Dr. Clifton W. Potter Jr., LC History Professor -
This is a story I never tire of telling, particularly at this time of year. Dr. Josephus Hopwood, the founding father of Virginia Christian College, which became Lynchburg College in 1919, devoted his adult life to the service of others. The seeds of this commitment were planted when young Hopwood heard Abraham Lincoln speak during the tumultuous years that preceded his election to the presidency in 1860. The secession of the southern states from the Union and President Lincoln’s call for volunteers changed Josephus Hopwood’s life forever.
A private in Company L of the 7th Illinois Cavalry, Hopwood was captured twice by Confederate troops. The first time he was exchanged as was the custom early in the conflict. The second time he was taken prisoner occurred after he gave his mount to a wounded comrade and then tried to rejoin his unit on foot. From October 1863 until March 1864, the twenty-year-old was a prisoner of war at Belle Isle below Richmond. He sold parts of his uniform to buy food for his starving comrades. When he was finally released and returned home to Illinois, Hopwood vowed that he would complete his college studies and return to the South and devote his life to making education available to the young men and women of that region. While a prisoner, Hopwood was moved by the plight of his comrades, but he was appalled by the illiteracy of his guards. They had never had the chance to learn to read or write—public education was almost unknown in the ante-bellum South.
In the summer of 1903 Dr. Hopwood and his wife, Sarah LaRue Hopwood—who shared her husband’s strong commitment to service—arrived in Lynchburg to convert the empty Westover Hotel into a college. They accepted only room, board, and a small clothing allowance as their salaries—everything else was devoted to the building of VCC, and particularly providing financial support for potential students who could not afford higher education. The Hopwoods finally retired from their labors in the midst of the Great Depression with no savings, no pension and no home. However a life of service and philanthropy yielded a legacy of love from friends and former students. They built the Hopwoods their first home in Milligan, Tennessee and provided for all their personal needs until their deaths in 1935. Sometimes benevolence yields a return far beyond the expectations of those who give without reservation.
At Lynchburg College we have a heritage of service that stretches back over a century. Each year our students, faculty, and staff donated thousands of hours of service to the college, the community, the nation and the world. Of course we answer the call after a natural disaster devastates some part of our nation, or the wider world; Dr. and Mrs. Hopwood would have expected no less from the heirs of their dream of a college founded on service to others. Never forget that this all began with a young Union prisoner of war from Illinois sharing his blanket to keep his comrades from freezing.