Confronting the past at ‘The University’

Published 9:15 am Friday, October 24, 2014

by John Railey

The younger son went back the other day to the town where he spent his first year in college. The school where he was supposed to succeed but didn’t.

On the ride up, he watched our Piedmont surrender to the hills of the Blue Ridge, waiting for the skylines to ease him even though he knew they would not. He was thinking about his late father.

Three decades before, the son had entered the University of Virginia as a first-year student. (The school, at least when he was there, does not say “freshman,” etc., but goes by year rank, one of its many peculiar phrasings, including “The Grounds” instead of “campus.”)

The younger son had enrolled there, he’d finally figured out years ago, mostly because his father (Carolina undergrad) went to law school at Virginia on the GI Bill, and two of his beloved siblings went to UVA. Just gaining admission to the school was a big deal for the younger son. But he had a disastrous time, too much partying and too little studying as he wandered lost on The Grounds of the school founded by Mr. Jefferson, the U.S. president most revered by the boy’s parents.

As he set out on the visit the other day, the younger son had decided he wanted to resolve that year at Virginia. He tried to approach the visit moderately and calmly, telling himself that the boy of then had become the man of now. The boy lost at Virginia had become the man found at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Or at least that’s what the son told himself as he and his wife parked at The Corner, UVA’s downtown. The son remembered wild nights on The Corner, including a rush through rain with a girl from long ago to see the now classic football movie, “North Dallas Forty.”

The son and his wife ate at The Virginian and walked across The Grounds. One of the son’s nephews and his girlfriend are both Virginia Law students, a fact of which the son’s father would join the son in being proud.

The son and his wife walked on. He showed her the brick dorm where he had lived during his year at Virginia.

And right up the hill from that dorm, they revisited the spot where the ashes of the son’s father are held in a columbarium wall. It’s in a garden of stone that bears the best and the brightest of that school. The son’s father, who had worked his family up from Great Depression depths, would have been proud to be in that company.

The son knelt beside his father’s spot on the wall. He remembered his father and mother lovingly driving him up to his dorm in their station wagon. He remembered them standing by him that year, even as his mother fought cancer. He remembered meeting older classmates in the graveyard, a launching pad for trips to girls’ schools down the road.

He remembered that his father had always supported him in his newspaper career. The old man had kept silent about how much he wanted the boy to follow him into the law.

The son remembered all the good times he and his father had at their beach cottage, and all the wild tales the old man told him of his Navy service in the South Pacific in World War II. He remembered introducing his future wife to his father on their Nags Head beach. The boy had driven in earlier that afternoon and he and his father were sitting there, drinking Corona Lights and watching the ocean, when they turned around and saw her crossing the dune at sunset.

The father turned around, as impressed as his son, and said in his Tidewater drawl, “Hello, Kathleen. How about a bee-ah?”

It was one of many fine but fleeting times with his father.

The son remembered that 10 years ago, shortly after his father’s death, the family had gathered in the Charlottesville cemetery to bid him farewell.

On the recent late afternoon, the son and his wife stood there in that cemetery, by the spot on the wall where his father’s ashes were. They each set a penny on a ledge beneath the spot. The father loved Lincoln and his promise of freedom. And if they’d left a coin of a higher denomination, he might have objected, the Great Depression child that he was.

From his cup, the son poured a sprinkle of Corona Light in front of his father’s spot. The younger son, with his wife by his side, was as at peace as he would ever be. Love abides.

JOHN RAILEY is a Courtland native and the editorial page editor for the Winston-Salem Journal, where this column first appeared. His email address is