Trail to the Chiefs: Tour Highlights Presidential Portraits

Davidson's past presidents, who guided the college through wartime and economic upheaval, and periods of growth and expansion, together used to watch over students in the library.

Now the previous chief executives will show up all over campus.

Portraits of the college's presidents hung high on the walls of the E.H. Little Library since the building's opening in 1974, their subjects displaying a sartorial timeline from antebellum high collars and cravats to 21st century business suits. Former president Thomas Ross's painting brought the total to 17. Since they adorned the walls of a library rather than a gallery, the paintings lacked posted explanations to sate the curious.

These leaders had stories to tell: how they seized the momentum of prosperity, struggled with sweeping social change or adapted to industrial and, then, technological revolution.

Now visitors, faculty, staff and students will be able to travel through the college's history via a walking tour of campus, curated by students and staff, that will include the portraits. Many will be placed in locations connected in some way to their presidencies. For example, Samuel Reid Spencer Jr., who led admission of the first female students, will look out from the lobby named for him in the Chambers Building, which houses the office of the first woman president, Carol Quillen.

"By placing the portraits around campus, we can better understand who the presidents were, what they contributed to Davidson, and how their legacy shapes the college today," said Elizabeth Hunter '17, a representative of the Student Government Association and member of the team spearheading the project.

The tour will feature labels highlighting key facts and narratives of critical events, co-authored by students, that accompany the portraits. Eventually the walk through history may include an audio component or an interactive map, as plans are still under way among the team of staff and students leading the project, including Director and Curator of Van Every/Smith Galleries Lia Newman, College Archivist Jan Blodgett and Director of Davidson Arts and Creative Engagement Sherry Nelson.

"Davidson's presidents have contributed to the development of the college through times of prosperity and extreme difficulty–each brought strengths to the college that were much needed at the time," Quillen said. "The tour will make their stories more accessible and situate their contributions intentionally and meaningfully within the context of the campus."

The tour underscores how Davidson's liberal arts experience enables students to examine questions and challenges through a variety of perspectives, including science, literature, history and art.

Faculty, staff and students are collaborating to develop the tour, and it could be expanded at a future date to include portraits of others who have shaped the course of the college. With funding from Davidson Arts and Creative Engagement, a student will be hired to work on the project through the spring semester and summer months.

The library still will be home to at least one portrait, and the wall space previously used for portraits will provide a new library exhibition area curated by students. The space will be used for the short-term display of student-driven projects, including those that are first displayed in Van Every Gallery.

The use of the space could also extend to the college's permanent collection, which includes more than 3,400 pieces spanning five centuries.

The new walking tour and library exhibition space are the latest examples of the many ways in which art is being employed to enrich the college experience at Davidson–campus as gallery and museum. This approach encourages engagement with creative works, taking art to the student or visitor rather than the reverse.

"You don't have to necessarily come to the Van Every/Smith Galleries to see art," Newman said. "It's integrated into daily life on campus–whether through sculpture, student exhibitions or displays from the permanent art collection in Spencer Lobby, Cunningham Theatre Center or throughout WDAV, the college's classical radio station."

Davidson College Presidents

Robert Hall Morrison
(b. 1798 d. 1889) Robert Hall Morrison was 37 years old when he was elected the first president of Davidson College, also making him the youngest Davidson president. He graduated second to James K. Polk, future President of the United States, in the class of 1818 at the University of North Carolina. During his tenure as president, Morrison taught mathematics and science courses. He retired in 1840 and served on the college's Board of Trustees from 1852 to 1874.

Samuel Williamson
(b.1795 d. 1882) Samuel Williamson, D.D., came to Davidson in 1839, joining the faculty as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. Within two years of serving the college as faculty member, Williamson was elected president. Williamson's administration, longer than that of any other 19th century Davidson president, was marked by a time of financial hardship, but he kept the college afloat with the help of his quick-witted style, great physical energy and love for public speaking.

Drury Lacy
(b. 1802 d. 1884) Drury Lacy was elected president of Davidson College in 1855. In his first year as president, he experienced a student revolt, during which most of the students left the college. That year, only three students graduated. However, during Lacy's administration, the college received a bequest from North Carolina businessman Maxwell Chambers. With this bequest, Davidson suddenly became the richest college south of Princeton University.

John Lycan Kirkpatrick
(b. 1813 d. 1885) John Lycan Kirkpatrick was elected president of Davidson College in 1860. When Kirkpatrick took office, Davidson was primed for expansion and growth. The Civil War, however, interrupted these plans and Kirkpatrick was forced simply to maintain the college's finances and status until the end of the war. This he did with almost unique success–one other men's college in the south remained open during the entire war and Reconstruction. His term ended in 1866.

George Wilson McPhail
(b. 1815 d. 1871) The trustees elected George Wilson McPhail, D.D., in 1866 to be Davidson's fifth president. He also served as president of the Davidson College Board of Trustees from 1868 until 1870. McPhail's health gave way after signing the diplomas for the class of 1871, and he died before the commencement exercises that year. He was the first president to be buried in the college cemetery.

Andrew Dousa Hepburn
(b. 1830 d. 1921) Andrew Dousa Hepburn, D.D., LL.D., a native of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was Davidson's first northern-born president. Hepburn joined the faculty of Davidson College in 1874 and was elected president of the college three years later. During his presidency, Hepburn abolished the master of arts degree and instituted curricular reform, especially in the area of language and Bible classes. He also introduced the concept of an honor code in 1880. The first Davidson College Presbyterian Church (DCPC) was built during his presidency. He was the last president to serve as the minister at DCPC.

Luther McKinnon
(b. 1840 d. 1916) The first Davidson alumnus to become president of the college, Luther McKinnon, D.D., was salutatorian of the class of 1861 and had served as a Confederate chaplain. McKinnon also served as a trustee of Davidson College from 1870 until 1885, and president of the Board of Trustees from 1878 until 1885. Almost immediately after assuming the presidency of Davidson College in 1885, he suffered an attack of what was diagnosed as "rheumatism." His illness forced him to submit his resignation in 1887, although the Board of Trustees did not accept it until 1888.

John Bunyan Shearer
(b. 1832 d. 1918) John Bunyan Shearer was elected president of the college in 1888. He brought to Davidson considerable experience in teaching and pastoral work. While following the practice of teaching classes in addition to being president, Shearer was particularly active in public relations and fundraising work for the college. In 1901, the last year of his presidency, he instituted required Bible classes for all students. That same year, he remodeled the old chapel and renamed it Shearer Hall in honor of his wife.

Henry Louis Smith
(b. 1859 d. 1951) Henry Louis Smith, D.D., was Davidson's first president who was not a Presbyterian minister. Smith graduated from Davidson College in 1881. He returned to Davidson in 1887 as a professor of physics and was elected president in 1901. During his administration, Smith established the first electric light plant in the town of Davidson, oversaw the construction of Lake Wiley, the Carnegie Library, the YMCA hall, Martin Chemical Laboratory, and three dormitories, and saw student enrollment grow from 137 to 340 students. He encouraged the organization of a student government and the development of an athletic field. As a scientist, Smith was involved in early work with X-rays and is credited with producing one of the first X-ray photographs in the United States.

William Joseph Martin Jr.
(b. 1868 d. 1943) "Bill Joe" Martin, M.D, Ph.D, LL.D., moved with his family to Davidson in 1870. His father, Colonel William Joseph Martin, was a professor of natural sciences at Davidson College and also served as acting president in 1887-1888 during President Luther McKinnon's illness. William Martin Jr. graduated from Davidson in 1888 and returned in 1896 as professor of chemistry, a position he held until 1912, when he became president of the college. During his tenure as president, Davidson experienced two major fires resulting in the loss of the Old Chambers Building and Watts Dormitory. The school mascot became the Wildcat. Student enrollment doubled from 300 to more than 600 students, and the number of faculty positions expanded by 15. Additionally, Davidson became part of the Duke Endowment after its creation in 1924.

Walter Lee Lingle
(b. 1868 d. 1956) A graduate of Davidson College, class of 1892, Rev. Walter Lee Lingle, D.D., LL.D., was elected to the Davidson College Board of Trustees in 1902. He served as president of the Board from 1906 to 1929. Lingle accepted the presidency of Davidson College in 1929. Despite the national upheavals of the Great Depression, Lingle maintained Davidson's stability and security during his administration. The college did not run a deficit the entire time, did not cut salaries and did not release a single faculty member for financial reasons. He oversaw the completion of Chambers Building and the building of Duke Dormitory, the college infirmary, a new library, new roads and athletic fields.

John Rood Cunningham
(b. 1891 d. 1980) John Rood Cunningham, D.D., LL.D., accepted the presidency of Davidson College in 1941. The years of Cunningham's administration were an era of prosperity and progress for the college. The permanent endowment expanded from one to five million dollars. The teaching faculty rose from 47 in 1941 to 86 in 1957. In response, the student body rose from a meager 162 students in 1945 to a total of 971 students. Five major buildings were constructed under Cunningham's presidency, increasing the total value of the campus from $1,500,000 to $5,400,000.

David Grier Martin
(b. 1910 d. 1974) A graduate of Davidson College, class of 1932, Grier Martin, LL.D., served as Davidson College treasurer under President Cunningham. During Martin's administration, the permanent endowment greatly increased and several construction projects were completed or near completion, including the E.H. Little Dormitory, Patterson Fraternity Court, Dana Science Building and Richardson Dormitory. Martin also oversaw growth in student enrollment and faculty size; implementation of a new curriculum, including a foreign study program and humanities courses; development of the Reynolds Lecture and Richardson Scholars program; racial integration; the beginning of data processing; successful financial campaigns; and solid advances in faculty salaries, housing and fringe benefits.

Samuel Reid Spencer Jr.
(b. 1919 d. 2013) The first president of the Davidson student body to become president of the college was Samuel Reid Spencer Jr., Ph.D., LL.D, class of 1940. In 1951, Spencer returned to Davidson to serve as assistant to President Cunningham. After three years at Davidson, he was named dean of students and associate professor of history, advancing to full professor in 1955. He left Davidson in 1957 to become president of Mary Baldwin College. From 1966 until 1968, he served on the Davidson College Board of Trustees. In 1968, he returned once again to Davidson and accepted the office of presidency. The years of Spencer's administration were years of positive change for the college. Between 1968 and 1983, Davidson witnessed the introduction of co-education, the active recruiting of minority students, the establishment of the self-selection social system for fraternities, the emphasis on faculty research and the development of foreign study opportunities for students. In addition, Spencer increased the endowment from $13.8 million to $30 million. Enrollment also increased from 1,000 students in 1968 to 1,350 in 1983.

John Wells Kuykendall
(b. 1938) John Wells Kuykendall, Ph.D., D.D., graduated from Davidson College in 1959 and became president in 1984. During his tenure, Davidson College completed a $160 million capital campaign, the largest financial campaign ever mounted by a liberal arts college at the time. Construction projects completed during his presidency include Baker Sports Complex, Belk Visual Arts Center and six upperclassmen apartment buildings. Two programs receiving national attention also were added to the college curriculum: the Dean Rusk Program in International Studies and the medical humanities program.

Robert Fredrick Vagt
(b. 1947) Robert Fredrick (Bobby) Vagt, Hum.Litt., began his post as Davidson's 16th president in 1997. A Davidson College graduate of the class of 1969, Vagt completed various renovations on campus, including the transformation of Johnston Gym into the Knobloch Campus Center, and concluded the Let Learning Be Cherished campaign, raising $272 million in support of the college. During his tenure, the college made the historic decision to create the Davidson Trust, meeting demonstrated financial need with grants and campus employment, and no loans. Vagt left his post in 2007.

Thomas W. Ross
(b. 1950) Thomas W. Ross, J.D., a member of the class of 1972, accepted the Davidson presidency in 2007, just after the creation of the Davidson Trust. He guided the college through the global economic crisis that crested in fall 2008 and resulted in a 25 percent loss in Davidson's endowment. During that difficult period, jobs were lost across the country, but not at Davidson. Ross left Davidson in 2010 to assume duties as president of the 17-campus University of North Carolina system.

Lisa Patterson


  • January 19, 2017


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