As the University of Virginia’s chief historian walked along the iconic campus Lawn one day years ago, he overheard a student tour guide explain the history of the Romance Pavilion: It was once home to a 19th-century professor and his beautiful daughter, who fell in love with a student whom her parents deemed unsuitable. She pined away for him and eventually died of a broken heart. Her spirit still haunts the pavilion.
No, no, no, Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. remembers thinking. It’s called the Romance Pavilion because Romance languages were once taught there.
“I took French there,” said Gilliam, 78, who graduated from U-Va. in 1955 with a history degree, returned in 1975 for a job and stuck around. Gilliam asked the head of the student guides to stop by his office — and to bring a yellow tablet and pencil to take notes.
“They have very vivid imaginations,” said Gilliam, who was once a guide himself. “And you have to admire their inventiveness.”
At the country’s most historic colleges, some of the wildest tales handed down through generations of students and retold to campus visitors have only kernels of truth in them — if any at all. This is especially significant at U-Va., which Thomas Jefferson founded in 1819 and is filled with academic buildings and student housing dating back generations.
The university has a lively history, but students often embellish it with imaginative guesses and tall tales. Being a U-Va. tour guide is a coveted position that requires an audition and semester-long training, which for the last few years has included a meeting with Gilliam to set the record straight.
One Thursday evening this spring, Gilliam stood before more than two dozen guides-in-training. The students took turns discussing a list of 50 statements about the university, some true and some false.
Example: The Chinese Chippendale screens in front of some windows of faculty homes on the grounds were put there so that professors who were paid per-pupil could sit astride the screen and lecture to students sitting inside and outside.
One prospective guide said she had just taken a tour that discussed the screens: “This is a myth because the Chippendale screens were there because of animals,” she said.
Gilliam corrected her and the statement. “The screens had nothing to do with animals,” he said. Or professors expanding classroom size. Or keeping children from falling out of windows. “All of that’s nonsense. It’s just not true. They’re decorative.”
Another example: An 1824 dinner that Jefferson hosted at U-Va. for the French general Marquis de Lafayette lasted all night. A student asked: “Weren’t they kind of too old to be partying all night long?”
“Okay, this is another guide story that you need to get out of your heads,” Gilliam said. “The dinner for Lafayette started at 2 or 3 in the afternoon and it did go on for a while, but it certainly did not go on all night. . . . Probably only until 5 or 6.”
Gilliam also regaled the students with true stories from his days at the university in the 1950s — and from his father’s and grandfather’s days at U-Va. Gilliam, who grew up in Virginia, worked as a special assistant to three university presidents and served as the Board of Visitors secretary for nearly two decades. A university announcement of his semiretirement in 2009 referred to Gilliam as a “veritable walking history of U-Va.”
Gilliam told the students about “Easters,” a series of formal dances in the spring that had nothing to do with the religious holiday and were canceled in the 1980s when police could no longer control the drunken crowds.
“In my parents’ time, it was for a week,” he told them. And in his day, it was just a weekend. Women from nearby towns and colleges would take the train to Charlottesville to dance to a live band. At the end of the weekend, the men escorted their dates to the train station.
“It was known as the freedom train because after three days of you and your date being together, unless you were really serious, three days was more than enough on both sides. Believe me," Gilliam said. “And so after the freedom train left, everybody got back from the station, and there was a huge party.”
As the hour-long lesson was ending, a few students stuck around to ask about the validity of one last statement in the list of 50: “Streaking has existed since the earliest days of the University.”
Not true, Gilliam told them. Naked runs through the campus apparently gained popularity in the 1980s. “At first the police took a very dim view of it,” he said. “I’ve only seen it once myself — in broad daylight.”