David L. Holmes was an iconic figure to many during his five decades at William & Mary. A highly popular professor, teacher and scholar, Holmes’ former students say he was quick with a quip, closely connected to them and deeply committed to W&M, where he taught for 48 years.

From his office and classroom in the historic Wren Building, Holmes witnessed much during that  time. There was the major fire at Jefferson Hall on a January morning in 1983 – and the outpouring of support students received in its aftermath from campus and community members.

There were six university presidents, and Holmes paid particular attention to the speaking styles of each. There were partnerships across the institution, and the large and small experiences from everyday classroom occurrences to major events at the university.

All of this is captured in Holmes’ “Glimpses of a Public Ivy: 50 years at William & Mary,” which was published in December by Schiffer Publishing.

“The following collection of vignettes … presents a kind of autobiography of William & Mary from the 1950s through 2000,” Holmes, the Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus, writes in the book’s introduction. 

“It is not intended as a history of the university, since several well-written histories already exist. It is also not a personal essay. Rather, it is a different kind of writing. The 50 vignettes in the collection are based on fact, but the author has shaped and ordered the stories.”

Holmes, who taught at W&M from 1965 until his retirement in 2013, said: “I wanted to write this book to give back in some way.”

A window into W&M teaching excellence

Through vignettes, Holmes describes slices of life at William & Mary over five decades. Writing in the third person, he maintains the anonymity of his sources to keep his tales lively and true while recalling his fellow members among the community of students, faculty, administrators and alumni. Almost 70 people contributed memories to the book, which is divided into sections on student life; faculty life; alumni and life after W&M; and presidents, provosts and deans. Personal stories and institutional history are interwoven as growth and change at W&M are detailed during times of societal strides being made in gender, race and LGBTQ rights.

Book cover showing William & Mary Wren Building with words Glimpses of a Public Ivy: 50 Years at William & Mary

Holmes used his view from the classroom and involvement across campus to observe and preserve moments that come to life on the book’s pages.

Williamsburg resident Susan Williamson edited the book. The stories illustrate Holmes’ belief in the university’s teaching excellence for undergraduates, its exceptional students and faculty and a campus experience beyond what might be expected of a public institution of higher learning, she said. W&M consistently is recognized for its commitment to undergraduate teaching, including ranking tied for seventh nationally in the latest U.S. News & World Report listing.

“Professor Holmes wanted to share with others the dedication to undergraduate teaching that makes William & Mary such a good school, and to share how much it has grown beyond its early purpose without forsaking its history or commitment to excellence,” Williamson said. “I found the stories touching, inspiring and often humorous.”

Bill Harris ’73, a former Holmes student as well as a longtime teacher and W&M’s baseball coach, helped with the book project from its early stages.

“The appeal of the book is going to be not only on the occasion when somebody actually recognizes or identifies with a specific story,” Harris said, “but also because what this book does is really capture the life at William & Mary in that 50-year period. And over the years I think it’s going to be a really, really important book not just to William & Mary, but to colleges everywhere. I won’t be surprised if we see glimpses of a woman’s college or glimpses of a military institute type thing. The stories are really universal in theme.

“The goal, and I think it was achieved, was to take these individual vignettes and weave them together to show a continuum story of how the school was by using specific episodes in the individual lives of some of the graduates.”

Teacher, scholar and ‘a charismatic charmer’

Holmes taught at W&M when the modern-day religious studies department was being established with him as one of its founders. He won numerous teaching awards including the Outstanding Faculty Award of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which is the most prestigious teaching honor given by the state, and the Thomas Jefferson Award from W&M. 

Holmes always put his students first, and they responded to that by gravitating towards his classes, according to Harris. Many students took his classes outside of their major.

“His style was one of the reasons that I chose teaching, and I have many, many friends who would say the same thing,” Harris said. “He was not only erudite and exceptionally well-informed, he was exceptionally humorous in his delivery and very, very student-directed.

“I remember a number of occasions where he would deviate from the day’s lecture to banter with a student with tongue in cheek, a little sparkle in his eye. The guy really was a charismatic charmer.”

Holmes was well-known as a nationally recognized scholar and award-winning teacher. He served five times as a visiting professor at University of Virginia and was awarded honorary degrees by two universities. Holmes specialized in the religions of U.S. presidents, and he authored six books including “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers,” “A Brief History of the Episcopal Church” and “The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents.”

He and his wife, Carolyn, were deeply enmeshed in W&M. She was director of the James Monroe’s Highland for many years.

Charles Fulcher ’99, director of operations and events at the Wren Building, said his time in Holmes’ classes “left an indelible impression on my worldview.” Among the things Fulcher learned from Holmes was slowing down to observe back roads and buildings, cultivating a love of architecture, asking probing questions, improving one’s writing, being willing to talk with students and empowering students to take the time they need to find their path in life.

Fulcher shares these lessons with students he supervises, he said.

“It really struck me what a legacy David Holmes has left, not just for the decades here on campus, but how those experiences spread outward from each person who encountered him,” Fulcher said.

That legacy comes across in the book, Harris said, as the narrator guides a journey through snapshots of a campus of a certain era.

“What kept me involved with the book project was experiencing through his eyes the joy of recollection,” Harris said. “Every time we went over a story, he just came to life and just really, really enjoyed looking back and sharing his glimpses of a public ivy.”

, University News & Media