On Father’s Day, honoring a legacy and a unique presidential bond
It doesn’t take much to peg them as father and son. The flowing cadences, the dry humor, the deep and jovial laugh. The easy banter between them. A walk and bearing that feel distinctly, well, presidential.
In fact, Taylor Reveley III and Taylor Reveley IV share not just a name, but a distinction unique in the history of American higher education. Not only do they anchor a three-generation family of college presidents, but for the last five years they have enjoyed the unprecedented experience of leading historic public universities — William & Mary (founded in 1693) and Longwood (1839) — in the same state at the same time.
This year, Father’s Day is a sentimental and symmetrical occasion for Virginia’s First Family of higher education. It was 55 years ago that Taylor Reveley II began his tenure as president of Hampden-Sydney College, unknowingly launching a remarkable family tradition. Ten years ago, TR3 (in the family shorthand) became president at William & Mary. Almost exactly five years ago, at age 38, Taylor IV took office at Longwood — a campus with deep family ties to the Reveleys across at least five generations.
Now, with Taylor III just a few weeks away from his retirement, father and son sat down in the President’s House at William & Mary last week to reflect on their extraordinary family experience, and on what it takes to lead a university campus in transformative but turbulent times. Their edited conversation is being published jointly by Longwood and William & Mary to mark Father’s Day.
Q: You’re winding down this unique experience of holding these two jobs together at the same time. What has it been like?
TR3: For the aging Taylor, the old Taylor, it’s been absolutely wonderful and not something I ever expected because it is so rare. When it happened it simply added a real element of delight.
TR4: One of the wonderful things about the constellation of Virginia public universities is the presidents all get together about once a month in Richmond for a meeting and a dinner discussion. I don’t know that we’ve missed a single one of those. We’ve seen each other in our presidential guises often, which has been a really fun thing.
TR3: Taylor is now going to need to pick up the mantle of the president who is willing to say outrageous things just to keep everyone else’s blood flowing, and to say what everyone else is thinking.
TR4: It’s true. Until now, I’ve been able to pass the ball to him on those occasions.
Q: Each of you enjoyed successful careers in other realms, but maintained strong connections to higher education throughout and eventually came to lead college campuses. What was the nature of the gravitational pull?
TR3: Well, my first job was being an assistant prof of law at the University of Alabama law school, an ice age ago. That admittedly only lasted a year. I discovered how actually hard it is to teach, which I had thought I would be able to do effortlessly. It was not so. But it was in the gene pool. All four of my grandparents at one point or another were teachers. My paternal grandfather was principal of a high school, my maternal grandfather was director of higher education for Virginia. Both of my parents were teachers and in education. And of course I grew up on two college campuses – Rhodes College in Memphis and Hampden-Sydney. So it was kind of natural.
TR4: Certainly with my granddad — starting as best we know the first three-generation run of college presidents — higher education was always part of the dinner table conversation. In my early childhood, I was at Hampden-Sydney often while my grandparents were there. Then just a couple years after that my dad joined the board at Princeton. So throughout my childhood there was constant discussion of all the different facets of higher education.
A different thing, a way we’ve both been profoundly lucky, is the wonderful mentoring friendships we’ve had in life. Gerry Baliles, the iconic governor of Virginia and great champion of higher education, played that role for me. Bill Bowen, the splendid Princeton president, did so for my dad. And both of us have been close with both of them, which has been very meaningful.
Q: What went through your head when TR4 went into, as you called it at his Longwood inauguration in 2013, “the family business?”
TR3: The initial thoughts were, “this is really wonderful, that Taylor and Longwood are coming together at a particularly propitious moment for both the school and the president.” The other thing that went through my head is you don’t really understand viscerally how demanding the job is until you get it. This can be a great a job, but it is going to work your teeth out, and you’ve got to go into it recognizing and accepting that.
TR4: One thing going through our minds at the time was our family connection to Longwood. Certainly, Princeton is an institution that’s got deep claim on all our family ties. We’re both Princeton alums, and all three of my siblings are also Princeton alums, which is a very rare thing – we actually only know of one or two other families where that’s the case. But apart from Princeton, Longwood is the institution with the strongest claim on our family. My great-grandfather was the chair of the biology department at Longwood and my great-grandmother went to Longwood at the turn of the 20th century. My very beloved grandmother was a Longwood alumna, as were her two sisters. I grew up as did my dad on stories of Longwood.
TR3: And my parents, Taylor’s grandparents, courted one another there. Daddy was president of the student government at Hampden-Sydney and my mother was president of the student government at Longwood. One of the really splendid and poignant aspects of Taylor and Longwood getting together was the renewal of the family ties to Longwood. That was a lot of fun. Plus remember, I first went to Farmville when Daddy became president of Hampden-Sydney in 1963. Farmville today is a very, very different place. New restaurants, hotels, stores.
Q: TR4, what are some things, big or small, you have learned about being a university president from observing your dad?
TR4: A thing I’ve realized is how challenging the job is, how wonderful the jobs is, too. I say that because I couldn’t plead ignorance about what I was getting into, with him doing it, with my grandfather. But I didn’t realize how almost just physically challenging the job can be. A big thing I’ve learned certainly is watching him continue to make relentless progress, amidst all the inbound traffic and ideas on a thousand fronts. The way institutions of higher education can go astray is by chasing those ideas, those different voices, instead of making steady progress. That’s certainly a big thing I’ve learned from him.
A small thing is wherever you go, you are the president. You could be stopping at South of the Border to go to the bathroom (note: Reveley family lore cherishes the story of the usually hyper-formal TR3 being recognized in beach clothes and chatted up by a William & Mary alum while headed to the men’s room at South of the Border on I-95). There is always a possibility you will be sighted. The role is something you inhabit always.
Q: What do you think will be your dad’s legacy at William & Mary?
TR4: There’s a practical level and a profound level. At a practical level, all of public higher education across the country faces a financial challenge, and a very important legacy of my dad’s will be to have secured William & Mary’s financial footing, after intense hard work for a decade. But I think at a more poetic level, he’s also rejuvenated its spirit and reminded the country, maybe the world, that William & Mary is centrally important to the nation’s history – the Alma Mater of the Nation. That is something William & Mary had never forgotten, but didn’t have at the forefront of its attention in the way that it does now.
Q: And what catches you about TR4’s tenure at Longwood?
TR3: Much the same thing that Taylor just said about William & Mary. It’s a school of deep roots, with a powerful mission, not nearly as well known as it should be, and with great potential for the future. To achieve that, you’ve got to build a strong financial foundation, not rooted as it used to be in very significant state support. And you’ve got to elicit, encourage and nurture a lot of pride in Longwood among its children to be sure the potential in this century can be realized. But it’s a place with that same sort of elegant past and future potential. I think in a way we’re both dealing with the same set of realities. And that can’t be said of all schools.
Q: You’ve both touched on some of the challenges of leading a university. Clearly it also brings real joy for each of you. Where in particular do you find that joy?
TR3: You’re dealing at William & Mary with just extraordinary people who are fun to be with and committed to making a difference for the better, willing to work, and people who, if they say they’re going to do something, they do it, thus giving you the human component of real progress. And of course I deal with great students. You get a true sense of satisfaction and meaning when you’re able to help a great institution move forward, when you can see things being accomplished that in your judgment need to be accomplished.
TR4: Us working together has been one great source of joy, and we’ve actually been lucky to get a chance to do that a great deal through the years. Hunton & Williams [the Richmond law firm where both worked] is a rich part of each of our careers, my dad’s especially. The “war powers” is an issue of great importance we’ve each worked at in different ways, and had the great joy of working together with [former Secretaries of State] Jim Baker and Warren Christopher on the National War Powers Commission. What’s wonderful about what we’re doing now, and what’s wonderful about being a college president, is that it takes all the wisdom and all the stamina that you have, but you get to do something that makes an enormous difference in people’s lives. You get to do it with brilliant, deeply committed people. And you get to do it — this is the case with William & Mary and Longwood — in a really beautiful setting. There is something really joyful in that.
Q: At this natural juncture for reflection on your careers in higher education, and the challenges it and the country are facing, are you able to find sources of optimism?
TR4: The thing with regard to higher education and more broadly that always gives me a sense of hope for the future is to contemplate the past, especially the long past. Institutions like William & Mary, like Longwood, have navigated all the contours of American history. Both literally had great wars traverse their campuses and continued to progress forward. So there’s an inherent capability for endurance that comes from that kind of long history. That gives me hope, for the country as well. As much as we are grappling with right now, it still pales in comparison with what my grandparents were facing in the 1930s and 1940s, for instance.
TR3: I have great confidence the United States will continue to thrive. In William & Mary’s case a school that had its 325th birthday this year will be around for millennia to come. That’s true of Longwood as well. That said, we are societally way out of whack right now. But we have a huge reservoir of human talent. The country has been through a lot. It’s still here, still motoring along. But we do need to get a grip we don’t seem to have at the moment.
TR4: It’s important to make the point — both of us do often — that higher education itself is the answer, and not in some abstract way. Higher education is the root of democracy. Democracy doesn’t work without an educated citizenry. That literally is the premise on which William & Mary and Longwood were founded. One thing we have both worked hard at is making sure we are true to that founding principle.
Q: What might surprise people to know about the Reveley family?
TR4: With Father’s Day in mind, what’s always been so wonderful for us is we’ve had all these really wonderful professional opportunities. But the center of the Reveley family really is being together. As much as we’re in the public eye in a way, the times that we treasure are when we’re sitting around the dining room table — me, my parents, my siblings, sisters-in-law, soon-to-be brother in law, the grandkids, which we do usually at least once a week, all of us together. It’s worth noting that of the four siblings — me, my two brothers and my sister — I was actually probably the least accomplished of the kids in college. The whole family, my siblings, my mom, are all accomplished people, and what we do cherish is our time together.TR3: We have had remarkable good fortune on the family front, living nearby and actually seeing one another often, along with a rich array of domestic animals, and thoroughly enjoy being together. And that is a source of great strength and delight on Father’s Day.