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A Hat Tip to UVA

And just what is it about this place

The Lords of Discipline, Pat Conroy’s novel based on his time at the Citadel, opens with a simple declaration: “I wear the ring.”

Well, I wear the hat.

I wear the ring too, the one with the Minerva signet, but for our purposes here, the hat matters more, the one with the block “V,” from Mincer’s.

I wore it on a recent fall day, vacationing with friends in what seemed a far remove, a bistro in northern Michigan. A guy walked in and sat at the next table.

He wore the hat. Instantly, strangers became landsmen, and we broke into our native tongue, the Academical Language. You know the patter. Instead of air quotes, Wahoos use the air shift key, uppercasing words seemingly at random—like  “Lawn” and “University” and “Grounds” and, depending on your vintage, the “The” that may or may not precede them.

That gleam came to our eyes, and spouses and friends rolled theirs.

Princeton has its Princetonians, Texas its Exes and, at Michigan, a well-timed “Go Blue!” can make them go goosey. And yet, it’s not the same as our shared experience. Or, if it is, you’re not going to read about it here. Because this is a 200th birthday card, a let-me-count-the-ways love note, that will try to parse the spell that binds.

A sense of Honor. We should start here. Honor enters the psyche roughly on move-in day, when you join a compact not to lie, cheat or steal. A standard so basic, it almost goes without saying. But at Virginia, students do say it, and pledge it, and ponder its full implications on a regular basis. Pretty soon, being taken at your word, and living up to the expectation, takes a hold of your life.

“It’s not just like, ‘go get this degree,’” says fourth-year Hannah Melissa “Mel” Borja (Col ’19). Being part of the community of trust is more than that, she says, “kind of a holistic transformative experience.”

Early in our relationship my wife knew that when I used three magic words, I wasn’t feeding her a line, deadpanning a joke or telling her anything other than the God’s truth: “on my honor.”

I’m not going to claim all Wahoos tell the truth all the time, but I will say that if we are tempted otherwise, we feel a special pang. You write the Pledge enough times, it haunts you. In a good way.

A sense of independence. If UVA graduates seem unusually self-possessed, it may have something to do with the extraordinary self-determination we were allowed as students. Self-governance gives Student Council appropriations authority over serious money. University Guides, not administration officials, decide the narrative the visiting public will hear. Students have the power to expel a peer.

Several years ago a Boston executive asked Dean of Students Allen W. Groves (Law ’90) why it is that his firm can reach more deeply into a UVA class than it can recruiting at other schools. “We allow them to make weighty decisions before they leave,” Groves explained, “but also couple it with the fact that, OK, now you’re accountable.”

Here’s how I’d explain it to an outsider. Rules? We’re not always the best at following them. We do better and, frankly, you do better, when you leave us to our own devices.

Teachers who teach, and care. Yes, we uppercase “University,” but we also try to low-key it. UVA has always tried to preserve the character of a college, even outside the College. When Paul Freedman, an associate chair of the Department of Politics, first arrived, a colleague described the place this way: UVA is, in a send-up of the Campbell’s Chunky Soup slogan, “the big research institution that eats like a small liberal arts college.”

It’s why you still find even the most accomplished faculty in the undergraduate classroom. And it’s why undergraduates also can find them outside it. In my day, it was meeting Mr. Cauthen or Mr. Mead inside the Colonnade Club for Oreos and tea, or going out to the Greencroft Club for lunch and something stronger.

Naturally, then, I loved it when Borja recounted walking up to the School of Commerce’s Sherri Moore at the end of a class to ask a question. As the answer approached what seemed like five minutes, Moore stopped herself and asked Borja if they might continue the conversation at the Garden Room in Hotel E.

“I don’t even remember what I asked her about,” Borja says a year later, “and then we were having lunch.”

A sense of balance. The short hand for this is “work hard, play hard.” It traces to the University’s early students having full benefit of the most innovative education in America—and then getting on horses to shoot pistols at the Rotunda clock.

Fiona Geiran (Col ’19), editor-in-chief of The Declaration, the student weekly where I got my start, offers a modern-day version of work hard, play hard in a story from her first year, where a friend got into a fraternity party because the bouncer recognized her from high school. “They’re both trying to have a night out, where they’re drinking and being ridiculous,” she says, “but they knew each other from … Latin camp.”

Work-play doesn’t do justice to the UVA paradigm. It’s more dimensional than that. Self-governance practically demands extracurricular involvement. So does a growing community service ethic. Beyond those facets, this has always been a place that supports life balance and that attracts students, and mints graduates, who embrace it.

I smiled when Geiran asked if we could push back our interview a few hours. She didn’t have class that morning and was going hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A sense of place. Each of the above elements gets us close to what makes UVA UVA, and Wahoos Wahoos, but what gets us home is our home. The gestalt works like this: You sum up those parts and situate them among Blue Ridge mountain majesties. Then you set them to the music of Thomas Jefferson’s grand design.

Twenty-five years ago, the architectural critic Paul Goldberger described Jefferson’s plan for an Academical Village as “an essay in balance.” He noted the physical balance between buildings and nature, going so far as to declare the Lawn a room in its own right, with the sky for a ceiling. He spoke of the design’s spiritual balance—“between the individual and the community, between the past and the present, between order and freedom.”

He is, of course, describing us. The architectural character shapes our own.

Borja came to UVA with no preconceived reverence. She’s the first in her family to go to college. Her guidance counselor was Google. When she queried what’s the best college in Virginia, the search turned up UVA, so that’s where she turned up the next August.

Fast forward to a perfect fall afternoon three years later, and you encounter the Global Studies major rocking in her chair outside her Lawn room. Hers is an extraordinary story of personal accomplishment. When you ask what she will most miss about her time here, she speaks of her enchantment with the sunrises and the sunsets.

You can almost hear the words of another fourth-year who, more than 100 years before her, wrote of “the purple shadows of the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades, and the dream of your youth.” James Hay Jr. (Col 1903) went on to proclaim, “I have worn the honors of Honor. I graduated from Virginia.” If he had had the opportunity, he also would have worn the hat.

S. Richard Gard Jr. (Col ’81) is the editor of Virginia Magazine.