the male or co-ed schools, we counted U.Va Men as peers and acceptable social equals.  We only felt sorry for the VeeMees at the Virginia Military Institute, that bordered W&L, because they had to wear those strange uniforms and were, in our opinion, treated more or less like caged animals.  Hampden-Sydney College was strictly for boys not smart enough to get into W&L, so we didn’t consider them a serious rival….The other schools simply did not count- or really exist- in our world.

Mrs. Cheney Walker Lea had gone to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and graduated in, I believe, the late 1930’s.  She was from an old, wealthy Georgia family and had moved to Danville after her marriage.  Cheney was a paragon of the Old South. I remember she had a maid that came with her from Georgia to Virginia, when she married, and I’ve often wondered if anyone had ever told her maid she was free….

Mrs. Lea taught Latin at my High School and was the Yearbook advisor.  The Yearbook was my power base and reason for living in high school.

I’ll never forget her sending me to talk to the African-American Assistant Principle to ask for a list of “nice” Black people who should be featured in the yearbook.  Cheney said she knew all the best families in Danville, but really didn’t know any Black people, so she wanted professional assistance from a peer.  She didn’t trust our judgement as we might not have the appropriate, multi-generational view….

Since the key yearbook editors- particularly the ones who chose people for and scheduled photography- got to have and give out unlimited passes to miss class for “Yearbook Business,”  Cheney had undue influence on many areas of my life.  I don’t think I went to some classes more than 3 or 4 times my Senior Year.  I had to do whatever it took to stay in her good graces and keep those passes….

And her wrath could be fearful.  She would bounce up and down in her chair and pound her fists on her desk like a petulant child and we would all jump.  She would threaten social and academic retribution with the wrath of a Southern Goddess wronged.  She was as intimidating as a 5 foot tall, 200 lb. Sixty year-old woman could be…..

You have to be Southern, and of a certain age, to understand the special fear these elderly Southern Dowagers could inflict.  It did not cross our minds to cross her….

Cheney also took me on as a special project to mold me into a modern Southern Gentleman.  In her book, I already had one strike against me for taking French instead of Latin, but she was willing to over look that.  She also thought the fact that my family chose to live in North Danville showed very poor judgement on their part, but she would over look that as well.  My family was acceptable and I was smart, well-mannered, socially ambitious and desperate to get out of Danville and into another world.  Those were the key attributes she was looking for in those she chose to mentor.

Cheney Walker Lea decided I must go to Washington and Lee University.  Therefore, there was no other discussion needed.  I think she also told my parents that…….

Mrs. Lea pointed out the great Southern traditions there, the excellent academics, the chance to “meet all the right people in the South” and to, hopefully, marry money.

She had me at “out of Danville” and I was naive and pretentious enough back then to swallow the whole package hook, line and sinker.

My grades and SAT’s meant I would have no trouble getting in….Cheney volunteered to write my recommendation.  But she didn’t do it right away.  She waited…. and waited…and waited.  Holding out as long as possible to keep one last control over me in place.  She had me convinced she would be the one to get me in or keep me out.

I’ll never forget when she finally called me at home to tell me she had written it.  She had been “taken ill” and was in the hospital.  Southern women of her generation and the generation following hers (my Mother’s) checked into hospitals like checking into the Hilton.  She basically said:  “I just want you to know I wrote your stellar letter of recommendation to Washington and Lee University tonight.  My husband has mailed it.  You know, I go under the knife in the morning and only the good Lord knows if I’ll make it.  But your letter is in and I’m sure, once they read it, they will have no doubt that you belong there.  I consider this one of my most important acts and you must promise me you will go to Washington and Lee no matter what happens to me.  It will make you into who you should be….”

How little she knew…..

How little I knew….

More to come…..

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2 Responses to Chapter 60: Look Away, Dixieland

  1. Renee says:

    I remember Mrs Lea. She was a person that had a definite Influence on my life. I was very naive back then ,but the things she said to me cannot be shared here. She did try to shame me into going away to college right out of high school which was not a possibility for me at the time. Your post brought back many memories.

  2. Scott M says:

    She obviously was a big influence on me, but I have very mixed feelings about her. I saw her in the nursing home before she died. She was mentally fine, but physically failing. We had a conversation about Dennis and his death that did not go well. I can’t get that out of my mind any time I think of her. I like to think she meant well, but was a product of her times and place….

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