Terry, William Holt: 1970-1979

William Holt Terry By the Decades

1950-19591960-1969, 1970-19791980-19891990-19992000-2015

Sam Spencer, Davidson College president who hired Will Terry, 1960s

Sam Spencer, Davidson College president who hired Will Terry, 1960s

In the summer of 1970, President Sam Spencer, ‘40, offered the position of Dean of Students to Rev. Will Terry. [1] This was preceded by tension between Will and some members of his congregation. Dr. John Kuykendall, ’59, revisits one source of conflict:

“There were a couple of other faculty members who were very, very conservative and believed the church was kind of their province and when Will started saying things–and by no means was he a flaming prophet of some sort–but when he started talking about the relationship between blacks and whites in this community in any context, that was a red flag for them.” [1]

The rumblings of conflict in the Davidson College Presbyterian Church over race relations reflects broader tensions about race in the Presbyterian Church United States during the middle decades of the twentieth century. [2] (For more information, please visit: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/02/race-and-the-roots-of-the-pres.php.)

Like Will Terry, Spencer resisted campus social conservatism. [3] At that time, the social atmosphere of the church and of the college were intertwined. Kuykendall reflects that “it was largely a campus church. The session of the church, the governing body, probably had twelve members of whom probably nine were faculty members at Davidson.” [1]

John Kuykendall recalls the sudden change of pace once Spencer extended his offer to Will:

“All of a sudden, Sam comes along . . . and has this insight, which he had a good many, of saying, ‘As I look at the people who are available to be the Dean of Students here in this generation with this many students in a changing time–Vietnam War and all that sort of stuff–Will’s the one that can take care of it.’ And I doubt not that there were some faculty members whose feathers he’d ruffled, either as pastor or as chaplain . . . they said, ‘Why would you take him? Surely there’s somebody out there that could be a better Dean of Students here!’ . . . I know some of the other people who were candidates for Dean of Students when he–Will–was chosen, just by sheer happenstance . . . among that lot, Will would have done best job among any of that list that I know of.” [1]

Despite any rumblings, Will Terry encountered minimal resistance as he rejoined the Davidson staff. This began a lifelong friendship between Spencer and Terry, which grew out of their shared faith and sense of responsibility for Davidson. [4] Some have privately commented that they saw his deanship as an extension of his religious commitment to steer people onto the best path. In taking on these new responsibilities, Will transitioned from a spiritual to a more secular role at the college. Fellow minister John Kuykendall notes:

“I think it was a good thing that he was an ordained minister and a successful one, but he didn’t overplay that hand. I mean, he didn’t decide, ‘Okay, since I am a successful minister, thereby I got to keep on running the church in the town of Davidson or I’ve got to have another parish that I’ve got to work with.’ He found a vocation in being a dean. Not to say that he wouldn’t preach and certainly not to say that when he did he wasn’t good ‘cause he’d preach some incredibly good sermons and he was a good preacher. I mean, he was a very forceful person in the pulpit. But I think he had no illusions about trying to hold onto one vocation and taking up another one. I think he morphed them into each other.” [1]

When Will Terry became the Dean of Students, Davidson was facing many institutional challenges. In addition to to the trauma of the Vietnam War, the college was undergoing dramatic social shifts in the 1970s while adjusting to changes on campus that had occurred in the ‘60s. For instance, many alumni felt threatened by the demise of required chapel and vespers in the decade previous as well as what these changes implied about the student body.

Alumnus Richard H. Little's letter of protest to President Sam Spencer, which enumerates his concerns about Davidson's changing commitment to the Presbyterian church, June 2, 1971.

Richard H. Little Letter to Samuel Spencer

One of these changes was the presence of drugs on campus. [1, 5] According to Richard Terry, ‘81, in the “early ‘70s, you’d find pot plants growing on window sills of residence halls. It was incredibly prevalent. It was everywhere and so common.” [3] Will maintained, in Richard Terry’s words, “a fairly hard line on drugs,” however. [5]

Fortunately, Will understood both alumni experiences and the changing priorities of the college. He had, in Kuykendall’s opinion, “a real intentionality about adapting.” [1] This mindful adaptability worked greatly to Dean Terry’s advantage as he weathered and nurtured coeducation, integration, and administrative change at Davidson.

Coeducation at Davidson College formally began in 1972, when there was an incoming class of only 315 students, 86 of whom were women. [6] Female enrollment steadily increased throughout the rest of the decade. (See Male/Female Admissions Breakdown for more information.)

As the the new Dean of Students, Will Terry was responsible for merging the Davidson of old with the new. This involved fielding the new challenges that arose with inadequate facilities for women on campus, which included housing, restrooms, counseling, and laundry. [7, 8, 9]

Campus structural difficulties were compounded by ideological, financial, and social objections posed by alumni who were unhappy with the institution’s self-assessment and subsequent alteration. In a letter to an alumnus, Will Terry described the evolution of his own feelings about school Davidson was becoming, especially in regards to the admission of women:

“Coeducation seems to be the way of the future for all top-flight liberal arts colleges. I personally opposed coeducation for several years, but my mind has changed. I believe now that it is a better context for an education.” [8]

Throughout his career, Will pushed himself to perform his role to the best of his ability, a process that involved introspection and willingness to change. Kuykendall shares one of the hurdles Will faced:

“At first–when he came here as chaplain and then as pastor of DCPC and then as he was coming into the deanship–I would in no way think of him as having any animosity against women per se, but at first it [his wit] was tailored to deal with an all-male audience and I think if Will ever had problems in finding his way in the work he did here at Davidson, it was in discovering a means of dealing effectively with coeducation. He was not a misogynist. However, his manner of approach to people was sometimes offensive to women because they didn’t expect to be treated exactly that way . . . It was a learning process for him in that regard and I want to say, and others can speak to this, too, he did learn. He learned in part by making connection with very capable, strong women who could be his colleagues in the deanship. And he did.” [1]

As Will had attended  Davidson College when it was a singularly male place, he sought out colleagues who would complement both his personality and his perspective on Davidson. His awareness of his biases helped him grow as an administrator and greatly shaped how he navigated his relationship with his peers, who he purposefully hoped “had certain sensitivities that Will didn’t have.” [1]

Student opinion provided another useful means of augmenting perspectives in the Dean’s office, particularly on job searches. Dr. Sue Ross, Will’s friend and long-time colleague, reflects that several rising seniors were present on the hiring committee when she applied for the position of Associate Dean of Students in 1977. [7] As such, it is clear that Will wanted members of the Dean of Students’ office to answer to students first and foremost, even before they received the position.

Assistant Dean Sue Ross stamping documents for approval, 1985.

Assistant Dean Sue Ross stamping documents for approval, 1985.

Will appreciated that Sue Ross had taught at the collegiate level and could speak to faculty members as a peer, while Will could not. [7, 1] On the flipside, Will could connect with current Davidsonians through shared experience and, undoubtedly, through his “wicked sense of humor.”7

As Davidson’s student body grew and diversified, the Dean of Students office evolved to keep pace. Associate Dean Sue Ross was tasked with some emerging responsibilities, which reflected the proliferation of college-offered services and the office’s hand in getting them off the ground. These included the Union Board, the Women’s Concerns Committee, the freshman advisor program, the international student advisor program, and, broadly, Ross’ advocacy for women. [7]

She also recounts the complications that sometimes created: “Chalmers Davidson used to introduce me as ‘the dean of women.’ I was never the dean of women. I was never hired to do that.” [7] Sue and Will were agreed that she provided crucial support to women that he could not, but they both served the entirety of the student body.

Sue Ross also notes that, as far as developing a racially and ethnically diverse campus went, “we were slow on that.” [7] By the end of the ‘70s, according to Richard Terry,‘81, “we weren’t a very diverse place at all. It was lily white.” [5] Integration, which began with the admission of two African students in 1962, was being slowly but steadily furthered under Spencer’s administration. [10, 11] (Resistance to an integrated Davidson came in many forms: http://library.davidson.edu/archives/acs/integration/caseys_page.htm.) White students exhibited a mix of reactions, but, generally, were content to “benignly neglect” to include their black peers socially. [11] Sources indicate that the college was the host of many private and “fierce conversations about affirmative action” and zero interracial dating. [5, 12]

Kuykendall posits that Davidson’s notion of racial diversity in the 1970s was quite limited:

“The initial efforts at diversity, which at that time meant primarily the inclusion of African Americans in increasing numbers in the Davidson students body. Not much thought given to Latinos, at that time. Not much thought given to Asians; there were some, but there was not an awareness except for the black-white problem because that was what was going on in the South and in the Davidson environment. Will moved responsibly and openly into all those kinds of changes that were taking place.” [1]

Dean Terry talking with students during freshman orientation, 1975.

Dean Terry talking with students during freshman orientation, 1975.

While managing these changes, Will emerged as one of Davidson’s most eminent personalities. “Everybody knew him, of course,” reflects friend and colleague Dr. Leland Park, ‘63. [9] Another close friend of Will’s, Dr. T. Hartley Hall, ‘51, explains that: “Will was one of the more successful people I’ve ever known in that he did what he liked to do, he did it well, and people appreciated it. And you just can’t hardly beat that.” [10] Will socialized with everyone because he enjoyed that aspect of the job, and he excelled at his job because he knew people so well.

Perhaps recognizing that students would want a steady source of advice and reliable information amid the myriad institutional changes taking place, Will began publishing The Dean’s Outbasket in 1972. This was Will’s newsletter addressed specifically to students, so that he could inform the student body en masse of upcoming deadlines and study tips.

The first publication of The Dean's Outbasket, September, 1977.

The Deans Outbasket

However, his interaction with students was not, by any stretch of the imagination, limited to print. Richard Terry notes that when he was “an impressionable first year student like everybody is, Will very quickly became a bigger than life personality.” [5] Will had perspective and influence, and his hand was in nearly every initiative on campus. [1, 5]

For a time, Will considered leaving Davidson to become the minister of a Mississippi church, but President Spencer convinced him that he was needed here and that he may be less suited to cater to a country church than he used to be. [13] Will took him at his word. His former student and friend William Rikard, ’67, explains that, afterward, Will “looked at Davidson to be his life’s calling.” [13] By 1979, he had written his first will, which mandated that a portion of his property be left to the college and made into a leadership-based scholarship. [13]

The Dean's Outbasket introduces an alternative solution for students who want to keep their firearms on campus, December, 1977.

The Dean's Outbasket clipping about guns on campus.

As is advantageous for someone working with young adults, Will came across as casual and friendly, too. Richard Terry notes that, “students would call him Dean Terry and he would often correct them and say ‘call me, Will.’” [5] He weathered the college’s transition from its place in “a deferential society, a society in which people instinctively people deferred to authority,” to its new place in a less rigid social order. [10] The language reflected people’s new ways of relating to one another, especially within institutions. Will recognized this and insisted that students recognise it, too.

Yet, that didn’t prevent him from being taken seriously. In Richard Terry’s words,

“My first impressions were that Will really epitomized the honor code at Davidson and standards of conduct and how people should treat one another. He embodied that. I think it’s fair to say that that was a pretty universal opinion among new students. Really, even upperclassmen too. He was really respected, but he was also really accessible . . . For me, the Davidson experience, particularly that first year, was the Will Terry experience . . . I really do think if you talked to my people from my era you would hear similar stories from a lot of folks.” [5]

While his career evolved, Will also became a “big contributor” to the symphony, to the college, to the Democratic Party, and to Planned Parenthood. [7, 9, 14, 15] However, based on a lifetime of friendship with Will, Kuykendall explains that Will “had some outside interests. But in those interests he didn’t have the same kind of proprietary sense that said, ‘I’ve got to make this thing go right,’ as he did with Davidson.” [1] He viewed it as a responsibility of stewardship to speak and act in the best interests of the college and the community, even if it meant disturbing the status quo. Will once wrote to Spencer: “Thanks for putting up with my opinionated ways, but that’s why you hired me.” [16]

Overall, he was well-liked and respected by students and by the Davidson community. As Leland Park explains, “For years, departments would have receptions Saturday before graduation . . . He would have one at his house, so I would work the punch bowl for him then. We had a good time because he always had a crowd, because everybody liked him and they like to take their mommas and say, ‘This is the dean.’” [9]


  1. Dr. Kuykendall interview.
  2. Lucas, Sean. “Race and the Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, no. 1.” Reformation 12. Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 10 Feb. 2015. 27 Sept. 2015. Web. [http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/02/race-and-the-roots-of-the-pres.php]
  3. College History Timeline. “1968: Samuel Reid Spencer Becomes President.” Encyclopedia. 2015. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC. 26 July 2015. Web.
  4. Loyce Davis and Joyce Hight’s interview.
  5. Richard Terry’s interview.
  6. College History Timeline. “1972: Davidson Becomes Co-Educational.” Encyclopedia. 2015. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC. 26 July 2015. Web.
  7. Sue Ross interview.
  8. Copy of Copy of Pages from Folder (3) – 18.pdf and Pages from Folder (3) – 19.pdf, from Coeducation folder.
  9. Leland Park’s interview.
  10. Hartley Hall’s interview.
  11. College History Timeline. “1962: Davidson Becomes Integrated.” Encyclopedia. 2015. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC. 23 July 2015. Web.
  12. Grimes, Casey. “Integration at Davidson College: The African-American Response to Integration.” Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC. Aug. 2015. Web. (library.davidson.edu/archives/acs/integration/caseys_page.htm)
  13. William Rikard’s interview.
  14. Ross, Sue. “Will Terry – Obituary.” The Charlotte Observer. Legacy.com. 28 Mar. 2015. 27 May 2015. Web. (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/charlotte/obituary.aspx?pid=174504394)
  15. Georgia Ringle’s interview.
  16. “Faculty Meeting – Nov. 14, 1972.” Religion and Davidson College (3) – Published Pamphlets. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.

Author: Eleanor YarboroDate: 6 October 2015

Cite as: Yarboro Eleanor. “William Holt Terry, 1970-1979,” Davidson Encyclopedia, 6 October 2014 <https://digitalprojects.davidson.edu/omeka/s/college-archives-davidson-encyclopedia/page/terry-william-holt-1970-1979>

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