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On one of my first nights at the University of Virginia, I grasped Charlottesville’s unbreakable connection between the past and the present. It was early September, and I sat along Madison Lane looking across “Mad Bowl” towards the stately fraternities on Rugby Road. The beat of loud music and the voices and laughter of college students walking to the evening’s parties all drifted over to where I was seated. The moon hung in the night sky, and the late summer humidity lent an earthy smell to the air, an aroma of rich soil ripe with the past.
It was a night like countless others experienced by generations of people who came to this university and this town.
Giants walked here. School founder Thomas Jefferson, UVA’s first writer-in-residence William Faulkner, law students Robert F. Kennedy and Woodrow Wilson. Edgar Allen Poe was kicked out of this school, but Poe’s room remains preserved. Their ghosts and those of many whose names you do not know are all around.
Charlottesville’s grandiose history looms large, uniquely important for a town its size, creating a place both rooted in and still growing from that past.
In my time in Charlottesville after a lifetime in Pennsylvania, I reveled in the longer summers, the brilliance of an autumn that was warmer than those at home. On the University Grounds—the campus is called The Grounds, another idiosyncrasy of this school—there was a striking contrast of the orange and yellow leaves against the backdrop of nineteenth-century red brick buildings trimmed in white.
But the sense I got was one of standing in a present created by people of incredible vision and intellect. How else to explain the enduring excellence of one of the world’s great public universities; the town’s outsized contributions to the history of our country; the immortal words forged by a man who lived on the nearby mountaintop home of Monticello?
In our nation’s infancy, Thomas Jefferson gave voice to our nation’s first words, a thunderous statement still inspiring all humanity centuries later: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” People from around the world still travel to see his university and his home. You can’t escape the long reach of his legacy. At the University, “Mr. Jefferson” is discussed as though he might drop in at any time.
But the present in Charlottesville also carries a lingering legacy of so much more.
Walk past the Rotunda to The Lawn, and youthful dreams harbored by generations of students still rise—dreams inspired by gazing into the heavens or by a legacy of academic leadership—dreams held on graduation day in Jefferson’s Academical Village bordered by brick sidewalks lined with white columns. On a still moonlit night on The Lawn it is peaceful; students walk quietly, speaking in almost hushed tones as the crickets send their symphony into the dark sky.
But it was more than The Lawn. On a long-ago autumn night, friends and I walked through the University of Virginia cemetery. Under blue moonlight falling unevenly through a canopy of branches still holding on to some leaves, we brushed off flat grave markers to read names and dates of people gone for over 150 years. We walked into the open area of an adjacent cemetery to see a statue of a ghostly soldier standing watch over 1,000 fallen Confederates entombed in eternal sleep.
That is why I loved walking the town and the University at night. In places of such historical significance, at night your senses are most sharpened to hear the voices of the past whispering to you.
The living past rises from the earth in Charlottesville and is something to be honored. Statues in town honor explorers Lewis and Clark, Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, and General Robert E Lee.
As with other national trends, some in Charlottesville advocate a reevaluation of whom we choose to honor from the past. But the past will always be complicated, and applying present-day values and our modern standards of perfection across centuries to any human being is folly. They could never know all that we know now.
None of that can take away the genteel feel of this Southern college town. Part of that feel is the deep connection to history found in the South like no other region of the country. You almost expect to find old Southern aristocracy in the estates around the Albemarle County countryside. The vineyards and wineries here were also a dream of Jefferson’s.
As Jefferson would wish, the central focus of the town rests squarely on the University which he considered among his greatest legacies. Jefferson wished to be remembered for three things at his gravesite: as the Author of the Declaration of Independence, Author of the Statutes of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.
At the University Jefferson’s heart still beats, and his mind still inspires discovery that is possible because of his intellectual drive to seek life’s largest truths. The seeds of knowledge that he had sown in life continue to rise from the soil of the University’s Grounds.
In Charlottesville the past still rises from the soil to reach into tomorrow, and the voices of long ago yet speak. If you’re quiet enough, you’ll hear them, and only then will you understand the powerful draw of this place that has endured for centuries.
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