The question, which touched on the relativities of the world of teaching and the world of politics, brought a slow smile to the face of the man at whom it was aimed.

"I wish," said William B. Spong Jr., "that academicians were more tolerant of politicians, and that politicians were more tolerant of people in academia. I think they could learn something from one another."

This was just one snippet from his reflections on whether having been a politician helped a man be a better teacher, and whether having been a teacher helped a man be a better politician.

Spong, of course, has been, and probably still is, both.

He began to teach at the same time he began to practice law, back in 1948. A year or so later, he gave up teaching and took up politics. After some 20 years of successful politicking, during which he served in both houses of the Virginia General Assembly and in the U.S. Senate, he was defeated for re-election as U.S. senator in 1972. And then he decided to turn again to teaching.

For nearly five years, he has been Dean Spong of the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary, in this ancient Colonial capital, where a dedication ceremony yesterday symbolized the achievement of one of his major goals: Completion of the new Matshall-Wythe building, at costs totaling nearly $6 million, for which the state provided about $5.2 million and private sources provided about $500,000 more.

At the time of the cornerstone-laying, some 16 months ago, U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger said that the new law school building, along with the adjacent National Center for State Court would make Williamsburg "one of the major law centers in the country." Another speaker suggested also that the twice-reborn old law school, which is sometimes called the nation's first or oldest, would constitute "one of the most modern and innovative facilities of its kind anywhere."

At the time of the cornerstone-laying, too, Dean Spong made a little speech in which he said "this is a day of joy, and it is a day of miracles," because "this law school really isn't supposed to be here."

(Established by the college board on Dec. 4, 1779, at the urgings of Gov. Thomas Jefferson, as a professorship "of law and police," the teaching of law was broken off during the Civil War, not to be resumed until 1921, and then was almost abolished in 1939, only to be saved by an aroused body of students and alumni.)

In a conversation sometime before yesterday's dedication, Spong was asked what, if the cornerstone day was a day of miracles, he would call the dedication day.

"It is still part of the same day of miracles-- a sort of final culmination of that day," he said. "Yes, I think it is a miracle that the school endured . . . It was so small for so long, and it overcame so many adversities."

Well, would he say that the school has now arrived and achieved the "major law center" stature of which Chief Justice Burger spoke?

"I don't think we have arrived -- but I think we now have the potential to become what Chief Justice Burger predicted . . . We may need another decade to achieve that potential, but I certainly believe we're on our way."

There have been times -- for instance, on the last, long night of the 1976 General Assembly session -- when nobody, not even a hopeful new dean, could tell which way the law school was going. It took the 1976 Assembly all day Saturday night and until 9 o'clock Sunday morning to settle a fiscal controversy that threatened to deprive William and Mary of construction funds for the law building. And it took more suspenseful work to put over the 1977 bond issue to which the project was then relegated, along with other major capital outlays for higher education.

In the flashbacks of the Spong memory, there was also a day in September 1948, when Spong drove here from his home city of Portsmouth to report to Dean Dudley W. Woodbridge and begin to teach a course in international law and a course in government as a part-time member of the law faculty. Just back from a year of graduate work in international and comparative law, along with courses in forensic medicine at the University of Edinburgh, after taking his law degree in 1947 at University of Virginia, Spong was a bit surprised at the relative smallness of the law school, a facility of four for an enrollment of fewer than 50 law school students.

This fall Marshall-Wythe had an undergraduate enrollment of 483, plus a dozen graduate students, as it began classes in the new building with a faculty of 24 full-time teachers and 15 part-time adjuncts. The new structure, including an elaborately equipped library and moot (or practice) courtroom uniquely rigged with video-taping and other electronic devices to help students see and hear themselves in mock trial grapplings, has a rated capacity of 600 students. Ideally, however, Spong thinks the undergraduate students mostly specializing in tax courses that distinguish the Marshall-Wythe curriculum, so as to preserve the closer student-faculty relationships of the moderately sized school.

If the teacher-politician's memory goes back to the tiny school of 1948, it also spans the 1950's and 1960's, when Spong emerged as a promising "Young Turk" delegate and state senator with a special interest in education. His first political venture was to campaign vigorously in 1949 for the Byrd organization's gubernatorial candidate, John S. Battle, whose sons, John Jr. and William, were good friends of Spong from college and university days.

With other generally Byrd-oriented young lawmakers, Spong joined in the successful "Young Turk" rebellion that jarred the penny-pinching old guard into spending more surplus funds for higher education at the 1954 legislative session. Then he upset a locally powerful Byrdman to win Portsmouth's Senate seat, which he held until he upset another ell-entrenched conservative back by the Byrd old guard in the 1966 Democratic primary for U.S. senator.

Since the 1966 general election, in which Spong and Harry F. Byrd Jr. constituted the victorious Democratic ticket -- with Spong the front-runner -- no Democratic nominee for senator or governor has won in Virginia. Himself upset in 1972 by a most conservative Republican, Spong could trace his defeat to the burden of the McGovern presidential ticket, to a heavily-financed media blitz for his opponent-- and perhaps to his own campaign mistakes.

After the 1972 defeat, and after serving as general counsel to an important international study commission, and after resuming his private practice of law at Portsmouth, why did Spong choose the presumably less lucrative course of teach-dean at a small law school with a doubtful, if not precarious, future?

"Well, that's difficult to answer . . . I think I had done just about everything in the way of law practice that could come along in Portsmouth . . . And -- oh, frankly, I just thought this offered the opportunity to be more useful."

Which is better, politics or teaching?

"I've enjoyed both-- all of it. I've enjoyed teaching, which I sought in the first place, to help me get established in the practice of law. I enjoyed the practice of law. And I always enjoyed politics-- even though I wasn't a good politician . . ."

That led to more questions and answer about the mutualities of teaching and politicking.

"I think teachers should have more respect for politicians than they do. I think I understand people. I think the practice of law is dealing with people and the problems of people . . . I don't think a successful lawyer can be clinically detached from humanity, from people . . ."

"I think, if we are here to educate people to become lawyers and if we don't understand people, and understand their failings as well as their virtues, then we will be doing a less than complete job with the people we're trying to prepare for the practice of law . . ."

"Politics can make you arrogant. It can also make you very humble."

Looking back at the better politicians he had known, Spong thought they had at least one thing in common: "a great understanding of what makes people tick."

"I think some measure of that imparted to students is a good thing. I don't think you have to lecture on the virtue of politics. I think how you lecture (as a law teacher) can try to relate it in human terms, rather than just as something out of a book."

Somehow, the name of John Garland Pollard as a predecessor of Spong's as head of the law school came up. The reporter recalled hearing how Pollard, after winning the Virginia attorney general election in 1913, lost the primary election for governor in 1917 and then devoted himself to teaching law and government at William and Mary -- only to be drafted by Gov. Byrd to reunite the Virginia Democratic Party and the Byrd organization as the 1929 gubernatorial nominee after the political disasters of the 1928 presidential election.

Suppose some sort of similar call or draft came next year for Spong as a man who might pull the fractious Democrats together and lure back conservative strays to help win the 1981 gubernatorial election?

"Well, first of all, I don't think that's going to happen. In fact, I'm so certain I don't think we ought to speculate about it."

"But even if it did, I've sort of put my political days behind me, for two reasons."

"First, you cannot be a little bit in politics and do what I'm trying to do here. Politics is all consuming -- you've got to be prepared to give all the time it demands.

"That could only be to the detriment of what I've been trying to do here . . . As a result, I'm five years out of touch (with active politics) . . . I don't think that way any more, and I don't think I'm thought of that way any more.

Well, Pollard was 10 years out of touch, but he ran and won. But what was Spong's second reason?

"The other reason is that, having done what I've done, I've just sort of decided that, even if I were free from here, I would not be interested . . ."

If the retired politician had now become addicted to teaching, had he set any time period or goals for his work at William and Mary?

"No, as to time, but I think I will know when it's time to go. Yes, I wanted to accomplish certain things when I came here. The building was one of them. There are others, to improve and advance the law school, that I hope will be forthcoming in the near future. And I'll just decided what to do after that happens."


James Latimer

Document Type

News Article

Publication Information

Richmond Times-Dispatch at G-1, G-3 (September 14, 1980)