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The Conrad Years (1882-1886)

Thomas Nelson Conrad had a colorful past. He had been a teacher and lay preacher and, during the Civil War, a Confederate chaplain, scout, and spy. A former president of Preston and Olin Institute, he wanted the position as VAMC’s president in 1872. When he failed to get it, he became editor of the local newspaper, The Montgomery Messenger, and proceeded to use the paper to publicly criticize various actions taken by the VAMC Board of Visitors. When he was appointed the third president of VAMC, he had been a member of the college’s faculty since the 1879 reorganization.

Conrad assumed his duties on Jan.17, 1882, and immediately began reorganizing the college, using the 1879 reorganization plan as his guideline. This meant that military discipline would be extended into all phases of a student’s life at the college. During his term, the board of visitors added a business department to those already existing: agricultural, mechanical, and literary and scientific. When the board met later in the year, it also decided to offer the A.B. degree in the literary and scientific department that academic year and to expand the curriculum the following year by adding degrees of civil engineering and mining engineering. The first degrees, both A.B.s, were awarded to two students, W. J. Havener and R. J. Noell, at the 1883 commencement. In 1884 the college adopted an academic-year schedule of three quarters rather than two semesters.

During Conrad’s first year in office, student morale began to rise, public confidence seemed to return, and the future seemed bright. R. R. Farr, the new state superintendent of public instruction, reported in the press that “Conrad seems to be solving the problem of how to mix learning with labor.” He also noted that the students’ “military bearing and evolutions on the parade” made them look as if “they were all veteran soldiers; notice their gentlemanly deportment and you would be satisfied with the morals and discipline of the institution. . . . [T]he college deserves the hearty support of the people of Virginia and seems to be receiving it.”

Unfortunately, Conrad could not stay out of politics and became heavily involved on the side of the Readjusters in both the 1883 and 1885 state election campaigns, drawing a great deal of criticism both times. Fitzhugh Lee, a Democrat, was elected governor in 1885, and the Readjuster party faded into oblivion. One of Lee’s appointments—all Democrats—to the board of visitors was W. H. F. Lee. Both Lees had felt the brunt of Conrad’s pen when he had edited The Montgomery Messenger.

At its March 23, 1886, meeting, the new board of visitors removed all faculty and officers of the college, effective July 1. Further, it adopted a resolution prohibiting all officers of the college from engaging in politics beyond voting. Then it selected Lunsford Lindsay Lomax, a West Point graduate and friend of the two Lees, to succeed Conrad and become the college’s fourth president.

Earlier in the month—on March 1, 1886—the state legislature had voted to establish an Agricultural Experiment Station at VAMC. Like many new initiatives at the college, the experiment station became a topic for debate and divisiveness. On Feb. 29, 1888, during Lomax’s presidency, the state accepted the provisions of the federal Hatch Act of March 2, 1887, which provided grants of money to maintain such experiment stations.