“The Quotable University”

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On Oct. 6, 1817, a crowd of people and carriages gathered west of Charlottesville. They were there to see three U.S. presidents – Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe – drawn together to mark the laying of the cornerstone for what would become the University of Virginia’s first building: Pavilion VII.

According to a later description, a freemason serving as master of ceremonies addressed the crowd and declared the work to be “for the benefit of the republic and perpetuity of our free institutions.”

“Brethren, I pronounce this stone well-formed, true and trusty,” he said.

This was perhaps the first quotable declaration on Grounds, and there’s been no shortage over the two centuries since. Powerful quotes delivered at or about UVA have marked momentous world events – a sitting president presaging the country’s entry into World War II – or captured the insights and insecurities of budding writers and artists who would go on to later fame. Quotations helped shape and articulate the University’s values and pushed the institution to live up to them.

Taken together, UVA quotes – both the famous and the mundane – can serve as a sort of guide to the University’s history, its evolution, and to the mission that began that day at Pavilion VII. Here are just a few.

December 26th

Thomas Jefferson

This institution of my native state, the Hobby of my old age, will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation. more


A Letter of Note

Jefferson wrote this in a letter to Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy, a French scientist and philosopher, and it’s often referenced as one of the most clear and concise descriptions of his vision for the University of Virginia. At the time of his writing, it had been three years since the University’s cornerstone was laid – for what was then known as Central College – and two years since Jefferson met with others in Rockfish Gap to select Charlottesville as the site for UVA. Jefferson also referenced “the illimitable freedom of the human mind” when describing his vision for UVA to William Roscoe in a separate letter sent two days prior. back

September 21st

Edgar Allan Poe

I have been studying a great deal in order to be prepared, and dare say I shall come off as well as the rest of them, that is – if I don’t get frightened. more


Quoth Poe: I’ve Been Studying

Edgar Allan Poe enrolled at UVA in February 1826, one of 177 students registering for the University’s second session. He wrote this line in a letter to John Allan, who’d taken Poe in after he was orphaned in 1812 and financed his education, describing an upcoming exam. In the same letter, Poe describes the ongoing construction of UVA, including the building of the Rotunda, and recounts a fight between fellow students. He’d leave about three months later after Allan cut off his support – which Poe maintained was already insufficient – partially due to gambling debts. back

July 4th

Henry St. George Tucker

I hereby certify on my honor that I have neither given nor received any assistance during this examination. more


The Honor Pledge Begins

When Henry St. George Tucker came to the University as a professor of law, tensions were high between students and faculty. Recent years had seen student riots on Grounds and the murder of a professor, John A.G. Davis, when he’d attempted to intervene in one. Faculty members were also searching for a way to tamp down cheating and enforce behavior standards during exams. Tucker was the driving force behind the July 4, 1842 adoption of the Honor Pledge, which became the foundation of the University’s student-driven Honor System. Generations of students have written this pledge during examinations since. back

October 28th

Bell Dunnington

I never saw a more magnificent or more awful sight than when the dome caught fire. more


The Rotunda Aflame

Bell Dunnington, the daughter of professor Francis P. Dunnington, was among the crowd on the Lawn on Oct. 27, 1895 after the Rotunda caught fire. The blaze engulfed the building and was captured in an iconic photo by Rufus Holsinger. Bell’s letter to her sister Sadie, written the next day, gave a vivid account of the fire and of assorted attempts to combat it and save the materials from within, including an ill-fated plan to sever the Rotunda from its flaming annex with dynamite. “Last night it looked as if the whole Rotunda was lit up from top to bottom,” she wrote. The Rotunda was rebuilt in following years and has undergone several restorations since, including a comprehensive, recently completed project that ensured the building’s future into the University’s third century. back

August 25th

Georgia O’Keeffe

It isn’t just talent. … It’s mostly a lot of nerve, and a lot of very, very hard work. more


O’Keeffe On Grounds

Georgia O’Keeffe came to UVA in 1912 at a time when female students were allowed to take art courses over the summer. Her passion for art was floundering, but she’d later write that her time at the University introduced her to new inspirations and revived her interest. By 1914, she was teaching the summer courses herself. O’Keeffe wrote this passage the year after leaving UVA in reference to her sister Anita, whom she’d encouraged to take her course and whom she believed had a greater share of natural talent than she did. back

June 10th

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

On this 10th day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor. more



The Hand That Held The Dagger

When FDR visited Grounds to address graduates in 1940 in Memorial Gym, the country was on the edge of entering World War II and ending its position of neutrality. Earlier that day, Italy declared war on Britain and France, and Roosevelt’s speech to graduates – including his son, Franklin Jr., who was graduating with a law degree – was closely watched by a nation anxious for an indicator of the U.S. response. The “hand that held the dagger” speech was broadcast worldwide and presaged U.S. entry into the conflict. It was also the first time Roosevelt publicly mentioned the possibility of aiding the British and the French, a prospect which was greeted with applause from his UVA audience. back


Walter Ridley

Why shouldn’t I go? My father has been paying taxes in this state since before I was born, and I am entitled to study here. more


UVA’s First Black Graduate

Walter Ridley wasn’t the first African-American student to enroll at UVA – that was law student Gregory Swanson – but he was the first to graduate, earning a Ph.D. from the Curry School of Education in 1953. He entered UVA after a protracted court case, and the quote above was his response – reported via the New York Times when he died in 1996 – when people would ask why he’d want to attend a university system that had required a court order to allow him to attend. Ridley was already an educator and college professor when he arrived, and he went on to become the president of Elizabeth City College. Today at UVA, both a scholarship fund and a speaker series bear his name. back

May 7th

William Faulkner

I am convinced that the last sound on Earth will be two people building an air ship arguing about where they’re going next. more




William Faulkner was the University’s writer-in-residence in 1957 and 1958. The renowned writer’s time on Grounds is detailed in a digital history project that includes transcriptions and audio of several of his classroom exchanges with University students. The quote above came during a question-and-answer session in the Department of Psychiatry. An unidentified participant asked how optimistic or pessimistic Faulkner felt about the country and its cultural changes. Faulkner responded that he was optimistic about humanity: “He has survived the dinosaur, and I am convinced he will survive his atom bombs.” back

March 25th

Martin Luther King Jr.

Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. more


A Visit From Dr. King

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Grounds in 1963 at the invitation of then-student Wesley Harris and others, and spoke to a crowd of about 900 in Old Cabell Hall. The speech he delivered is considered a precursor to his famous address during the March on Washington in August of that same year, and contained some of the same themes. The quote above was recorded in the Charlottesville Daily Progress’ coverage of the speech, and more context about the visit can be found via the University’s annual Community MLK Celebration. back


Anonymous female student

No, I won’t give a woman’s opinion, but I’ll give my opinion if you want it. more


UVA Goes Co-Ed

This anonymous quote about coeducation was delivered after the College of Arts & Sciences went fully coeducational in 1970 and was later documented via a digital history of women at the University. Though full coeducation didn’t come until that year, women had been attending summer courses, professional school and teacher training at the University since the 1800s. back

July 10th

Queen Elizabeth

The long-standing partnership between Britain and America had its roots here in Virginia. more


God Save The Queen

The queen came to Grounds as part of her visit to the U.S. during the American Bicentennial, and she delivered the line above while referencing Jefferson during a speech. A crowd estimated at about 18,000 saw her walk down the Lawn that day, where the University’s grand marshal led an informal procession, according to University historian Sandy Gilliam, who was present that day. Gilliam recalled being invited to ride in car No. 18 in the subsequent royal motorcade from UVA to Monticello. “It was embarrassing because all the cars were being cheered by spectators, many of whom I knew,” Gilliam said. “My companions in No. 18 were all from Buckingham Palace, and they taught me how to do the ‘royal wave,’ so I had a good time from then on.” back

May 5th

George H.W. Bush

There has to be something special about a university where a star athlete can’t be lured away, not even with a $6 million offer. There’s something special about that student, too. more


A Veep Visit

Then-Vice President Bush visited Grounds for graduation in 1981, when his youngest son, Marvin, was among the graduates. It was not long after basketball star Ralph Sampson led the Cavaliers to a Final Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Speculation was rife at the time that the gifted 7-foot-4 center would depart for the lure of the NBA – and the rumored big contract Bush alluded to – but he stayed in school for another year before becoming the first overall pick in 1983 draft. Even at a University that now has 25 NCAA team titles, Sampson looms large in UVA’s athletic history. back

September 9th

Tina Fey

By the time I arrived in UVA for my first year in 1940, I had decided it was time to study something more serious and profitable, like English. But then I auditioned for a First Year Players production of ‘Godspell,’ and it really changed my life. more


A Return to Grounds

Tina Fey returned to Grounds in 2013 to kick off the President’s Speaker Series for the Arts, which has since featured others such as Kevin Spacey and Bryan Cranston. Fey, a 1992 drama graduate, joked about her year of arrival at UVA, spoke fondly of her time here and of discovering her calling while participating in a production of “Godspell.” She also recalled writing her first short play in a playwriting class at UVA: “It was just a slight little one-act comedy about a bunch of friends going back to their hometown for another friend’s wedding,” she said. “But I sat there in the Helms Theater, watching the play from outside, and the play got laughs. It was so fulfilling to me in a way that acting never was. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s the best use of me. I’m supposed to try to write things to make people laugh.’” back

March 16th

Tony Bennett

This group represents the right stuff, in my opinion, about sports. more


The Right Stuff

UVA men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett delivered this line after his team won the 2014 ACC Tournament, referencing a group of players that included now-NBA players Joe Harris, Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon. That team also won the regular-season conference title and headed into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed, but Bennett was speaking less about basketball results and more about the character of a team made up of fan favorites. back

June 9th

Teresa A. Sullivan

Our decision to create a memorial to enslaved workers is an expression of our shared commitment to tell the full story of the University’s past, as we look toward its future. more


A New Memorial

President Teresa A. Sullivan said this when the University approved the design for its Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, planned for a site near the Rotunda across from University Avenue. The project is part of a long-running effort at the University, led by the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University and others, to explore the role enslaved laborers played in University’s construction and early operation, especially as UVA begins to commemorate its 200th anniversary. back