Sam Sadler ’64: the name behind the building
Written by Áine Cain|
April 25, 2016
Former Vice President of Student Affairs Sam Sadler ’64, M.Ed. ’71 arrived at the College of William and Mary in the summer of 1960, just as Hurricane Donna swept across campus and tore the roof off Jefferson Hall.
Sadler remembered being herded out of the rain and wind into Blow Gymnasium for the welcoming program. His orientation group ended up near the front row as the Dean of Students rose to greet the newcomers.
“He talked about how … we should look to the left and look to the right because one of us wouldn’t be there in four years … I remember feeling like he was looking right at me when he said that,” Sadler said. “It scared the heck out of me.”
Sadler was struck by this negative introduction to the College. The memory would go on to influence him in his own career in student affairs.
Sadler was the first person in his family to attend college and he had little guidance regarding higher education. A native of the Virginia Peninsula, he had already been to campus for a Circle K convention and a science fair and saw that the College had fewer students than his high school. He nearly attended Randolph-Macon College instead, encouraged by a full scholarship.
Sadler changed his mind when he received a partial scholarship to the College and learned that his best friend — along with nearly 20 other classmates — had been admitted as well.
In the early 1960s, the College was quite different. The school consisted only of Historic Campus, Old Campus, the Bryan Complex and Phi Beta Kappa Hall. The College’s culture was also far more restrictive, as administrators acted in loco parentis.
Sadler recalled an incident in Sorority Court one rainy night during his freshman year. Along with several hall mates, he left the dorm to see what was causing a commotion in the courtyard. From across the street, he saw a man in pajama pants and a trench coat, brandishing a black umbrella and striding toward a group of students in the court. It was the Dean of Students, J. Wilfred Lambert ’27. The group of male students had apparently been in Sorority Court after hours.
“He would walk up, tap someone on the shoulder and put a flashlight in their face,” Sadler said. “And he’d say, ‘Be in my office in the morning at eight o’clock. Packed.’ And those people were gone the next morning.”
The College’s culture was also far more restrictive, as administrators acted in loco parentis.
Sadler said he avoided trouble with the administration and became heavily involved on campus.
“I majored in extra curricular activities,” Sadler said. “I have no regrets that I did that. It broadened my outlook. It enriched my college experience in immeasurable ways.”
He joined the fledgling Nu Rho chapter of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, eventually becoming president sophomore year. He recalled working on projects with future United States Secretary of Defense and College Chancellor Robert Gates ’65. Despite his parents’ objections, Sadler also joined a social fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi, with his roommate in Madison Hall sophomore year. He played on the fraternity’s intramural tennis and touch football teams.
In order to pay his way through school, he joined the advertising staff of The Flat Hat. Sadler rose to the position of advertising manager and eventually business manager. In those days, staff positions were paid and the business manager earned 10 percent of advertising revenue.
Sadler worked on the Colonial Echo and chaired the Social Committee of the Student Assembly. He also joined the cheerleading squad, becoming head cheerleader senior year.
Most importantly, Sadler joined the William and Mary Choir, where he met his wife, Mary Liz Simth ’65.
Despite his packed extracurricular schedule, Sadler still somehow managed to maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
“You won’t believe this but … I have to be in bed by 11 o’clock and get eight hours of sleep,” Sadler said.
Sadler majored in government and planned to become a minister after graduation. The government department was based in the second floor of James Blair Hall, then called Marshall-Wythe Hall. His two favorite professors, Margaret Hamilton and Jack Edwards, both eventually became chairs of the government department.
He said Hamilton was particularly supportive of his academic pursuits.
“She was so kind to me,” Sadler said. “It helped me realize that I could be more than I thought [I] could be academically.”
Sadler took the first class Edwards taught on campus. Edwards later became Dean of Arts and Sciences when Sadler was Dean of Students.
It helped me realize that I could be more than I thought [I] could be academically.
When he wasn’t studying, Sadler socialized with his friends. Social life on campus was much more sedate in the early 1960s. Alcohol was harder to come by. Students, women in particular, saw every aspect of their lives constrained by the administration, from curfews to incredibly specific dress codes (women could only wear shorts under a trench coat coming from a physical education class).
For scholarship students like Sadler, food options were also restricted. He was required to eat in the cafeteria. One day this prompted an experiment with one of his friends, whose father worked as a chemist for a food quality agency in Washington, D.C.
“We were all sure that what they were serving us was poisonous,” Sadler said. “They used to serve us liver about once a week. It was so ugly. It looked iridescent. So one day, all of us gave up our liver happily — I hated it — and put it into a little box and shipped it up to her father and asked him to analyze it.”
Other students turned to local restaurants for their meals. Corner Greeks and Middle Greeks were two popular student haunts owned by local Greek families. Sadler recalled one place on Prince George Street called George’s, where the owner would chase tourists out to give seats to students.
Other eateries were less popular, such as the dilapidated Russo’s Restaurant, with its giant neon sign.
“It said, ‘Russo’s Restaurant: Chinese, Italian, American Cuisine. Our specialty,’” Sadler said. “I only ate there once. The cafeteria was better.”
Sadler still managed to supplement his diet. Every night at 10 o’clock in Bryan Hall, student athletes working for a local deli would hawk sandwiches — white bread with lots of mayo and two inches of cheese slices — for only 35 cents (60 cents and they’d throw in a large Coke). He’d also grab a 19 cent malted milkshake at High’s Ice Cream, where Aromas is today.
I only ate there once. The cafeteria was better.
The food situation eventually prompted Sadler to take drastic action and give up his scholarship so he could prepare his own meals.
Sadler paid for his senior year with his stipend from The Flat Hat and with funds from a summer job at Nabisco. He also received free room and board serving as a resident assistant in Brown Hall, his old freshman dorm.
That same year, Sadler began to experience extreme fatigue. Things came to a head during a home football game against Navy. The cheerleading squad’s routine saw each cheerleader bouncing over one another on a mini-trampoline. Soon, it was Sadler’s turn.
“I took a good run and I got on the mini-trampoline and the next thing I know I was seated up against the wall of the stadium,” Sadler said. “I’d passed out in mid-air and landed on top of all my friends.”
A local doctor didn’t think anything was wrong, but Sadler’s condition had deteriorated even more by December. Running a 102 fever, he slept throughout the day and missed two weeks of class.
Some of the freshmen in the second floor hall of Brown became concerned for his health.
“They put up a mattress on the floor next to their bed,” Sadler said. “For about a week, I slept on that mattress because they didn’t want me staying by myself.”
When the Dean of Men, Carson Barnes JD ’76, summoned him, Sadler was terrified of losing his position as an RA. Instead of firing him, the dean called his parents. Sadler was subsequently hospitalized for 10 days and diagnosed with mononucleosis and glandular fever.
“I was a lot sicker than I knew,” Sadler said. “I remember I got out of the hospital just before classes ended.”
He returned to campus in time to catch the Choir’s Christmas concert. Instead of singing, he sat with Mary Liz’s mother.
Barnes and Hamilton pushed Sadler to reduce his workload and focus on his health.
“I learned to pay more attention to my health and to listen to what my body was telling me,” Sadler said. “And the other one was, that I learned very powerfully, was the influence that somebody who cares about you can have on your life … Good people, those William and Mary folks.”
Sadler managed to scale back on his commitments, catch up on his missed work and graduate. That summer, he proposed to Mary Liz. One year later, they were married in the Sir Christopher Wren Chapel, one of Sadler’s favorite spots on campus.
“So many important things in my life have happened there,” Sadler said. “Weddings. Ceremonies. Initiations. For me, that’s always been a very special room.”
By then, Sadler had switched his intended career path from ministry to higher education, a decision brought on by the Kennedy assassination. Sadler had first heard the news about the president’s death on the stairwell of James Blair Hall. In the aftermath, the school shut down for three days.
“I can recall vividly sitting in my room in Brown Hall thinking about life, thinking about what I wanted to do in life,” Sadler said. “I knew at that point that if I could do the work that I saw the deans that it would be the greatest gift I could give another person. I decided then that somehow that’s what I should do with my life.”
Weddings. Ceremonies. Initiations. For me, that’s always been a very special room.
Initially, he wasn’t quite sure how to go about fulfilling his new goal and ended up heading out to Oregon with his wife to work for a health organization. Three weeks after their wedding, the Sadlers flew out West and stayed there for two years.
“Didn’t know a soul out there,” Sadler said. “Hadn’t been there. Hadn’t even met the people I was going to be working for. It’s the kind of thing you do when you’re 22 and never again. But it was a great decision.”
A call from a fraternity brother about a vacancy at the College’s admissions office drew Sadler back to Virginia. Sadler had played handball with the Dean of Admissions his senior year. He got the job in 1967 and began working toward a master’s in higher education at the William and Mary School of Education.
“I was only going to stay three years,” Sadler said. “Do my master’s. Get a 4.0. Go to the best higher education program in the country. Get a PhD and become a college president.”
The late 60s saw the rise of turbulence on college campuses, as students became active in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement and women’s liberation. Students began pushing against the precedent of universities acting in loco parentis. Federal court cases began setting limits on the power of universities.
Sadler said that during this time he empathized more with students than with his fellow administrators. Upon returning to campus in 1967, Sam and Mary Liz Sadler had former classmates still in school.
During this time, students voiced their unhappiness with former College President Davis Paschall ’32’s picks for the position of Dean of Men. To calm the situation, Paschall changed course. Over a holiday weekend in the summer of 1970, Paschall called Sadler and offered him the temporary position of acting Dean of Men. Sadler accepted and was assigned an office on the first floor of the Bryan Complex, separate from the rest of the Student Affairs department in James Blair Hall.
Two years later, Thomas Graves succeeded Paschall as president of the College. Sadler resigned, having received a fellowship to pursue his PhD in higher education at the University of Michigan. The following week, Sadler came home to find his wife and daughter missing from their apartment in Sorority Court. Looking through the mail, he opened a letter from the University of Michigan.
It said his fellowship had been withdrawn due to United States President Richard Nixon’s cancellation of the National Defense Scholars Act.
A few minutes later, Mary Liz returned and revealed she had been at the doctor’s office. She was pregnant.
“I went running over to the President’s House and said, ‘Do you still have that resignation? Can I have it back?’” Sadler said. “So he set me down and he said, ‘You may have it back. And I want you to know that if you stay, I have something very good in mind for you.’”
About a month later, Graves responded to faculty and student outcry and dismissed Dean of Students Carson Barnes J.D. ’76. He named Sadler as his replacement.
“One of the hardest days of my life was sitting in the President’s office with the rest of the student affairs staff absent the Dean of Students,” Sadler said. “And, as Dr. Graves started to tell them what he decided and what he was doing, in barges [Barnes], who sits down next to me. It was very hard. Made transition difficult.”
A few minutes later, Mary Liz returned and revealed she had been at the doctor’s office. She was pregnant.
The situation became contentious. Sadler said he felt torn because Barnes had always been supportive of him as a student.
In the end, Graves found Barnes a different job within the administration. Sadler said their friendship was ultimately not damaged by what happened.
Taking over as Dean of Students in the spring of 1974, Sadler worked to build a new staff and research cutting edge programs at other schools. As the decade went on, restrictions on student life fell away and the school began to take more steps to become more diverse.
Sadler, who had once had ambitions of becoming a college president, said he quickly realized that he preferred talking to students over fundraising.
“I enjoyed it as much my last year as I did my first,” Sadler said. “The opportunity to sit with a person at a crucial time in their life and sometimes do nothing but be there, I know in my own life what a precious gift that can be.”
Sadler said the administration gradually became less severe over time. During Yule Log, Graves became the first President of the College to dress as Santa and read “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” He even put antlers on his Chihuahua and introduced him as Max, the Grinch’s dog. Sadler began reciting the “Night Before Finals” poem, a tradition continued by his successor Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06.
Other traditions established during his tenure include the walk from the Sir Christopher Wren Building to William and Mary Hall during Commencement and the Candlelight Ceremony — two ideas Sadler admits he borrowed from Brown University. Sadler also reestablished Convocation, which had died out during the 1960s, during the tenure of College President Tim Sullivan ’66. Sullivan had been in Sadler’s orientation group when he was an Orientation Aide.
In 1989, Sadler became Vice President of Student Affairs. Throughout his career at the College, one of Sadler’s favorite places to go sit was the Lake Matoaka Amphitheater.
“There used to be several blue herons down there,” Sadler said. “And there was almost always a blue heron on the other side looking back. I find that very peaceful.”
Sadler said one of the biggest changes over the course of his 41-year career involved altered perceptions about the College’s prestige.
“Dr. Paschall used to say, ‘William and Mary is the Princeton of the South,’” Sadler said. “I made him furious one day when I asked, ‘Why doesn’t Princeton say they’re the William and Mary of the North?’ That was a dumb thing to have said to him. But we thought of ourselves as second class but good.”
Dr. Paschall used to say, ‘William and Mary is the Princeton of the South. I made him furious one day when I asked, ‘Why doesn’t Princeton say they’re the William and Mary of the North?’
Sadler said credit for the College’s improved student life and academic standards should go to the policy of student self-determination and the increase in size and quality of the faculty. He also cited the further emphasis on community service and student leadership established during Sullivan’s presidency.
In 2008, Sadler retired. He received a major surprise at Commencement that year, news that Sadler said was concealed from him through “extraordinary subterfuge,” as he was responsible for writing the script for Commencement himself. Only a few weeks before the ceremony, he had gone to College President Taylor Reveley with concerns that the Board of Visitors was terrible at keeping secrets.
Closer to Commencement, Reveley told Sadler he would have to say a few words at the ceremony, much to his dismay. To coax Sadler into making a short speech, Reveley revealed he had won one of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards.
Commencement rolled around. After a short, emotional speech, Sadler moved to step down. College Rector Michael Powell ’85 blocked him from leaving.
“He steps to the microphone and says to the audience, ‘He’s got to stand here for one more minute,’” Sadler said.
The Board of Visitors announced that they had voted to rename the University Center in his honor. Sadler, who had chaired the building committee for the structure, was shocked.
“I still can’t call it the Sadler Center,” Sadler said. “I call it the University Center. To me it’s still not real … I joke with people and tell them I go in there every day to clean the bathrooms because it’s the only way to keep my name on the thing. I got so much out of what I did that any kind of additional reward is unimaginable.”
Sadler still lives in Williamsburg and often goes for walks on campus.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, and has touched my life in such powerful ways that it feels like home,” Sadler said. “Even with all the changes, it feels like home, and I would hope that for anyone who went to the College.”