Of all the threads that bind the College and the Williamsburg community, none will prove stronger than those spun by James McCord, chair of William and Mary's Lyon Gardiner Tyler Department of History. Some threads are visible. As a two-term member of the Williamsburg City Council, as the founder of First Night celebrations, as an originator of the Town-and-Gown luncheons and as one of the most-respected chairs in his department's history, McCord's service contributions have been very public for more than 40 years. Yet, far more threads are hidden. They are wound through countless kindnesses quietly extended toward colleagues and friends.
McCord, by nature, is an affable, quiet man. He deflects praise; he builds relationships. Indeed, the only complaint in the more than 60 letters of nomination that flooded the provost's office in support of naming McCord the recipient of the College's 2005 Jefferson Award, the institution's highest honor for faculty service, concerned his modesty. Essentially they said his contributions are unheralded. Apprised that he will receive the award, McCord claimed to be "honored," "surprised" and "humbled." True to form, however, he mostly seemed embarrassed.
"Service you do not do alone," he explained. "You work with a lot of other people. To be given credit for achievemnt is narrow. My colleagues, the alumni, the staff and the people of Williamsburg all have played a role in what we were able to achieve."
Service public and private
As a member of the College's faculty and as a resident of the community, McCord insists that what makes one institution better also serves the other. A concern for education, a desire to be a good neighbor and an ambition to make Williamsburg a better place all have motivated him toward service. At the same time, he has had agendas that are specific. As a city councilman from 1976 until 1984, his goals were to "slow the commericalization of Richmond Road" and to work against a plan to pull Williamsburg out of the joint school system with James City County and, potentially, contract with Walsingham Academy—something he called "a terrible idea." His idea for the Town-and-Gown luncheons was triggered in 1980 when a fellow Rotarian suggested that there was not much connection between the College and the community except through athletic events. Although the first few meetings consisted of about 10 people sharing trays of cold cuts in the basement of the Alumni House, the weekly series today regularly brings together 200 to 250 people for scholarly exchanges in the College's University Center. The idea for First Night, a New Year's Eve celebration he hoped would provide an alcohol-free alternative for students and area families alike, came as McCord was serving as chair of the Williamsburg Area Arts Commission. When his proposal to the local government was sent back with the suggestion that such an event would best be sponsored by the private community, McCord said he "took that not as a rebuff but as an encouragement." He subsequently published a letter in the "Virginia Gazette" that attracted 30 people to a First Night start-up meeting. Last year the First Night event featured nearly 60 performing groups and drew about 9,000 people.
If McCord's public contributions have enriched the lives of thousands, his private acts have endeared him to hundreds more. Around campus, in addition to the skillful leadership he has shown in department meetings, as a member of the faculty assembly and as a participant, according to one admirer, on "just about every major arts and sciences committee," he is known for his ability to bring people together as friends. Colleagues readily recount visits he makes when they are ill, his helping to provide furniture and his hospitable stocking of refrigerators for new faculty members. They also praise his hosting of informal Friday-evening gatherings so colleagues can socialize in a non-work-related setting.
Just how he juggles his many conflicting responsibilities and still finds energy to go that extra mile for friends has perplexed many. Among his nominators for the award, Miles Chappell, Chancellor Professor of Art and Art History, suggested, "For McCord, history is far more than a sequence of events. History is a lesson-filled narrative of events shaped by morals and ethics, virtues and vices, human weakness and human greatness—the narrative that provides lessons for the present."
McCord expresses it differently: "I grew up in a small town in Florida, and everybody knew everybody else and tried to be helpful. It seemed to be a natural thing to do."
A better place
When McCord retires at the end of the semester, many of his colleagues assume his leadership will be sorely missed; however, those who know him well realize that he, if asked, will be available to meet many needs. Certainly he will be easy to find, if not through his continued involvement with some community project then at least on the campus tennis courts, where he enjoys regular exercise, or on the brick walks of the old campus, where he takes his daily strolls. Retirement, he hopes, will enable him to concentrate on a research project that he hopes will result in a published book about the caricatures of John Doyle, an early 19th-century artist.
Although he has produced scholarly papers during his tenure at William and Mary, he has not written a book. "Certainly I tilted a bit toward service and teaching, probably at the expense of scholarship," he explained. With only a touch of irony, he added, given the evolution of requirements for faculty at the College, "I probably could not even get tenure today."
He, in fact, applauds the changes, which give equal weight to teaching and scholarship and less weight to service. At the same time, he noted, "Newly hired faculty in arts and sciences always are cautioned not to get too heavily committed to service during their first three years. Unfortunately, that might become a habit that is hard to break."
McCord's advice to young faculty members is this: "Try to do all three. Try to do not only excellent teaching, which is a full-time job, but also do scholarship, because we need faculty involved in current scholarship to be role models for our students. And do some degree of service, which is very rewarding inasmuch as it helps make our community a better place."
No matter how the threads are counted, certainly those woven by McCord have made this place much better. If there has been an academic trade-off, McCord believes it has been more than counterbalanced. "I feel like I have made a lot of friends," he said.