When Student Activist Sabato Dug in for Clemons
The stage was set for a UVA basketball weekend in December 1973, and Student Council President Larry Sabato (Col ’74) was among the primary directors. Students and administrators would hobnob with 15 state legislators, take them to a game at University Hall—and show them how crowded Alderman Library could get.
It was all part of a monthslong strategy to secure $4.3 million to build what would become Clemons Library. At the time, enrollment was steadily rising, and students were jockeying for study space across Grounds. Alderman had one seat available for every 19 students, the Cavalier Daily reported.
Funding, however, would be hard-won; inflation and a brewing national energy crisis forced deep state budget cuts. But UVA had Sabato. The fourth-year student, now founder and director of UVA’s Center for Politics, was already an astute politician with a statewide presence. He had served as youth coordinator for independent Henry Howell (Law ’43), who lost the close 1973 governor’s race to Republican Mills Godwin (Law ’38). And unlike most of his Student Council predecessors, Sabato had a state legislative agenda. As president, he also won housing and tax reform initiatives for students.
The work on behalf of Clemons Library began after a spring 1973 meeting with UVA President Edgar F. Shannon. The conversation turned to student needs; Sabato mentioned study spaces. Shannon had already called library expansion a top priority; a “readers library” had first been proposed in 1963. But funding was still needed. “That’s when I suggested to him, in very rough form, that maybe students could take on the task of lobbying,” Sabato recalls.
Students did “classic grassroots organizing,” says Ann Sowder (Col ’76), a second-year Student Council member at the time. They assembled students from the districts of key lawmakers to plead the case. Then came the basketball weekend in Charlottesville. Legislators watched UVA beat Duke 104-82 on Saturday night and toured Alderman the next day. Sunday morning wasn’t usually a busy time at the library, but the lawmakers found the study carrels full. “I hate to admit this, but we recruited a very large group of students from the first-year dorms with the help of the resident advisers,” Sabato says.
The tactics were effective. In January, when Gov. Linwood Holton’s state budget included full funding for the library, a Daily Progress headline declared, “Student Power Pays,” crediting the Student Council. With the General Assembly session underway, Sabato brought students to Richmond to lobby alongside UVA administrators.
Throughout the effort, students weren’t on their own, Sabato says. Shannon, along with Edwin M. Crawford, then UVA’s vice president of public affairs, and William H. Fishback Jr., then university relations director, were among the administrators who worked behind the scenes. “Edgar Shannon really wanted to see this happen, and it was his final year as president,” Sabato says.
UVA didn’t win all $4.3 million that year. Once he took office, Godwin announced deep budget cuts. But lawmakers approved $105,000 for planning, an indication that more money would come. Full funding arrived in 1977. Sabato turned a shovel at the groundbreaking, and Clemons opened in March 1982. In 2019, 550,000 people walked through its doors, many of them students. And they can thank students like them who, nearly 50 years ago, just wanted a place to study.
“It was just so interesting and fun and important,” Sowder says of the work. “You felt like you were really doing something.”