Robert E. R. Huntley: Remembering a Life of Honor
By W. Joe Beeby The state of Washington and Lee University in 1968 could charitably be called "poor" when Bob Huntley took hold of the reigns at the green age of 38. Decades of minimal fundraising had stagnated the great school, leaving it nearly penniless and without the vigor of its yesteryear. The campus was in dire need of someone with leadership and vision (and, quite frankly, a knack for fundraising). President Huntley was the W&L gentleman that would meet and exceed those deficiencies. He did not campaign or apply for the position. By his own admission, he was less than willingly selected. In his own words: “I really didn’t have much choice. I really didn’t. I really didn’t want to become president. I was rather happy being Dean of the Law School.” But perhaps a Cincinnatus type was exactly what the ailing university needed.
Robert E. R. Huntley was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1929. He began his time at Washington & Lee in 1946. As a student, he served on the Executive Committee and, along with close friend and classmate Roger Mudd, was an active member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity and the varsity rowing team. He graduated with a B.A. in English. After four years in the Navy, Huntley returned to W&L for Law School, obtaining his J.D. in 1957. The following year, he was invited back to teach law and less than a decade later rose to the rank of Dean of the Law School. He had hardly settled into his new office when he was tapped for the role of President. Among all these accomplishments, President Huntley found time to marry his beloved Evelyn, with whom he shared a close and romantic marriage until her passing in 2010. Huntley concluded his sixteen year-long presidency in 1983. Afterward, he taught at the law school once again before moving on to run a company and practice law, among other things, until his retirement from professional life in 1996.
Having been a Double General, a professor of law, and quickly ascending to the rank of Dean of the Law School, Huntley was an obvious choice to the Board of Trustees, even if not to himself. Despite the poor status of the university at the outset of his tenure, the Huntley years would come to provide a sort of renaissance for Washington and Lee. His leadership dramatically increased the university’s endowment, which allowed for the funding of numerous campus improvements. These included the construction of Leyburn Library, Lewis Hall, Woods Creek Apartments, and the addition of the Warner Center to Doremus. In 1968, the school’s endowment was a meager twelve million dollars, an amount that Huntley joked “couldn’t even mow the lawn.” To make matters worse, the endowment was withering away as it had to be spent to pay faculty salaries. As he put it, “the school was simply broke.” Huntley quickly worked to rectifying this situation and within several years, the endowment had grown to well over one hundred million dollars.
Huntley’s contributions to Washington & Lee are numerous and invaluable, but his character as President shined most brightly through the difficult times of his long tenure. The spring of 1970 saw the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and subsequent upheavals across the country, particularly on college campuses. The students of W&L were no exception. That May, students began boycotting class and threatened to skip their final exams in protest of the Cambodian campaign and the Kent State debacle. A student petition to close the school for the duration of the turmoil reached Huntley’s desk, forcing him to hold a faculty vote. The vote was unanimous to keep the university open, but President Huntley knew he would have to be diplomatic with the students. He called the students to the colonnade lawn and addressed the group from a podium in front of Lee Chapel. His offer was this: continue boycotting class and make up the exams upon returning in the fall or return to class now and take exams as scheduled. The former was not a popular choice. But his offering of a choice showed tact and respect for the students. He gave them the option to continue their protest, without absolving them of the responsibility or consequences.
His strong connection with the student body is illustrated in another anecdote. One evening, a group of students came knocking at the Lee House, offering to protect the Huntleys from a suspected group of marauding UVA students. Needless to say, the Huntley household was not overly concerned with the Wahoo threat, yet they allowed the students to camp out on the porch for the duration of the night. Mrs. Huntley only asked that they move the geraniums into the house if it began to frost, and informed them that she would leave the door unlocked for them to do so. It is a charming story, but more than that, it shows the trust and closeness that existed between the Huntleys and the student body. His time as President was punctuated with countless interactions among students and faculty that fostered a campus that respected all its members. This intimacy with the student body came to embody the Huntley presidency, and has not been matched since.
Bob Huntley was gifted in a wide variety of disciplines. His business career was expansive and successful. Most notably, he served as Chairman, CEO, and President of Best Products of Richmond, Virginia as well as a member of the Board of Directors of Altria Group. His career in academia need not be further expounded. A lifelong scholar of politics, Huntley exemplified the conservatism that pervades the university and did not mince words in his dedication to conservative politics. His expertise in the subject led a neighbor once to say she could not argue with him, not because he was stubborn or bullish, but because he simply “knew something about everything.” He expressed his appreciation for continued efforts to preserve a conservative spirit at W&L. Huntley spoke highly of the Futch Forum, a recently inaugurated speakership series that honors Huntley’s colleague Professor Jefferson Davis Futch III for his dedication to the conservative movement.
We are all reminded of President Huntley’s impact on Washington & Lee daily. We learn in a building named in his honor. We study in the library he built. We live in the apartments he constructed. The entirety of the Law School is located in one of his building projects. These tangible remembrances are important; we need places to live and learn and study. But the Huntley presidency was and is much more. President Huntley revived the university both financially and spiritually. Finances are important; an institution cannot survive without proper funding. The strong giving tradition of W&L alumni, which has characterized the past forty years, began under Huntley. But perhaps most importantly, President Huntley reinvigorated the spirit of the campus. Having been the first alumnus to serve as president, he knew what it meant to be a General. This allowed him to create an environment that inspired students to achieve the excellence that he modeled. It motivated faculty and staff to lead, educate, and serve. His skillset and achievements did not sour him with any aloofness. Huntley was a kind and friendly man with a penchant for storytelling. His grandson Colin Whitmore recalls Huntley’s iconic pairing of success and humility by saying, “In many ways he was superman and everyman, and that was what I admired most about him.” President Huntley will be dearly missed, and we are indebted to his life and career. Shortly before his death, he recalled his time at W&L with the remark, “I had a marvelous time as president.” Let us remember that this place is all the more marvelous because of President Robert E. R. Huntley. The quotations and stories of this article came from a conversation I had with President Huntley a week before his death in December. Special thanks to David Keeling ’73 for the introduction to President Huntley. Special thanks also to Colin Whitmore, Huntley’s grandson, for speaking with me about his grandfather. Colin will carry on Huntley’s legacy as a freshman at W&L next year.