DATE: Monday, August 25, 1997 TAG: 9708250074 SECTION: LOCAL PAGE: B4 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY GUY FRIDDELL, LANDMARK SPECIAL WRITER LENGTH: 144 lines
Edgar F. Shannon Jr., who brought the University of Virginia to national prominence during 15 years as its president from 1959 to 1974, died Sunday. He was 79.
He succeeded former Gov. Colgate W. Darden Jr., who, as president, democratized the campus, shook the university out of its lethargy and spurred it to overcome its reputation as a hard-drinking country club.
With Darden as his confidant and adviser, Shannon continued the drive for excellence. During Shannon's term in the 1960s and 1970s, the university's enrollment swelled from 5,000 to 15,000.
Shannon's life was an open book, beginning on the campus of Washington and Lee University, where his father, a professor of English there, persuaded officials to let him put a small window over the boy's bed for his 14th birthday for easier reading. It is still known as ``Shannon's window.''
He made all A's in college, except for a B in first-year Latin. But the young scholar had an active side. In Lexington, he had become an Eagle Scout and senior patrol leader and filled in as scoutmaster.
At W&L, he was vice president of the student body and played as a scrub in basketball against Bob Spessard, one of the first dominating big centers in the game.
``I can still feel his elbows coming down on my head,'' Shannon once told a reporter.
He was the intramural half-mile track champion and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1939 he received the Algenon Sydney Sullivan Award, which recognizes an outstanding member of the graduating class. He graduated summa cum laude.
Shannon enlisted in the Navy more than a year before America entered World War II, but his active service was deferred until June 1941, when he finished his studies at Duke University.
After a summer at Northwestern University's Midshipmen's school, Ensign Shannon was assigned to duty in Norfolk at the District Intelligence Office.
The attack on Pearl Harbor spurred him to transfer to combat duty as a junior gunnery officer.
He narrowly escaped death in August 1942 when his ship, the Quincy, was shot to pieces and sunk by enemy gunfire and torpedoes in the Battle of Savo Island. It was one of three warships that went down.
``With flames going up on all sides, you felt as though you were in a tulip of fire,'' he said.
He helped launch life rafts, and jumped overboard and stayed afloat in his half-burned life jacket until he reached a raft. He and 29 others clung to it for four hours until a destroyer picked them up.
His captain and 370 of his shipmates were killed, while 167 were wounded. He remained afloat on combat duty until V-J Day, participating in most of the major Pacific campaigns.
By the end of the war, he had earned a Bronze Star and 10 other battle stars, and witnessed the final surrender of the Japanese in Tokyo Bay.
After the war he earned a master's degree in English at Harvard University and taught naval science and tactics in 1946, and English from 1950 to 1956.
Shannon then studied at Merton College, Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar from Virginia. He received a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford in 1949 and later was awarded nine honorary degrees.
Last year, four days after Shannon's 78th birthday, Oxford University awarded him a prestigious honorary doctor of letters degree for his life's academic work.
In 1958, Shannon joined the University of Virginia faculty.
A reporter once asked which had been the greater trial, directing men at war off Savo Island or dealing with students demonstrating against the Vietnam War in 1970.
``The events at the university were more trying, simply because I had more responsibility,'' Shannon said.
``The crisis in May ran about 10 days with a peak of three, and you had to think not only of the immediate safety and welfare of the people and the institution but also of the long-range implications - all you had invested in your life and efforts was at stake.''
Shannon felt he had ``to stay ahead of the radicals so that we were not just reacting and resisting. The radicals were trying to bring the whole moderate group behind them, which is what happened in some universities.''
``Although they did their best, they never could quite bring it off here,'' he said.
After the shootings of student protesters at Ohio's Kent State University by National Guardsmen in 1970, Shannon held a meeting with 4,000 U.Va. students on the Lawn.
He urged them to join him in signing petitions to U.S. Sens. Harry F. Byrd Jr. and William B. Spong Jr., deploring ``anti-intellectualism, growing militarism, neglect of education needs and the country's `agonizingly slow' disengagement from Southeast Asia.''
The speech took the wind out of the radicals, and the protest subsided. But if Shannon's petition had quieted the campus, it stirred controversy outside, including calls for his dismissal from the presidency.
Word leaked that the Board of Visitors was planning a secret session in Richmond. Students, in a dramatic turn, began circulating petitions supporting President Shannon.
By the time the board issued a statement in June, it had reached the view that, despite individual differences of opinion among its members, Shannon had successfully met three objectives: keeping the university open and operating, preserving the right of free speech and open discussion, and averting violence.
Asked by a reporter if he thought the board might fire him, Shannon laughed.
``They all personally liked me. I think some felt they had to take a stand so they could tell people they had voted to censure me or whatever it was, but they were pretty sure the majority was going with me. Through the years the board has been a fine supporter in every way.
``Throughout the 10 days, the real problem to my mind was what was going to happen to the fabric of the university as an educational institution and as a group of people who worked together and trusted one another. By the time we got to graduation exercises that year, there was real cohesiveness, in that together we'd weathered a very dangerous period.
``There was a sense of relief, almost of pride, that the university had largely fulfilled the Jeffersonian ideal that it could take free speech and a good deal of turbulence and disagreement of attitudes and ideas, and still function.''
When Shannon appeared that June at graduation exercises on the Lawn, there was a heartening response that must have pleased him as much as any honor he ever received.
Spontaneously, students, faculty, and parents arose to give him a prolonged ovation. The university family was back together.
Asked what had given him the most satisfaction in the presidency, he said: ``There are a number of gratifications, but the greatest is that the university's total academic and educational standing is where it is today.
``The potential hasn't been fulfilled, and it never will be, because all human endeavor has to be a struggle for something better.''
He chose to retire at age 54 because, he said, ``I'd done a good, solid chunk of what I'd set out to do, and now, it seemed, was a good time for somebody with a new thrust to take over and move on from there.''
Then, also, he said, although his wife, Eleanor, and their five daughters had benefited from their experience in Charlottesville, ``I thought it important that I have more control over my schedule so as to be with them.
``Also, as president, I had left work and research that was really dear to my heart. I had been teaching a class all along, and I was enjoying teaching more than ever and felt that I can do an even better job if I could be free of some distractions.''
Finally, he said, ``if a steady turnover is good for the university, the president ought to set an example.''
He also had time to complete scholarly works on the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whom he had met while working under that window in Lexington. ILLUSTRATION: Edgar F. Shannon Jr. was president of the University
of Virginia from 1959 to 1974. Enrollment tripled - from 5,000 to
15,000. Shannon, who served aboard a ship in the Pacific during
World War II, was once asked whether ocean battles or leading the
university during times of protest had been the greater trial. He
chose the university.
File photo KEYWORDS: DEATH OBITUARY
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