David Holmes unabashedly admits that he is from the "old school" of professors at William and Mary. For 44 years, he has sought to be a model of the values and the ethics of the faculty members who became his heroes when he arrived at the College in 1965. Those professors closed the gap between low state funding and quality education in the way that only teachers can, Holmes, the College's Walter G. Mason Professor of Religion, said.
On Charter Day 2008, when the College recognizes Holmes' career contributions to William and Mary by awarding him its Thomas Jefferson Award, the gesture will be an affirmation that those old-school constructs remain vital components of the College's core values as the institution embraces the future. The award is presented each Charter Day to a member of the College family for significant service through his or her personal activities, influence and leadership.
As did his early heroes at William and Mary, Holmes remained student-centered throughout his career, sacrificing research opportunities and publishing ventures to make sure he got things right in the classroom.
"You try to bring the qualities of liberal-arts education that have existed since we've had records of liberal-arts education," he said. "You try to encourage curiosity of mind. You try to encourage high standards. You try to get to know each student one by one and not by stereotype. You try to know them in later life and follow their careers. You see yourself at ages 18 to 22 in them."
Such fidelity to the classroom and his charges resulted in Holmes being almost revered among undergraduates. They found the professor unusually adept at connecting the content of his courses—whether the offerings were based in the English or the religious studies departments—with issues of the broader world as well as with the concerns specific to young people traversing the "formative" years. Holmes remained a tough grader—an influence of the "Sputnik" era, he admitted—yet, undergraduates signed up for his classes "two, three, four or five times," according to William and Mary News essayist Peyton Cooke ('04). "Students do not take his class; they take Holmes," Cooke wrote.
Faculty members also sought out Holmes for friendship and for advice on issues ranging from whether or not to remain at the College, to trust in its tenure process and how to handle disgruntled students. Often young instructors confessed to Holmes their reservations about the quality of a course they were teaching. In those cases, Holmes invariably shared advice a senior professor offered to him as he was beginning his career: He said, "Don't you understand? It takes three years to get a course really in shape. The first year always is tough, the second year is better and by the third year you've got it under control and students are getting a good course."
Although Holmes downplays his contributions outside the classroom, to dismiss his scholarship would constitute oversight. He has been a prolific lecturer beyond the campus, has been the author or editor of several significant books, including the much-acclaimed The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2006), and has been a frequent contributor to journals and encyclopedias. Indeed, he has tallied more than 40 contributions to refereed volumes and an equal number of entries in more popular publications.
Likewise, Holmes has been involved in the administrative affairs of the College through his service on countless committees. Among the numerous faculty members who nominated Holmes for the Jefferson Award, Terry Meyers, professor of English, recently summarized the breadth and quality of Holmes' input. Meyers wrote, "David has been an eloquent participant in virtually every aspect of governance at William and Mary. … His is a voice that we could not have done without, unless we were willing to be a lesser institution than we are." Beyond the faculty, administrators such as Karen Cottrell (alumni association) and Sam Sadler (student affairs) praised Holmes for a variety of services advancing the cause of the College, including his stepping up as "The Wizard" for prospective students taking a virtual tour of the College. In that role, Holmes provided humorous, helpful and sometimes brutally honest advice for students considering William and Mary among their list of options. Although he steered a few elsewhere, he is credited with convincing a clear majority of undecided students to take advantage of the opportunities available at William and Mary.
Among all the letters of nomination received on behalf of Holmes for the Jefferson Award, perhaps the most succinct was offered by David Thompson, professor of chemistry. Thompson wrote, "He has truly given his life for William and Mary and its students."
Although Holmes, who earned his graduate degrees from Columbia, Duke and Princeton universities, spent a few years away from William and Mary as a visiting professor at institutions such as the University of Virginia and as an instructor at Carnegie Mellon University, he never seriously considered leaving the College.
"In the case of William and Mary, I just believed in it from the start," he said. "To be happy, you have to believe in the job that you have."
Nearing retirement, Holmes cannot reflect on his career without mentioning his father, David Holmes, Sr., a legendary athletic director and coach who remained at the same Midwestern institution for more than 40 years. "He was a product of the old amateur intercollegiate philosophy in which coaches were judged by the positive affects they had on their student-athletes and by what their athletes achieved after graduation," Holmes said of his father.
Now, after more than 40 years at his own institution, Holmes finds himself in an unusual position to appreciate the significance of the Jefferson Award, which will be added to his collection of teaching honors, which include the Outstanding Faculty Award of the Commonwealth of Virginia (1996), the Society of the Alumni Faculty Service Award (1997) and the Thomas Ashley Graves Award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching (W&M, 1993). In assessing what the Jefferson Award means, he said he is reminded of a statement made by Jack Edwards, professor of government, who received the award in 1977. "Edwards, then dean of faculty, said something like: ‘You look at who Jefferson was, and you look at what you have achieved, and you laugh,'" Holmes recalled.
On a serious note, he added that he was surprised to be named. "In any year there are 10 or 12 people on the faculty who are close to retirement who are absolutely eligible for the award," he said. Alan Fuchs (philosophy), Terry Meyers (English), David Thompson (chemistry), Eric Bradley (applied science) and Virginia Kerns (anthropology) were among the many names that came immediately to his mind.
"I need to thank the committee for selecting me," he said. "And I need to thank all of the faculty and alumni who put great care into the letters they sent to the committee. That's why I got the award."