Before He Retires, Sandy Gilliam Answers 14 of Your Questions on U.Va. History

Alexander G. Sandy headshot

Historian Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. will retire on Monday after working for 39 years at U.Va.

When Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. retires Monday from the University of Virginia, he’ll be taking an encyclopedic knowledge of Grounds with him.

Gilliam, whose official title is currently “University Protocol and History Officer,” has deep ties to U.Va.: he graduated in 1955, has worked here since 1975, and members of his family have been attending since 1829, four years after it opened.

For more on his time at the University, see a recent article on his tenure or a 2004 feature on him.

Before he departs, Gilliam agreed to answer a few questions about University history collected via U.Va.’s Facebook page. Some of the questions and his answers are below:

Johnny Cates: Is there a list of Seven Society members that have died? What are some of the perks for being a member?

A: Not that I know of, although the current ringer of the carillon in the University Chapel (the bells, which were a gift of the Seven Society, are tolled when a member of the Seven Society dies) has kept an informal list of deaths for the last eight or so years. As deaths of Sevens are announced in the alumni magazine, it would be easy – though a little time-consuming – to construct a list.

As for perks of membership: The Seven Society is noted for its largely anonymous good works; I think a perk would be knowing that you have done something worthwhile for the University, but something for which you will not receive credit in your lifetime.

Terrie Forst Griggs: Best book for weird U.Va. facts or most unusual U.Va. finds to look for on Grounds?

A: I don’t know of any book of this sort. Tour guides and others often talk about “weird” facts, but they usually are not facts, but something the guide has made up as a good story. There are lots of good true stories about the University, but most of them are in memoirs and reminiscences by former students and faculty. Which means you have to dig a little.

James Watson Head: What is the best BBQ in Petersburg, Va.?

A: As Mr. Head knows very well, it is King’s, which not only is the best BBQ in Petersburg but the best BBQ there is.

William H. Rianhard: What of Jefferson's early curriculum is available to study today?

A: It would be hard to say that such and such a course, offered in 1825, is still offered today. I think you can say, safely, that all of what was taught then is taught now, though there have been tremendous advances in most fields, particularly the sciences. Jefferson laid down a basic curriculum that is the foundation of the University’s curriculum of today.

Nancy Premen: Tell us about the Secret Societies – how they came to be, how members are chosen, what they do. Are there only two secret ones – Seven Society and Purple Shadows? Are they only at U.Va.?

A: There are only two real secret societies, the Seven Society and the Purple Shadows. Nothing is known publicly of their origins, except that the Sevens seem to have appeared early in the 20th century and the Shadows in the 1960s. A problem around here these days is that the term “secret society” is used carelessly; for instance, I have heard, on occasion, the Jefferson Society and the Glee Club called “secret societies.”

There is a third group which I hear of – or from – occasionally (they presented me with a cup several years ago), but know nothing about: the Monticello Society.

As to how members of secret societies are chosen: since their doings are secret, we don’t really know. I would assume that new members are chosen, in some way, by current members.

Adam Bergman: Longest-serving faculty member? Why/how did the Cavaliers become our mascot?

A: Longest-serving present member of the faculty? Gosh, I don’t know. The Provost’s Office probably could work this out. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, several names come to mind: John B. Minor, Professor of Law; William M. Thornton, professor and first dean of Engineering; Schele de Vere, “Modern Languages”; and Francis H. Smith, Mathematics and “Natural Philosophy” (roughly, biology and geology).

The name Cavaliers, I think, is a product of about the 1930s. It refers to the royalist party in the English Civil War in the 17th century and by extension to Virginians – who by and large remained loyal to the Crown in that war.

Todd W. Eakes: I had the pleasure of meeting Sandy my fourth year, and although I don't want to take anything away from any of my great professors, the half-hour meeting and talking with him was definitely the highlight of my time at the University. I guess my question is: How do you get that job?  Best wishes Sandy!

A: Many thanks!  Come back and we can continue the conversation.

Louise Dudley: When were the pavilion columns whitewashed over the original sand color? Do you think they should go back?

A: I don’t know – they have been white in living memory and white at least since the 1890s when photographs became accurate enough to guess at the colors. The white comes from whitewash and as you will remember from your years at the University, most every spring in preparation for Finals, the columns are whitewashed, so there are layers and layers of whitewash, almost as thick as the layers of paint on the Beta Bridge. I am so used to them being white that I would vote for status quo.

My favorite comment on the columns is Gertrude Stein’s reply to, I think, a reporter who talked to her after she lectured here in the 1930s; she was asked for her impressions of the University and she replied, “And there were columns, and columns, and columns, and columns, and columns (etc.)”

Cherie Kurland: Why are there two stars of David in front of Peabody Hall?

A: My theory is that they are purely decorative – as you know, the two Stars of David flank another piece of decorative brickwork, “PH”, which I assume stands for Peabody Hall. On the eve of World War I, when Peabody was built, few in Charlottesville would have understood the political significance of the Star of David.

I think the decorative brick medallion in the pavement at the head of Poe Alley – it shows the raven of Poe’s “Raven” perched on the bust of Pallas Athene, as in Poe’s poem – probably dates from the same period and perhaps was done by the same hand.

Charles Herbek: Although “Ten Thousand Voices” is the official alma mater [song], how and when did “The Good Ol’ Song” come to prominence? And why were there no seats placed in the northern section of Scott Stadium when first built?

A: I think “The Good Ol’ Song” was prominent by the time of the First World War. You are too young to have heard of a big band called Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians, but they were popular in my parents’ time at the University and popular enough in mine for them to have been hired to play at Midwinters one year when I was an undergraduate. Lombardo’s signature tune was “The Good Ol’ Song” (in my childhood, they always played on New Year’s Eve on the radio from some glamorous place in New York); people who didn’t know better assumed it was “Auld Lang Syne,” but apparently he adopted it when he was playing for a dance here around 1930 when students asked him to play it as his closing number. He did and was so taken with it that he played it on every gig thereafter.

As for Scott Stadium – there were no stands at the south end either, at least until fairly recently, probably because there was no need for them until the University began growing in the 1960s.

Carrie Cabell: Why do commencement ceremonies face Old Cabell Hall and not the Rotunda?

A: The Commencement Exercises, in more or less their modern form, date from President Alderman in 1905. They were held in Cabell Hall until the McIntire Amphitheatre was built in 1919. President Darden moved them from there to the Lawn in about 1948. But during the Amphitheatre period, there was still an academic procession down the Lawn with a turn to the right on the great crosswalk and from there to the Amphitheatre.

Stephen Wolfe: Who are the current members of the Seven Society?

A: That is known only by the Seven Society

Jim Spencer: What is the history of the serpentine walls? My great-grandfather, a native of Charlottesville, was very proud of being a brick mason with the skills to repair and maintain them.

A: They are a Jeffersonian invention, thought to have been inspired by something similar he saw in England. A visitor from Holland 20 or so years ago corrected me and said something similar is at a country house – which Jefferson is supposed to have visited – in the Netherlands. He sent me a paper about it, but it was in Dutch, which I can read laboriously and, I’m afraid, inaccurately.

UVA Parents: Are there any secret rooms or passages the public doesn’t know about on Grounds?

A: Not that I know of, but preliminary soundings (for the restoration work that has begun on the Rotunda) in the Lower East Oval Room this past year revealed a good-sized chemistry lab setup behind one wall and forgotten all these years. And then there was the folklore common in my time that there was a secret entrance from the steam tunnels to the dormitory part of McKim Hall (McKim housed nursing classrooms as well as the student dormitory for the Nursing School). People (male) claimed to have found it and made use of it. None of us believed them.

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