As the COVID-19 pandemic grips the world—having largely shut down life at UVA—here’s a look back at how alumni experienced some other national and international events when they were on Grounds.
Cuban Missile Crisis
Nuclear-armed Soviet missiles were positioned in Cuba, 90 miles from Florida, and the United States was riveted during a 13-day standoff with the Soviet Union. News of the crisis came mostly via radio and newspapers and quickly spread by word-of-mouth. “It blew up,” says Tom Ballou (Educ ’66).
Mike Callaway (Col ’62, Law ’65) remembers watching Soviet ships bear down on the U.S. blockade on a black-and-white TV in his landlord’s home. “You were anxious about ‘Do I even need to study?’” Callaway says. “‘Do I even need to be prepared for tomorrow? Is there going to be a tomorrow?’”
The students had grown up worrying about atomic attacks, practicing duck-and-cover drills at school. Now such an attack seemed poised to happen. “There was just uncertainty. Are we going to see the mushroom cloud at dawn?” Ballou says. “That kind of thing had been built into you as a child, and then when this thing came along, it made it look imminent.”
The standoff ended Oct. 28, and the focus soon returned to college life. “It suddenly went from this terrific doom and gloom atmosphere that was distracting,” Ballou says, “to relief.”
Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
Nov. 22, 1963
It was pledge night, and Chuck Richardson (Engr ’67) was in his Dabney dorm room, eager for bids, when the radio broke in with the news: President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Soon the world would learn he had died.
“We were sitting around, wondering what’s going to happen now,” Richardson remembers. “What’s going to happen with pledge night, as selfish as that sounds.”
It continued. As a nation mourned, fraternity brothers in dark suits lined up outside first-year dorms, Richardson remembers. One knocked on his door with a bid to Sigma Pi, but the mood was subdued at the fraternity house. “There was probably a little beer and whiskey, but not a whole lot of frivolity,” he says. Students soon started planning road trips to Washington, D.C., for the funeral.
Richardson didn’t go, but Thomas “Ned” Locke (Engr ’68), then a first-year student in the School of Engineering, did. Two days after the assassination, Locke was in Newcomb Hall as students gathered around a television and watched nightclub operator Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, who was in police custody in connection with the assassination.
That night, Locke boarded a bus to D.C. with friends. On his way back to the D.C. bus station, a cab driver gave him a free ride. “He was also quite upset. It was just a very unusual time,” Locke remembers. “People were sharing things with each other that they probably wouldn’t have a few days before.”
Assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
April 4, 1968
David Witt (Col ’69, Grad ’72) was in Old Cabell Hall for a Glee Club rehearsal when somebody announced that the civil rights leader had been killed in Memphis. “To be in the relative shelter of UVA—at the time almost totally white and male—made the event seem unreal to me,” Witt recalled—until he remembered that a fellow Glee Club member was from Memphis. His friend couldn’t contact his family until the next day to find out if they were safe, Witt remembers.
“The unrest of the late 60s was intangible and distant until that moment,” he writes. “I remembered the impact of JFK’s assassination vividly, but I didn’t feel that impact in my life. The impact of Dr. King’s death was real to us all, and I believe that UVA was a different place afterward—a place where uncertainty and protest were no longer abstractions, but part of our consciousness.”
July 20, 1969
Robert Levy (Med ’73) was new to Charlottesville, having arrived that summer to work in a lab before medical school began. With other students, he gathered to watch the landing on TV in Newcomb Hall. He remembers the cheers. “We all watched it,” Levy says. “It was quite jubilant when they landed.”
Kent State Shooting
May 4, 1970
The antiwar movement at UVA was flaring up before the Ohio National Guard shot four Kent State University students. The violence in Ohio sparked May Days at UVA, 10 days of unrest as students sought to shut down the University.
Hundreds of students filled Old Cabell Hall the next day for a memorial service for the Kent State victims. They left with black armbands and The Sally Hemings, a strike newspaper that encouraged them to skip class for teach-ins about free speech and women’s rights. On May 6, 9,000 people crowded into U-Hall to hear radical lawyer William Kunstler and Chicago protest leader Jerry Rubin speak. “Kunstler whipped the crowd into white-knuckled furor,” recalls Hugh C. Rowland (Col ’73, Grad ’76).
The speakers encouraged the crowd to “liberate” Carr’s Hill, and they marched, Rowland among them, up to the president’s house. Eventually, the group diverted to Maury Hall, the ROTC building, to occupy it. Rowland walked away as the crowd started throwing rocks and talked of burning the building. Demonstrations continued through the week as President Edgar Shannon opposed the war but refused to close UVA. By May 13, the fervor had died down.
And while many students were protesting, others were focused on their studies. A group tried to prevent Robert Austin (Col ’71, Darden ’78), a veteran on the GI Bill, from entering Cabell Hall for a class. Unlike some other faculty members, Austin’s professor was not forgoing grades because of the protests. Austin pushed through the strikers, who called him “the enemy,” and got inside. “I got a B+,” he says.
1972 to 1974
For more than two years, details emerged about the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s involvement. UVA was hardly sheltered from the controversy.
On May 8, 1973, national news outlets descended on University Hall to cover Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s speech to a capacity crowd. Agnew, according to The Cavalier Daily, was “harassed by catcalls, questions and boos by a largely hostile audience.” Agnew condemned coverage of the scandal, saying it had been “overblown by self-accolading members of the media.”
Later that month, televisions in Newcomb Hall constantly played the U.S. Senate hearings to a packed audience. “You wouldn’t hear a sound, everybody would be listening so intently,” says Jeffrey Gurski (Col ’72, Educ ’73).
By October 1973, after the so-called Saturday Night Massacre when Nixon had the special prosecutor fired, roommates in one Copeley Hill apartment were simply angry. “My immediate reaction was to pull a yellow, legal-sized announcement for a social function on campus out of a trash can,” recalls Mark Banker (Grad ’75).
In black magic marker, he wrote these words: “IMPEACH NIXON NOW – No Other Way.” It hung on their door until the roommates went their separate ways. In August 1974, Nixon would ultimately resign, and Banker still had the sign. For more than 40 years, he showed it as an artifact of the era to the high school U.S. history students he taught.
Iran hostage crisis
Nov. 4, 1979, to Jan. 20, 1981
It was Openings Weekend at UVA, remembers Rachel Jones Hensler (Col ’83), when Iranian college students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking dozens of hostages captive. As the news trickled in, the crisis was the topic of conversation on Rugby Road. “There was just kind of a pall over the event,” Hensler says. “It didn’t stop the parties, but people were very concerned.”
For 444 days, the hostages—whittled to 52 after some were released—were held captive. To honor them, yellow ribbons popped up everywhere, including on the gowns of the May 1980 graduates. The father of one of the graduates, Betsy Morefield (Engr ’80, ’81), was among the hostages.
As Susan Hosford Andrews (Col ’80) lined up at the Rotunda before Final Exercises, she remembers people passing out small yellow ribbons to the gathered graduates. It was a small gesture, Andrews says, but an important one. “We were showing solidarity,” she says.
A few days after the hostages were released, basketball fans packed U-Hall for a matchup against Ohio State. Hensler remembers the game. UVA won 89-73, and Ralph Sampson scored 40 points. But she also remembers the national anthem. “When we got to the part about the land of the free, people just went crazy, cheering and yelling inside U-Hall,” Hensler recalls. “It was such an incredible feeling of unity and patriotism.”
John Lennon killed
Dec. 8, 1980
It was a Monday night, and a group of students was watching football in the basement of Dabney when Howard Cosell announced the news: John Lennon was dead, shot outside The Dakota, his New York City apartment building. “They ran up the stairs, and they opened the doors to all the halls and yelled, ‘John Lennon was killed,’” Kate Kupferer (Col ’85, Grad ’88) remembers.
Students dashed to the basement to watch the news. “It was just quiet in the room except for the sounds of some people crying,” Kupferer says.
Across the Grounds, bleary-eyed School of Architecture students were working on their final projects. Susan Pikaart Bristol (Arch ’82, ’86) went outside on a terrace that overlooked Carr’s Hill with others when they heard the news. “We had to get out of the studio,” says Bristol, who would visit The Dakota a few weeks later with a classmate. “I just remember being in shock and comforting each other.”
President Ronald Reagan shot
March 30, 1981
Ty Thompson (Engr ’83), a photographer for The Cavalier Daily, was working in the darkroom when he heard an exclamation in the newsroom. He quickly put away what he was working on and went out to learn that President Ronald Reagan had been shot.
“I don’t think I had ever seen the newsroom come to life, and so professionally,” Thompson says. Soon an editor was barking out orders, and staffers were scrambling to rework the next day’s paper, pulling updates off the wire service teletype machines. “Every five seconds it seemed like people were running over to check on it,” he says.
Elsewhere on the Grounds, students were glued to the television for another reason—the NCAA basketball finals between North Carolina and Indiana. UVA had lost in the semifinals to North Carolina, which lost to Indiana that night. “What was compelling that night was, even though the president of the United States had been shot and his condition was uncertain, the game between UNC and Indiana tipped off on schedule,” recalls Stephen Wicker (Col ’84). “The primary concern in Courtenay House that night was who would win the game.”
Space shuttle Challenger explodes
Jan. 28, 1986
Jenn Prantl (Col ’89) huddled around the small television in her Dabney dorm room with friends, eager to see the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. “I remember watching it separate,” she says, “and we were like, ‘This doesn’t look right.’”
At first, the broadcasters provided no clues as the group tried to understand what they were seeing. “And then it became really apparent that something had gone terribly wrong,” Prantl says.
Along the hall, others were gathered around their own TVs, and Prantl heard gasps. Later, everybody just wandered the halls, some in tears.
Students found ways to express their grief. Along Beta Bridge, Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity members painted “UVa REMEMBERS THE CHALLENGER 7,” according to The Cavalier Daily.
“I remember it being a really horrified, almost stunting, reaction,” Prantl says. “You almost couldn’t react; it was so mind-blowing.”
Berlin wall comes down
Nov. 9, 1989
What struck Steve Odabashian (Col ’91) and the roommates and friends who sat around the television in his Lambeth apartment was the joy. As they watched the crowds chisel away at the Berlin Wall, the atmosphere was festive. “We felt like, this is cool,” Odabashian remembers. “Everybody is having a good time.”
For Odabashian, the wall’s fall held particular significance. His father was born in Russia, and Odabashian is Armenian American. Within a year, Armenia, like other Soviet republics, would declare independence.
Mark Stencel (Col ’90) doesn’t remember much about the night. Drugged up after dental surgery, he spent a couple of days on his couch, probably watching CNN continually and believing the fall of the wall was a dream—until his roommates told him the truth. While he has few memories of seeing the wall come down, the Soviet/Russian studies major remembers what came next as the Cold War closed.
“It was a great time to be studying it,” Stencel says. “You’d go to a political science class, and every day, a professor would say, ‘We should talk about what’s on the front page of The Washington Post’ because the things were changing so fast.”
Oklahoma City bombing
April 19, 1995
Liz Pease (Col ’97) was grabbing lunch in The Pav in Newcomb Hall as the television blared the news of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, which killed 168 people. She remembers the lunchtime crowd transfixed—and horrified. Across the Grounds, there was a feeling of gloom. “Just kind of shock and disbelief,” she says.
At home, she was glued to the news with her housemates, and then she decided to walk away from the constant coverage. “I remember having this clear moment of ‘This is not probably a healthy thing for me, watching this happen over and over again,’” she remembers. So she shut it off. And, other than glimpses after 9/11, she hasn’t watched much television news since.
O.J. Simpson verdict
Oct. 3, 1995
After months of testimony, a crowd gathered around the TV in The Pav on the first floor of Newcomb Hall to learn whether Simpson would be found guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. Students gathered on opposite sides of the room by race—white students on one side, black students on the other.
“We were hanging on every word,” says Keya Veney Pointer (Col ’98). “The room was so quiet. When they read it, all the African American students just sort of jumped up and everybody clapped and screamed and high-fived and celebrated. And then, at a certain point, you looked over and saw the disappointment and hurt on the white students’ faces.”
The next day, The Cavalier Daily’s managing board noted the divide. “If a trial on the other side of the country can divide the University, how can the community deal with racial issues closer to home?” it wrote.
For Pointer, the question wasn’t whether Simpson was guilty. “As African Americans, we wanted to know the answer to the question whether it was race or whether it was class,” she says. “Can an African American man who is wealthy beat charges in the same way that a white American who was wealthy could?”
Sept. 11, 2001
Heather Stadnisky (Nurs ’04, ’07) was on an elliptical at the Aquatic & Fitness Center when she noticed others stop exercising and walk over to the televisions. Stadnisky could see something was up, but she didn’t think much of it. Focused on the day ahead, she showered and went to class in the School of Nursing, and that’s when she began to understand what was happening.
“People were confused,” she remembers. “Everybody’s phones were ringing or busy, and people were panicking and couldn’t get in touch with everybody.”
Somebody wheeled a TV into the lobby, and people gathered around it. Classes went on for a while, she remembers, but at some point students were told to go home and call their families.
As the scope of the tragedy became clear that day, students and Charlottesville residents lined up outside the American Red Cross to give blood, according to The Cavalier Daily. Newcomb Hall served as a counseling center. There, students watched news coverage “through swollen eyes,” the paper reported.
Stadnisky and other nursing students would soon volunteer at U-Hall for another blood drive. A line of people wrapped around the building. Churches brought in plates of cookies. “We were mobilized to provide vital signs and make people feel comfortable,” Stadnisky says. “We hadn’t felt like we were really nurses until then.”
President Barack Obama elected
Nov. 4, 2008
That fall, the presidential election dominated the airwaves—and life at UVA—as Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain squared off.
Student groups organized rallies and voter registration drives. The Cavalier Daily ran opinion columns from all perspectives. And, in September, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden attended a rally on Newcomb Plaza, drawing 2,000 people, according to The Cavalier Daily.
Brooke Leigh Howard (Col ’10) remembers Michelle Obama reaching out to connect with anyone she could, including her. “It just meant so much that she grabbed my hand. She gripped it,” says Howard, who was political action co-chair for the Black Student Alliance.
On Election Day, people lined up at polls across Charlottesville. That night, Katy Chadwell (Col ’09) hosted a party at her apartment at 14th and Wertland streets to watch the results. “As soon as the election was called for Obama, there were people yelling and running out to the Corner to celebrate,” recalls Chadwell, who watched from her balcony.
Howard celebrated in a different way with a close-knit group of black female friends. “All of us sat there dumbfounded, amazed that in our lifetime we would actually witness someone who looked like us be elected president of the United States,” she recalls. “There was so much hope and joy and pride within ourselves that we cried. Finally, it seemed as if the American dream was meant for us too.”
Osama bin Laden killed
May 2, 2011
By text message is likely how Anna Lewis (Col ’13) learned that U.S. forces had killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Her roommate, at Alderman Library at the time, would later tell her that everyone started clapping and cheering. The next day, Lewis remembers Seven Society markings painted as American flags.
In a textbook she was reading for her Islam in the Modern Age class, Lewis, a Middle Eastern studies and foreign affairs major, added “2011” to complete the title of the chapter “Osama bin Laden: 1957-.” She still has the book.
“It was one of those things,” she says, “similar to now, where you know it’s an important moment.”