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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 >>

Dabney's decision to become a journalist

Dabney explains his entrance into the field of journalism as serendipity. His experiences at and his relationship with teachers at his private Episcopalian high school helped influence Dabney's decision to become a journalist.

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

DANIEL JORDAN:
I believe that we have touched on your early education under the direction of your father and I wondered if we might move now to Episcopal High School and your experiences there and the activities.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, I went there at age thirteen, my father went up with me on the train the day before, I never understood the reason why. We were supposed to be there on a certain day and we went the day before. We walked there from Alexandria, in those rugged individualist days, you didn't worry about walking three miles, so we just walked on up. I and one other boy were the only ones there that day. He is still living and a good friend of mine, John T. Lewis, Jr. The Episcopal High School then was a little smaller than it is now, but not very much, it had about 185 boys. They had just finished two new dormitories which were regarded as the ultimate in luxury, I suppose, although they were just like horse stalls if you lived in them. (laughter) Really, literally, it was just a stall with a curtain in front of it and a narrow bed and a wardrobe to put things in and one small chair with a straw bottom. No desk, no light, just the window. You were not supposed to stay in there, you weren't supposed to stay in there at all, it was just to sleep. You got up in the morning and got out of there and went to breakfast and came back and brushed your teeth and then you went to class and then you played in some game or athletics or something in the afternoon and then went to study hall at night. I was, as I mentioned awhile ago, very fortunate in my previous instruction, since I was a couple of years younger than most of the boys in my class. I graduated at sixteen and I played on the baseball team, I was singles tennis champion. I was homesick as the devil the first year, like everybody else. The school did a great deal for me; I couldn't admire it more than I do. Mr. Hoxton, the headmaster, was a great leader of the boys, he was a tremendous personality and a great athlete, which was what we thought was most impressive. He was not particularly intellectual, which I find unfortunate now, but at the time, it didn't hurt me in the least. He was a charming gentleman, very upright, and honorable, devoutly religious, but he never discussed any cultural subject, as far as I can recall. On Sunday nights, the boys would call on him and on other teachers and he was very agreeable and would talk about almost anything except books or art. He was really just not interested in those subjects. When I went on the board of the school, some of us got together and decided that we were going to try to get an art course in the curriculum. There wasn't any when I was in the school. On the board, as I said, we brought the matter up and didn't get anywhere with Mr. Hoxton; he just didn't think that was the sort of thing that ought to be taught in a boy's school. Latin, Greek and mathematics were the three things that he thought were fundamental, plus a few other things like English, government, and history. Well, after we butted our heads against a brick wall on that, I talked to Mr. John Stewart Bryan, the publisher of the paper I was working for, who was a great intimate of Mr. Hoxton. I asked Mr. Bryan to please get hold of Mr. Hoxton the next time he went up to the school and talk to him about an art course, which Mr. Bryan was all for doing. He did talk to Mr. Hoxton the night before the board meeting, and Mr. Hoxton was so completely converted that he wanted to build an entire building devoted to art. Well, none of us wanted to do that. (laughter) We didn't have any money to do it with in the first place, but we did get the art course in, and after that, musci, and musci appreciationIt was a better balanced curriculum. Another shortcoming was that we were not urged by the school to take advantage of the cultural opportunities in Washington. We had holiday every Monday and you could go to Washington once a month, if you had the money. If you were a monitor, you could go once a week. I was a monitor my third year, but I seldom had the money to go to Washington, even once a month. I had an allowance of 25¢ a week, which wasn't too unusual at that time. Some plutocrats had a dollar a week, which seemed astronomical to me. I would sometimes get money at Christmas and hoard it so that I could go to Washington. When we went to Washington, it seldom occurred to use to go to an art gallery or a symphony or to see the workings of Congress. We would go to a cheap restaurant and get lunch and maybe to a movie. We couldn't afford to go to any good restaurant; we would go to the Washington Lunch and get hot cakes with syrup. That was usually the extent of our splurge. The school did a lot for me in the sense that they had a fine honor system and very good instruction in the courses that they had. The teachers were remarkable; a number of them were quite exceptional, and made a lasting impression. While the curriculum was limited, it was typical of the era, and similar to that in most Southern prep schools.
DANIEL JORDAN:
You were editor of the school paper, weren't you?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
No, I was on it but I wasn't editor. I was only fifteen in the beginning of my last year.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Do you think that this was the beginning of your leanings toward journalism, at that time, at fifteen?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, this is an interesting angle. I was on the school paper one term and tried out the next term and didn't get it. So, my experience was limited. I was not on the annual. I came to Virginia and tried out for College Topics; it's the Cavalier Daily now. I tried out for College Topics and didn't make that. I was on the annual and it did not occur to me during my college career to go in for journalism, especially since I had failed to get on the college paper. I always had some facility in writing; I didn't have any trouble with English, but I just never thought about going into journalism. When I was in my final year at Virginia, Mr. Hoxton, the headmaster of Episcopal High, wrote and asked me if I would be interested in teaching at the school next year, and I said I would. I didn't know what I wanted to do and I thought that would be a good way to spend a year. It wouldn't be wasted and at the same time, I would think about what I was going to do. It still didn't occur to me to go into newspaper work until the middle of that year, when my father wrote me and said, "Did you ever think of going into journalism?" It was astonishing that I hadn't thought of it, and as soon as he said that, the suggestion appealed to me. So, I went down to Richmond to see Mr. Bryan the publisher of the News Leader, He gave me a job effective that next summer, at the magnificent salary of $20 a week, which was just about par for the course.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
This was about 1921?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
It was 1922, I came down in March of '22 and was to go to work the first of July.