Each week, The Flat Hat profiles one person — a student, faculty or staff member, or alum that is deeply connected to the College of William and Mary. This week, The Flat Hat presents its third profile in a series about nontraditional students on campus.
In the fall of 1969, the United States was in the middle of the Vietnam War, the legal drinking age was 18, and Jay Nedry ’18 was beginning his first semester at the College of William and Mary. What should have been a two-year stint in the College’s ROTC program turned into almost 50 years of traveling, taking classes and playing plenty of rock music.
Nedry went to high school in Staunton, Virginia, at the Staunton Military Academy. When he graduated, he had two years of ROTC credit, which he says made doing the ROTC program at the College an obvious choice. However, in December of 1969, he sat waiting to find out whether or not he’d be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.
Changing times on campus
“They needed so many guys to go to Vietnam that they said, ‘We have to make this fair to everyone, and we’re going to have a lottery,’” Nedry said. “Every boy who was born in 1950 [picked] a lottery number. … We gathered in the basement of Yates Hall, and we watched them pick our fate on national television.”
Just a few weeks later, on a trip down to Florida to see Led Zeppelin, Nedry was in a car accident that broke his back and changed the direction of his life. Over the next few years, Nedry broke his back several more times — in April 1972, Nedry was still working on course work to complete his first year at the College. Then, he broke his back again.
In the meantime, Nedry was not oblivious to the changing times on campus. He saw the end of visitation policies — College rules forbidding men and women from visiting each other’s dorm rooms — as well as changes to alcohol policies on campus. During this period, he visited a bar in Blow Memorial Hall that would serve students. He also witnessed a major historical moment in the student body’s reaction to the Vietnam War.
“In May of 1970 … kids were protesting the Vietnam War, and four of them got killed at Kent State,” Nedry said. “So many students gathered in the Wren Courtyard two days after it; almost half of the student body was in the Wren Courtyard. We went out on Richmond Road between the driveway at the Bryan Complex and Paul’s Deli. We sat in Richmond Road and blocked traffic coming into Williamsburg … Richmond Road was the only way to get into Colonial Williamsburg at the time.”
Nedry said that prior to the Kent State shootings, he felt that not as many students were active in protests against the war. However, he said that afterward, the campus community was much more involved. After the sit-in on Richmond Road, the College ended the semester ahead of schedule, sending students home early and postponing exams until the fall semester.
The Roadducks hit the road
After Nedry’s final back injury, he transferred to James Madison University, which was called Madison College at the time. For approximately two years, Nedry attended JMU, but then he dropped out to travel the country with his band, The Roadducks.
Nedry started The Roadducks with friends he made during his freshman year at the College, including Bob Gaynor ’74. The Roadducks are based out of West Springfield, Virginia, and Nedry has played 5,470 shows with the band, lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and New Haven, Connecticut, and toured for over 40 years. Nedry has also run nightclubs, booking acts he’d previously toured with and other bands he admired.
When Gaynor passed away in April 2014, Nedry saw that as a chance to, as he said, “get serious.” For Nedry, this meant finishing his degree back where he started it.
“I didn’t want a college education — I wanted a William and Mary education,” Nedry said. “I didn’t want a college degree — I wanted a William and Mary degree because it’s the best. The faculty is phenomenal. I hadn’t been in school for 40 years, didn’t know how to turn my computer on … but I wanted to see if I could compete academically or intellectually, compete against the best.”
Nedry started full-time at the College in the summer of 2016 and graduated two years later with a GPA of 3.82 — something he said he’s proud of because he learned to work seriously and didn’t miss a single class.
“I’m taking The History of William and Mary with [Executive Director of Historic Campus Susan Kern, Ph.D. ’05]. She runs The Brafferton, the Wren Building, the President’s House,” Nedry said. “I’ve had classes with [Leisa Meyer]. I went back to William and Mary to get my ass kicked by teachers like that. I got an A in all three classes I took with [Meyer]. I earned that, and that’s why I went back. To learn how kids are learning today.”
Even though Nedry graduated in 2018, he’s not done taking classes at the College. This semester he’s enrolled in two: Kern’s The History of William and Mary and a Victorian literature course with English professor Mary Melfi.
“I’m not through educating myself,” Nedry said.
Mastering his craft
Nedry is also still touring with his band and is enrolled in a master’s program at George Mason University. His goal is to teach history at a community college after he graduates. He’s also working on research for his master’s thesis — a look at the history of rock and roll from 1950-70.
“I got a little transistor radio in the 1950s — they became quite a phenomenon,” Nedry said. “A transistor radio is like a bicycle; it provided you freedom … you could sit in your treehouse or your fort and you could listen to rock and roll, the stuff you couldn’t listen to when you’re home. … My generation grew up with the [Brown v. Board of Education] decision. Schools were segregated, and then they were integrated; I grew up with Jim Crow. I’ve watched a lot of these things change, and I’m going to be able to teach my students this, going to be able to give them the context of this. I’m going to use the music of the period as the soundtrack.”
Now, Nedry spends time in Northern Virginia taking his graduate classes and working as a teaching assistant at the Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun County campus and in Williamsburg taking undergraduate classes purely for the sake of education. When he’s not in the classroom, he’s still out touring with his band, which he’s sworn to keep alive for as long as possible.
“I started going to William and Mary when I was 13,” Nedry said. “I went to band school for a month in Monroe Hall. I’ve been associated with the College for 54 years. I’m like a little kid that’s been given a do-over, and I’ve taken full advantage. I’ll always hope to be able to take classes here.”
Nedry said he is very thankful for the people he’s met at the College and the relationships he’s been able to form, including a friendship with former College President Taylor Reveley. He said he treasures a photo he has of himself with Reveley after he received his diploma.
“If I’m not the happiest William and Mary graduate, then I am certainly in the top three,” Nedry said. “I’ve never been happier than when I’m back in Williamsburg.”