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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Father's impact on Dabney's educational development

Dabney's father taught history at the University of Virginia and cultivated a close relationship with former President Woodrow Wilson. Dabney credits his own erudition to his father's unique and methodical teaching style. As a homeschooled student, Dabney insists that he engaged in adolescent socialization with other children.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
He was a very good friend of Woodrow Wilson, One of Woodrow Wilson's nieces, I believe it was, wrote a book in which she says that my father was one of five intimate friends of Woodrow Wilson. He had a lot of letters from Wilson, which as you probably know, are in the University library, quite remarkable letters that are quoted by all the biographers of Wilson. He and Wilson had a very informal and relaxed relationship and kidded each other. Wilson was an entirely different individual in the company of his friends from those who saw him in public life and thought that he was very austere and difficult to get along with and aloof. He would write Father these very jocose letters and the only one that is not in the University of Virginia Library is the one that he wrote my father when I was born. He starts off, "O Thou Very Ass . . . " (laughter) That's typical of their relationship.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
How did this relationship start?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
They were at the University of Virginia together and became acquainted there, and Father got close to him in the fraternity, he was his protege in the Phi Kappa Psi's.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Did your father have any particular points of view or convictions that made an impression on you and about which you can talk?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, yes, I think he did, definitely. He was, above all, extremely honest and honorable. He was so much so that I was very much impressed with that characteristic. I remember that I did something once that shocked him very much. I was supposedly trying to be a violinist (I nev er got to first base with the violin). I had to go downtown, walk down with my violin and take lessons and walk back. I was supposed to come straight home so that Father could teach me German or French; he was teaching me both of them. I got sidetracked. A friend of mine, John Staige Davis, lived on the way (going up Pugby Road), and I saw him in the yard and I decided that I wasn't going straight home, I was going to go in there and pitch baseball with him, which I did. We were throwing the ball back and forth and I looked up and saw Father coming up the road. I didn't think he saw me, so I ducked behind a hedge, like a fool. He went on by and I didn't think he had seen me at all. When I got home, I went to the water cooler that always stood in the hall, to get a drink. He was in his study, and he was very much hurt by my having ducked behind the hedge and he said, "Why did you hide from me?" I was so stunned that I said, "I don't know." I was so upset by that, and he was too. He never mentioned it again and I was careful not to do anything like that again. That's a very trivial incident, but it had signifigance for me. was not only a historian, but a very fine linguist, not only in French and German, but in Latin and Greek, and he read Sophocles about as easily as he did Shakespeare. He tried to transfer the latter capacity to me, which was an utter failure. I wasn't good at all at Greek. I did very well in French and German, thanks to his method of teaching, which was quite unusual and maybe unique for that era. He didn't go for grammar at all and memorizing grammatical rules. It was his thought that you could learn a foreign language in the way that you learned your own language. That is, start very young and stress reading and conversation and just forget about rules of grammar. So, we started out with French and German that way. I was about seven or eight years old and it came so quickly and easily that by the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I had read probably ten times as much French and German as the average college graduate, and for no good reason except that I had such a fine teacher. I was mediocre at Greek, but I was pretty good at French and German. He did it. If I had started learning grammar, declensions and conjugations and all that, I would have been right back where everybody else was.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Don't you think that it's a little unusual . . . I read someplace that you didn't go to a formal type of school until you were thirteen.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, my father and my aunt taught me until I was thirteen and went to Episcopal High School. It was an advantage because I was in a much higher form when I went there than the other boys my age. I graduated at sixteen, which was the youngest that anybody had graduated from Episcopal High School at that time. It took graduates through the first year of college so they could get advanced standing and get off a year. So, I got my B.A. in three years.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Was this your father's idea, that he teach you?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, it was. You'd think that it would be bad in some ways and maybe it was. I didn't see other boys during the morning, I never had to do any night work at all, which was extraordinary, now that I think of it. I seemed to get ahead faster than the other boys who were going to private schools around there and yet, I didn't do any homework at night and wasn't supposed to, thanks to the instruction that I had. I got along more rapidly than I would have, and the the sort of isolation during the morning didn't seem to make any difference. I played all kinds of sports and was pretty large for my age and really was better than most of the other boys. I didn't turn out to be any athlete later, but when I was younger . . . we had a track meet between the Boy Scouts of Richmond and Charlottesville. You'd think that Richmond would have much better athletes than Charlottesville, which then had about 5,000 people or thereabouts. I was in the youngest group, which was, I think, up to fourteen and I was twelve. I won everything. I won the 50, 100, 220 and the 440, but I never won any more track meets after that. I was bigger and longer legged or something.