Whitehurst Looks Back at Life in the Classroom, Congress
October 15, 2020
G. William Whitehurst, better known as Dr. Bill, joined the faculty of the two-year Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary nearly 70 years ago to teach history.
He was appointed dean of students in 1962 and left Old Dominion College in 1969 to serve as a moderate Republican in the U.S. House. Whitehurst returned in 1987 to become the Kaufman lecturer for public affairs.
He estimates he taught 12,000 students. He retired in May, still passionate about history, praising today's students but lamenting the turn toward bitterness in Washington.
You're only 95 years old. Why retire now?
I didn't think I'd live this long. What's happened is, I've just started to lose some things. I can't remember names. Mentally, I'm not alert as I used to be. Am I going to miss it? Certainly, but I know it's time for me to walk away.
Do you think your experience in Congress made you a better instructor?
Definitely. I found myself frequently citing events that had taken place when I was in office. I'll give you an example. My first term, I was put on a task group to go out to Vietnam. We went to Cambodia to look at the cache of captured North Vietnamese weapons. They had stashed the stuff in a shaft 10 or 15 feet into the ground. I thought, how are we going to win this war? Anybody who puts that kind of energy into this, they're not going to give up. It was the first time I had doubts about the conflict. When I came back to teach, the war was over, but I shared it with the students in my classes.
President Nixon asked you to run for Senate. Why did you say no?
You don't have the one-on-one relationships that you have in the House. I was able to do a lot of things for people that I don't think I could have done in the Senate. The other thing was, I would have been running against Bill Spong (who later became interim president of ODU). Bill was a wonderful guy. I voted for him when he first ran.
Why did you leave Washington to return to teaching?
I thought, if I hung in there till I was 70, who the hell would hire me then? I wanted a life less hectic than going back and forth from Washington every weekend. And I wanted to get back to the career that gave me so much gratification.
You've said you have the best job in the world. What made teaching so much fun for you?
I have a captive audience to share my knowledge and experience. And young people are fun to be around. You get personal relationships that are very heartwarming. It's an environment of perpetual youth and, consequently, making a living in that environment is very gratifying.
What's been the biggest change in students since 1950?
I've taught students in recent years who have written papers that compare favorably to my own writing, and I'm no slouch. I would have to say that the scholars are really outstanding and, quality-wise, better than those I taught when I first got into teaching.
You talk with pride about working with representatives from the other party to get things done in the House. Those days are gone. How will we get back to a sense of collegiality in Washington?
It's hard to say. There's just a lot of damn hateful partisanship out there. It's not just Congress. I think we manifest a lack of recognizing that the other person has a piece of truth themselves. It was different when I was in office. My closest friend in the House was Tom Downing (a Democrat from Newport News). I loved Tommy. It wasn't that we voted together. We respected each other. I sense a lot of disrespect now. Maybe it's a cyclical thing.
Finally, why did you always wear a coat and tie to class?
Because it makes a statement. I'm not a student. I'm a faculty member, and we need to dress in a way that establishes our position. We lose something when we dress like them.
Read the full Q&A with Bill Whitehurst in the fall issue of Monarch magazine at www.odu.edu/monarchmag