First Law Dean's Diary Reveals Inside History of University of Virginia, Law School; Offers Unique Snapshot of America
William Minor Lile enters the pages of his own diary in 1882 as a newly anointed law graduate from the University of Virginia, ready to launch his career as an attorney in Lynchburg, Va., with only a single suit of clothes to his name. But by the journal’s conclusion in 1932, he is one of the country’s leading figures in law school education, a devoted husband and a grandfather of 12.
“The Diary of a Dean,” published in March by the Law Library’s Special Collections department, offers selections from the 11-volume diary kept by Lile, who joined the Law School faculty in 1893 and served as the school’s first dean from 1904 until 1932. His journal entries, which conclude about four years before his death, not only offer a unique personal portrait of the development of American legal education and the history of the University of Virginia, but capture an American society in transition from the late 19th century to the Great Depression.
“From one person’s perspective you can still see a lot,” said Kristin Jensen, who edited the book shortly after completing her Ph.D. in English at the University. “He feels very human by the end.”
Over the course of 50 years, Lile documented the struggle to win over his future wife (and maintain her attention), his efforts to expand and improve the quality of the Law School while preserving its traditions, and the shift in America away from an agrarian economy to one populated by cars, phones and radio—along with other cultural changes he couldn’t always stomach.
Though gruff-looking in photographs late in life (and gruff in his frequent grumblings about below-market faculty salaries and having to grade poorly written exams), Jensen and Law Library Director Taylor Fitchett said they also got to know Lile as someone who melted for his wife, children and grandchildren.
“You look at [his photograph] and you think, ‘Who would want to know him?’” said Fitchett, who launched the book project. “But his words tell a different story.”
Lile's eldest grandchild, Maud Drane, donated the handwritten volumes, along with a typed transcript, to the Law School in 1989, but over the years they mostly remained in storage in Special Collections.
When they recently passed through Fitchett’s office as part of a reshuffling of the collections, she picked up one of the hardbound books. On the cover of his first volume, Lile had written “Strictly Private.” (In his later years he wrote that he hopes “some future historian” will value what he reports.)
“I spent the better part of the day reading it,” Fitchett said. “I almost read it straight through, that’s how wrapped up in it I was. I had never read a diary that went from the beginning to almost the end of someone’s life.”
Fitchett realized she had hit upon a trove of University history.
“I thought ‘There is so much history of this university that nobody knows,’” she said. “His feelings about [first University President Edwin] Alderman, for example, and names that we see across Grounds, but we don’t know anything about these people. And I said, ‘This just has to be opened up.’”
She asked Jensen, who was working part-time in Special Collections, to help her make a book out of the diaries, with the intention of using it as a memento for alumni and students.
“Her face just lit up,” Fitchett recalled.
The book is divided into three parts. The first focuses on his fervent but turbulent courtship of his future wife, Maud Lee Carson, and the establishment of his career as an attorney; the second covers his role as a professor, dean and university leader; and the final third focuses on his family life and final years.
Originally Jensen had organized the diary chronologically, but feedback from Law School professors Larry Walker and John C. Jeffries Jr. and UVA history professor Tico Braun indicated they should reorganize it by topic.
“Kristin and I were blown away by these diaries and kind of fell in love with the man. We couldn’t take a step back to see how a reader would look at it because we read the diaries in toto and we didn’t want to violate them,” Fitchett said.
Other than choosing which passages to include, much of Jensen’s work involved making sure footnotes provided appropriate context for readers.
“That was really important to me—that it not just be Lile’s diary but that it would be about his times and the larger American history that he witnesses, and the local history and the university history,” Jensen said.
The Man Behind the Diary
November 22, 1882 Wednesday.
Was examined by Judge Wingfield today for license to practice law. When he found out I had a diploma from the University he said he would sign my papers without an examination if I would tell him what a "capias in Withernam"* was! I missed it! "What is a contract?" This I told him of course — he therefrom signed my license.
*A writ authorizing the sheriff to seize goods or cattle from someone who wrongfully seizes property used to secure a loan or other obligation.
Lile was born in 1859 in Trinity, Ala., where his family owned a plantation, and—until the Civil War—about 50 slaves. By 1864, Christmas meant only a few difficult-to-obtain sweet treats in the children’s stockings. But the surprise of having anything at all made a special impression on the 5-year-old Lile, as he later recalled in his 60s:
Marvel of marvels! Here were several sticks of molasses candy, made of home grown sorghum, and cakes sweetened with the same domestic product. There were these and nothing more! But I have had no greater thrill of delight since that long gone Christmas morning.
Lile began the journal soon after graduating from the University of Virginia’s one-year law program, which was led by his great-uncle John Barbee Minor.
His future wife, Maud Lee Carson, first makes an appearance in the diary in 1884, when she was 17 and Lile was 24.
“He adores her from the get-go,” Fitchett explained.
A typical passage notes how during one night in her company “the hours fairly skipped by.”
“I don’t know why she should or why I think so, but I am sure she loves me; on the other hand I know why I should and that I do love her with tenderest and deepest affection,” Lile wrote.
After Maud’s parents discourage her from seeing Lile, he draws a picture of a coffin labeled with a skull and bones and the word “LOVE” on the top and “THE END” on the side. He writes:
Now they will ship her off to Richmond or New York in order that she may be from under my baleful influence and may learn to forget me; and set her up for a little private target for Slaughter's [a rival suitor's] love-darts.
Maud’s parents’ feelings toward Lile eventually thawed and the pair married in 1888 (not included in the book but located on a scrap of paper in the diaries: a full list of wedding gifts). Lile marks many of his wedding anniversaries over the years in the diary in a way that reveals his lifelong devotion to his wife, who he at times affectionately called “H.R.M.” (her royal majesty).
Once the couple began their life at the University of Virginia, Maud continued to charm those she came in contact with.
“She was, I’d say, the belle of this campus in her day,” Fitchett said. “He regretted the time she spent away from him.”
Lile’s final diary entry, on his anniversary on January 25, 1932, notes that after a visit from Maud, “She could not have been sweeter and the pleasure still lingers.”
The First Dean
November 23, 1925
The Law School enrollment is 265, more than we can accommodate with comfort. What a contrast, not only in enrollment, but in the character of the work, with 1893, when I first knew the school from the teacher's standpoint. It was then a one year's course, open to anyone who could read and write, the textbooks used were 50 years behind the times, there was practically no library, and students were never encouraged to look into any other books than the prescribed texts of ancient dates. There were no courses on Contracts, Torts, Carriers, Bankruptcy, Federal Procedure, Legal Ethics, Legal Bibliography, Brief-making, Corporations (Public), Drafting, nor Legal History; and Private Corporations was covered in 50 or 60 pages …"
As a professor and later as dean (the University established deanships school-wide in 1904), Lile oversaw enormous change in the school’s legal training. During that time the Law School increased student enrollment from fewer than 150 to more than 250, doubled the faculty from four to eight, and increased the number of courses from six in 1895 to 38 by 1912. Lile also helped secure funding for two buildings that housed the Law School, Minor Hall and Clark Hall, after starting his career teaching in the Rotunda.
When the Law School grew too large for Minor Hall, William A. Clark Jr.—a friend and former student of Lile’s—told the dean he would be willing to contribute $100,000 toward a new building. Lile wrote in November 1929:
Perhaps, who knows? — when we exhibit the plans for the new building to him, he may open up his heart and his purse, and offer to finance the erection entire! It will cost probably three times the $100,000.00. He is perhaps worth $50,000,000.00, so a paltry $300,000.00 is a mere bagatelle to him.
Lile’s prediction proves correct when, after reviewing two sets of architectural plans, Clark chooses to fully fund Clark Hall (now UVA’s environmental sciences building) rather than pay $100,000 for an addition to Minor Hall.
Lile also focused on improving admissions standards. When he joined the faculty in 1893 with the expectation that he would succeed his uncle as the school’s leader, Virginia required applicants to have completed only one year of college. Although he was able to improve the standard to three years, Lile constantly pushed for requiring a college degree, a criterion Harvard Law School had instituted in 1895.
“I wonder when we shall be able to require the baccalaureate degree,” Lile bristled in 1923, blaming “narrow minded two-by-four lawyers in the [state] legislature” for resisting the change.
Lile was also proud of his success at building the library’s collections from 500 volumes to 20,000.
“It represents a big change in the way students were taught,” Jensen said. “It was also very important to him that law students learn to handle books and do legal research and legal bibliography, and that they learn to look things up for themselves and learn how to read legal texts.”
Lile himself taught the course in Legal Bibliography, and over the years, also taught Negotiable Paper and Public Corporations, Brief-making, Equity Jurisprudence, Equity Procedure, Private Corporations and Legal Ethics.
Lile frequently tussled with UVA President Edwin Alderman over improving the pay of law professors, whose salaries were held to the same level as professors in other schools who taught on subjects, he wrote, such as “grasshoppery, and fiddling, and social service, and how to have healthy babies, and how to live with three in the family on $20.00 a week.”
The Law School, Lile argued, brought in substantially more revenue per student and its professors graded more exams; on top of that, the school turned over $20,000 to $40,000 each year to the University’s general treasury.
Lile is finally successful in boosting salaries past the University-wide $4,500 ceiling when he hires Garrard Glenn at $7,000—and in doing so celebrates because he has, in effect, given himself a raise. Alderman must raise Lile’s salary too because “it would be humiliating to me to have the new man put $2,500.00 above me.”
Among his fears for the future of the Law School was that the heir apparent, Armistead Dobie (who would indeed become dean), did not care enough about less-wealthy students and was overly fond of Harvard Law School’s teaching philosophies.
Lile and Dobie clashed over pedagogical style. Dobie ascribed to the Socratic method, popularized by Harvard Law School’s Christopher Langdell starting in the 1870s.
Through the method, also known as the case method, Langdell engaged students in back-and-forth dialogue and reasoned with them through cases. In contrast, Lile held on to his belief in lecture-style classes, writing that “under our old-fashioned methods, the student obtains a complete bird’s eye view of the fundamentals of each of his topics.”
Jensen said the conflict was personal at times.
“It’s about him having this connection to his great uncle and trying to continue that tradition and him being in conflict with this younger—clearly very bright, very smart faculty member—who was picking up on a lot of new ideas,” Jensen said. “He does respect Dobie, but he also takes out his frustrations privately in his diary.”
Though Lile felt strongly about his own teaching methods, he allowed professors at the Law School to use whatever style they preferred. When Dobie became dean in 1932, he promoted the faculty’s use of the Socratic method.
Lile’s diary also documents the everyday life of a dean—including his roles as a mentor to students and as a kind of dignitary for the University.
“You can tell that he really, really cares about spending time with students,” Jensen said. But “he hates grading exams,” Fitchett added.
In one passage Lile describes “wearing myself to a frazzle reading examination papers, and fretting over the stupidity of so many second year law school youths whose minds are as untrained as those of so many highly educated chimpanzees.”
Students noted his gruff demeanor, as shown in a Libel Show caricature and through other accounts, but they also affectionately called him “Billy” and frequently sought his counsel.
“You don’t poke fun at somebody you don’t love,” Fitchett said.
But Lile faced some of the same issues professors face today. The phrase “helicopter parent” may be modern, but the behavior, it turns out, is not.
“He has to deal with parents who call him up on the phone and ask why students’ grades aren’t higher,” Jensen said.
“Mothers cannot be convinced that diplomas are not plums given out to favorites,” he wrote.
University and Family Life
October 5, 1931
The Scott Stadium is to be dedicated next week with a game between Virginia and V.M.I. Bev and Eleanor [Lile's daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, Beverly Dandridge Tucker Jr.] will come up for the occasion. We have bought six tickets for ourselves and guests at $2.50 each! And this with many men, women and children suffering from want of food and clothing!
For 39 years, Lile lived on the University Lawn in Pavilion X, which embedded his family in the culture of the University and made him—and particularly his wife—a frequent party host.
His central location also allowed him to observe and document the many changes the University experienced. In one passage he describes the construction of the tennis courts by Memorial Gymnasium, with steam shovels working as late as 11:30 at night. In another he complains about the construction of Scott Stadium, which would seat 25,000 patrons, a capacity “probably ten times more than any crowd that will ever occupy it.” (The since-remodeled stadium today can hold more than 60,000.) He documents the building of the first residential dorms and Alderman’s sudden death in 1931.
His years at the Pavilion also marked those devoted to family, and from January 1898 to January 1913, Lile stopped writing in his journal entirely. The time period coincided with his three children’s early childhood.
“He is somewhat conservative and reserved, and he comes across as a little bit gruff sometimes, but he also has this real warmth,” Jensen said. “When he’s with his wife or grandchildren he just absolutely melts for them—he adores them.”
Lile detailed the many visits of children and grandchildren with particular pleasure. When his twin grandchildren Gretchen and Allison visit, he writes, “It is needless to say that Na-Na and grandfather were overwhelmed with joy to feel their blessed arms around our necks again.”
After Lile died in 1935, the University told Maud she would need to move when her lease expired, less than a year later.
“University legend has it that [Maud] was so resistant to leaving her home of forty years that she dressed a mannequin in her deceased husband’s clothes and propped it in one of the front windows,” Jensen wrote. Maud died in 1942. Her last home was on Rugby Road.
Other reminders of the Liles’ time in the Pavilion remain, as Jensen and Fitchett saw during a recent tour of the home. Lile’s son John etched his name in a window, and a resident had scratched a poem in a different window.
“Knowing something of the history of where you’re living is really important,” Fitchett said. She plans to provide a copy of the book to the current Pavilion X resident.
Documenting a Changing World
October 17, 1929 Thursday.
National City Bank stock quoted on Tuesday last at $575, a rise of $35.00 a share since a week ago and of some $200 a share since we embarked for England in June. This soaring skyward affects me, I am almost ashamed to confess, as the skylark affected [Romantic poet Percy Bysshe] Shelley, "soaring as thou singest, and singing ever soarest," though the accuracy of the quotation is not guaranteed." [….]
November 6, 1929
Tremendous break in stocks, said to be the biggest slump in 50 years. Our National City Bank stock slumped with the rest and dropped from $500 to $300. But I am not disturbed, as I confidently expect this stock to retrieve itself in a few months…. [Lile later added in the margins "Poor prophet! See later!"]
Lile saw many monumental technological changes over the course of his life—he owned the first motor car and garage (the latter of which still stands behind Pavilion X) in Charlottesville, and he bemoaned the introduction of the radio into his household.
“He is very curious about the world,” Jensen said. “In some ways he’s very interested in progress and in some ways he’s very resistant to progress.”
But perhaps the most influential piece of history he documents is the 1929 stock market crash and its aftermath.
“We love the stock market part because that also shows him as a human being,” Fitchett said.
“He really genuinely gets into it,” Jensen said. “’He’s just caught up in this fever for the stock market, and he gets his family into it, he gets his daughter into it, and he’s just so excited and then the crash comes, and at first he doesn’t know what’s hit him.”
Drought dogged the country around the same time, and though its worst effects appeared in the Dust Bowl in the middle of the United States, Lile describes its impact on Central Virginia.
“The Lawn grass seems hopelessly dead, with scarcely a suggestion of green anywhere,” Lile wrote in August 1930. By late September, a quarter of the trees appeared to be dead on nearby Carter’s Mountain.
He sometimes bemoaned how University life went on despite the devastation the wrecked economy wrought on many Americans. In November 1930 he wrote
In spite of the depression mentioned, and the consequent distress of laboring people from lack of employment, the University women continue to give teas and lunches and dinner parties to each other, thus feeding those who are not hungry, wholly forgetful of those who are. Maud and Jennie [his sister, who lived with him for years] are feeding forty of these non-hungry women tomorrow; but only on condition that I send a check equal to the cost of this lunch, to the Red Cross for the benefit of those who need food and clothes.
Lile’s diary also sheds light on the University’s role in an earlier crisis in American history, World War I. Following the entrance of the United States into the conflict in 1917, as enrollment plummeted in colleges nationwide (dropping 60 percent at the Law School), the U.S. government took over colleges nationwide. During this time, Lile taught international law to members of the Student Army Training Corps, for which “the entire University is now a military post,” he wrote. The plan trained future officers but also was designed to save the colleges from financial ruin “in consequence of the calling of all males between the ages of 18 and 45.”
By December 1919, with the war concluded, the Law School and the University begin breaking enrollment records.
Lile’s career also reveals a changing South. In 1927 he helped revise Virginia’s constitution. He later joined a commission of Southerners, including deans of the leading Southern law schools, “to investigate and report upon the crime of lynching” in Southern states.
In editing the book, “I learned so much about history,” Jensen said. “In the 1880s he talks about using the telephone and I didn’t realize it was that widespread, but he talks about using one in his office.”
Jensen worked on the book for more than a year, and found several surprises in the text along the way. In one early tongue-in-cheek passage, Lile debates whether to grow a mustache. Among his reasons not to grow one, he worries that “Somebody might say ‘shoot the dude’”—leading Jensen on a quest to uncover how “dude” was used in the late 19th century.
“I just think of ‘dude’ as a modern surfer-culture word,” she said. But at the time “a dude is a man who pays a lot of attention to his appearance.”
(Other reasons he gave for not growing the mustache: “A mustache insists on bathing in one’s tea at table. It requires months to bring it to that degree of perfection to permit the owner to appear in polite circles.”)
Lile is flummoxed by some cultural changes. When a young man calling on his niece asks, “Where is Frances?,” when he opens the door, he is offended at the informal nature of the inquiry, “just as if they were in fact addressing the butler.”
Yet Lile does not appear to be troubled by how freely University community members drank alcohol during Prohibition.
“Alcohol was flowing, he documents it,” Fitchett said. “This is one man telling you that the punch bowl was spiked—well spiked.”
“Even when there were outside visitors and visiting dignitaries,” Jensen added.
Lile’s final years were marked by a decline in his health, as stomach pain and depression contributed to his weight waning to as low as 115 pounds from 145 in his youth. He was 6 feet tall.
“Late in life he suffered from some kind of depression and he recognized that in himself,” Jensen said. “His family pushed him to seek treatment.”
His final entry shows his exhaustion. “How little I am inclined to write—otherwise I could pass away in this way many unoccupied and insistent hours.”
Almost four years later, in December 1935, Lile died suddenly at the home of a friend in Richmond, Va.
Fitchett said she teared up many times while reading the diary.
“You don’t feel that way over somebody you don’t like and admire. So he became one of our friends,” she said.
A limited number of copies of “The Diary of a Dean” are available by request, Fitchett said, and Lile’s original diaries will remain part of Special Collections.
The book “is a gift to the history of the Law School,” she said. UVA history professor Tico Braun said it best, Fitchett added: “‘Anybody would want to know him and would be proud that he’d been the first dean of the Law School.’”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.