LC in History: Heard it Through the Grapevine

Dr. Clifton W. Potter, LC History Professor~

When I was a first-year, someone in the Registrar’s Office created my first semester’s schedule, putting all of my classes in the hours before noon since I had to work in the afternoons and evenings.

 I was lucky because all my professors had high ratings via the “Grapevine.”  This was an informal network which operated among the members of the student body providing candid evaluations of every member of the faculty.  I do not know if it still exists, but I hope it does because it provided information which could mean the difference between passing and failing.  During Freshman Week, upperclassmen helped first-years alter their schedules to avoid certain academic “pitfalls.”

My schedule was described as “excellent” by my group leaders, but I had my doubts when I got the lowest grade I ever received on a history test—an 88.  The professor who gave me a B+ was Dr. G. Melvin Herndon, ’51.  When the shock of receiving a B+ on a history test passed, Dr. Herndon began the task of fashioning me into a historian.  My students are familiar with phrases like “details give an essay depth,”  “make an outline on a piece of scrap paper before you begin to write,” and “proofread with care,” but they are not original with me. Dr. Herndon covered my tests and written assignments with them, and I followed them bringing my 88 up to a 97 on the next test.

When I began my senior year, I sought Dr. Herndon’s advice about graduate school, and he drove me up to Charlottesville to visit the University of Virginia and meet the chairman of the history department.  I submitted my application to UVA on the day before Thanksgiving, and my letter of acceptance arrived during the first week of December. In April, I was awarded a fellowship and a position as a grader. Without hesitation, I know I have Dr. Herndon to thank for my good fortune.

In the fall of 1963, Dr. Herndon was granted a yearlong sabbatical, and he spent it at UVA.   It was then that I came to know him not just as a professor, but as a friend.  Thus, I was distressed to learn that he had been offered a position at the University of Georgia in Athens, and would not be returning to Lynchburg College.  My hope of someday becoming a colleague of Melvin Herndon was never realized.  When a professor takes a sabbatical he or she receives half-salary, but there is an obligation to return to Lynchburg College for at least one year so that students may receive the benefit of that year devoted to study and scholarship.  Melvin Herndon offered to return every cent he had received from the college during his sabbatical.  This was the kind of man he was.

I saw him only one more time, a decade later at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Society which met in Atlanta that year, but we kept in touch, contacting one another every Christmas. He married his college sweetheart, Jacquelyn Hutchison,’51, and they raised a daughter and a son. Dr. James L. Owens, who died earlier this year, was a student of Dr. Herndon at the University of Georgia, proving that the academic world is indeed a small place!