COLUMN: Colgate Darden – Part 4: Governor of Virginia

Published 12:43 pm Thursday, January 25, 2024

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Editor’s note: This is part four of five that will appear over the next few months.

By Bob Holt
Your Turn

Colgate Darden served as Governor of Virginia from January 1942 to January 1946. It is important to note that his taking office was the month immediately after the United States entered World War II. (Darden’s daughter, Ms. Irene Field, who still lives in Southampton County, has been extremely helpful in filling in some of the gaps in Guy Fridell’s book referenced earlier in Parts 1-3 in this series.)

To say that Colgate Darden’s four-year term as governor was average would be a gross understatement. His leadership and influence provided many programs that affect the lives of Virginians today. He was elected with 81% of voters supporting him.

His impact on public education cannot be overstated. He felt that teachers and state employees needed a retirement program so he created the Virginia Retirement System. The Virginia Department of Education felt that high schools needed to have a minimum of 2500 students to provide a comprehensive program, a plan he vetoed. Darden felt that students would spend too much time riding buses over long distances. He also felt teachers needed more equipment in classrooms and provided funds for that purpose which at that time was believed to be the largest allocation for classroom equipment in the United States. Darden strengthened vocational schools seeing the need for more skilled labor, a phenomenon that we see today.

In terms of higher education, Darden led plans for Virginia Tech (VPI then) to work closer with Radford University (College then) and the University of Virginia to work more closely with the University of Mary Washington (Mary Washington College then). He also established graduate programs in agriculture at Virginia Tech. Darden was instrumental in strengthening Norfolk Polytechnic College which is now Norfolk State University. 

As if these accomplishments were not enough, he managed to eliminate the state debt and leave office with a surplus, began a pollution control program working with localities on waste treatment, and expanded public health programs. Some of the surplus went to hospitals to support their needs.

Governor Darden felt that the prison system needed a new direction. He felt sentences were too long and there were inadequate opportunities to rehabilitate those incarcerated. He advocated for more probation and less jail time. He also established the prison farm in Southampton County still in operation today.

Fridell’s book contains a touching story of Darden’s compassion toward those carrying heavy burdens. A lady came to his office in Richmond and asked for an appointment to see the governor, and it was granted. She asked Governor Darden to pardon her brother who was serving time for murder and was dying. “I just don’t want to think of his dying in the penitentiary,” she said. The governor then called the head of the penal system and was told that the brother was gravely ill, near death, and had been a model prisoner. Darden then called the lady that her brother was being released to her custody. The brother died 10 days later at her home over Christmas. Governor Darden called this “the most poignant thing that happened to me while I was governor.”

Darden was concerned about Virginia’s civil defense since there were German submarines operating off shore near Virginia Beach. He was not concerned that they would come ashore, but their guns could reach Virginia citizen targets in the Tidewater area. German submarines were sinking supply ships coming out of the Chesapeake Bay. He ordered more observation and reaction training during these early years of WWII. Fortunately, no attacks on citizens occurred.

It is interesting to note that President Truman called Governor Darden in 1945. President Franklin Roosevelt had died and Trumen replaced him. Roosevelt had not really utilized Truman as vice president, and Truman took over distraught, overwhelmed, and bewildered. Being a relatively short distance from Washington, D.C., Governor Darden met in the Oval Office and assisted Truman in his transition.

One of the quotations from Darden that Fridell mentions in his book is this: “There’s no end of what can be accomplished if you don’t concern yourself with who gets credit for it.”

Next: Part 5 – President of the University of Virginia

Robert N. “Bob” Holt, a Franklin native, is a retired professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies degrees from Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets. His email address is