Former University Rector Hovey Dabney Dies at 83

February 10, 2007

Feb. 10, 2007 -- Hovey Slayton Dabney, a former University of Virginia rector and prominent Charlottesville banker who escaped a burning B-17 in the skies over Hungary during World War II, died on Friday, Feb. 9, 2007.

Dabney served on the University's Board of Visitors from 1990 to 1998, and was rector of the University from 1992 until 1998. He helped lead a $1.4 billion capital campaign that fundamentally changed U.Va.'s financial structure. He also was the founder of the Health Services Foundation, which supports the work of the U.Va. Health System.

Under Dabney's leadership, the Board of Visitors wrestled with several major issues: the establishment and finance of the Blue Ridge Health Alliance, which established the QualChoice health insurance brand (later sold to Southern Health); the litigation of the landmark "Wide Awake" case, a church-and-state lawsuit against the University that went to the United States Supreme Court; and a successful effort to defeat a General Assembly bill that would mandate that the University increase its in-state enrollment to 75 percent. He also participated in the negotiations with billionaire John Kluge that led to Kluge's gift of several Albemarle estates to the University.

"As Rector, he began in the turbulent period that followed the collapse of the state's revenue projections and budgeting system in the firsthalf of the Wilder administration," said University President John T. Casteen III. "This was the period of intense planning and frugal budgeting that led to the success of the University's capital campaign in 1995-2000, and also to dramatic improvements in University programs and buildings.  He was an energetic and thoughtful rector whose tenure saw progress in the representation and prominence of women and minority leaders both on the Board of Visitors and in the University's administration."
Dabney was born in Charlottesville -- in his family's home on Second Street -- on Sept. 18, 1923, and with the exception of two years spent fighting World War II, never lived outside the city limits.
It was while flying over Budapest, Hungary, during World War II as a radio operator on a bomber crew that he had an experience that changed his outlook.
"I got shot down on my first mission in World War II and bailed out of a burning plane," he told Albemarle magazine. "Facing death, and the death of your friends, has an effect on your goals and ambitions. When you live in combat, you only live one day at a time; you don't know if you're going to be alive the next day. So you enjoy that day to the fullest, breathe the fresh air, look at the sun, watch the stars. You have faith in God. You feel humble. You don't feel that you're any big thing on this planet. That's stuck with me."

He escaped through German and Russian lines and, three months later, made it back to an American camp. He flew 24 more missions before the war ended and he returned home to attend the University of Virginia.
He earned an undergraduate degree in political science in 1948 and a law degree in 1949, and then began a lifelong banking career at the National Bank and Trust Company. (The parachute that saved his life hung in the bank lobby before lending its silk to his wife's wedding dress.)
He advanced rapidly up the bank's ladder, becoming executive vice president at age 31 and president at 40. By 1975, at age 51, he was named chairman. The bank evolved from five branches and assets of $10 million to 90 branches and $1.8 billion by 1993, renaming itself Jefferson National Bank along the way. Jefferson National eventually merged with Wachovia Bank in the late 1990s.
Throughout it all, Dabney never lost the common touch. He was known to be generous in his lending, and Jefferson National was the local bank of choice for low-income and minority applicants. "He always encouraged investment in the local economy," Casteen said. " Not every application gets approved in any well-run bank, and Jefferson was uncommonly well run, but he always watched out
for the interests of the localities where Jefferson's offices were located."
Dabney was also very active in the community, serving in countless professional, church, business and service organizations. In the 1960s, he advocated for school integration as a member of the Charlottesville School Board. In 1998, City Council appointed him to the Jefferson Area Board for Aging's executive board.
"He was devoted to his home town in ways that few are.  Whatever might have been the business or other competitions that came his way, he knew and respected the people around him.  His memory of local people, their families, their interests and ups and downs was encyclopedic," Casteen said. "He was an early champion of the Downtown Mall, and he invested both the bank's funds and his own personal means in that enterprise. Local schools and libraries, local hospitals, local people starting out in careers — and in his later years his vision of making Charlottesville the best place in the country for older people to settle  — these were the things he thought about in the years when I knew him."
Alvin R. Clements, former chairman of rival Central Fidelity Banks Inc., told the Charlottesville Daily Progress in 1992:  "I can't think of any major undertaking of a civic sense in Charlottesville that did not include Hovey Dabney."
That same year, the Charlottesville Observer named Dabney its "clear-cut choice" as the most influential person in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
In a 1993 profile in Albemarle magazine, Patricia Kluge — who at the time served with Dabney on the Board of Visitors — said: "Here is a man who is very successful, a first-rate banker, yet who genuinely cares for people. He does everything he can to make it happen for you, whoever you may be. A lot of times, at the top of the ladder, a person loses the human touch, the human side. But he has kept it by maintaining a solid middle-class value base...a combination of success and humanity."
Dabney was appointed to the Board of Visitors in 1990 by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a fellow Democrat. Though he contributed to both Democrat Mary Sue Terry and Republican George Allen in the ensuing gubernatorial race, it was clear his sympathies were with Terry, who lost by a wide margin. Nonetheless, Allen reappointed Dabney to the board when Dabney's first term expired in 1994, at least in part to maintain continuity in University leadership during the capital campaign.
"My friendship goes way back with him," Allen said at the time. "Well, heck, you can't get all the votes, and 58 percent is enough."
Dabney maintained a close relationship with Casteen. He joined the Board of Visitors during the search that led to Casteen's hiring, and helped redefine Casteen's responsibilities to increase the share of his time spent raising funds to 80 percent. He also appointed Casteen to Jefferson National's Board of Trustees and to the post-merger Wachovia board.
Despite his leadership of the campaign that helped shift the base of the University's financial support from the state toward private sources, Dabney defended Thomas Jefferson's vision of U.Va. as a public institution.  In a 1996 commentary published in the Charlottesville Daily Progress, he described U.Va.'s growth and rise to pre-eminence among the nation's universities, writing: "All of these additions to the University were accomplished with the support of its old friend, Virginia. She helped nurture Mr. Jefferson's dream, she helped establish its foothold in history. As rector and interim caretaker of that dream, I wish to make it clear that neither the University nor the members of the Board of Visitors has any intention of severing those age-old ties."
Nonetheless, Dabney foresaw a new relationship with the state. "We would be naïve, however, to think that the balance of the equation must not change," he wrote, advocating a system of "codified autonomy" similar to that which became a reality in 2005 with the General Assembly's passage of the Virginia Higher Education Restructuring Act.

Dabney is survived by his wife Patricia S. Dabney, his son Hovey Slayton Dabney Jr.,  and his daughters Jill Dabney Cave and Ann Dabney Wampler.

A memorial service will be held in the University of Virginia Chapel on Monday, Feb. 12, at 11 a.m.