During his sophomore year at the College of William and Mary, FBI Director James Comey ’82 encountered a flyer that changed his entire academic trajectory.
“I was walking to a chemistry lab and there was a bulletin board,” Comey said. “I saw the word ‘death’ in big letters on the board. It was an advertisement for a course called Death.”
The class was in the religion department and taught by religion professor emeritus Hans Tiefel. At the time, Comey was a chemistry major. However, he said that the course’s description intrigued him. He decided to fill a hole in his schedule with Death.
By senior year, Comey was a double major in religion and chemistry, writing a senior thesis on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and televangelist Jerry Falwell and on his way to the University of Chicago Law School. He credits his religion major with forcing him to be open-minded, understand various sides of an argument and focus on language.
“What the College taught me was to think well and try to understand other points of view,” Comey said. “It really lit a fire in me to do something to help other people.”
Comey first arrived at the College determined to follow a premed track. He grew up in Allendale, NJ and applied to the College after hearing about it from a family friend who played basketball for the Tribe.
“I applied to a bunch of schools and it was the best one that accepted me,” Comey said. “Harvard, Princeton, Amherst blew me off and William and Mary accepted me. I visited and I loved the place.”
Comey’s freshman dorm was the now-closed Tyler Annex.
“It housed 17 male students in there with no RA,” Comey said. “It was a little bit like Lord of the Flies. No adult supervision. Seventeen of us crammed in. We had four guys living in the lounge. It was a freak show.”
Later on, he would live in the Bryan Complex. At the time, it also housed the Law School Library, which became his favorite study spot on campus.
“It was an awesome place to study because most of the undergrads were afraid to go there,” Comey said. “It was a bit like a hamster cage — sections connected by hallways down underneath the building. I used to love to go there.”
Much of his time was spent in the library studying for chemistry classes. Comey said he appreciated the analytical thinking, discipline and scholastic rigor he learned from his science courses. Nonetheless, he noted that completing his chemistry major was “agony.”
In the second semester of his senior year, he enrolled in an advanced biochemistry course at 8 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in order to complete his major requirements. At that point, Comey had already been accepted into law school.
“The only reason I didn’t fail that class was the guy in the top bunk in my triple in Bryan actually wanted to be a chemist,” Comey said. “He is a chemist today, in Canada. He would get up every morning, slide his legs over, actually grab me physically and say, ‘Come on, we have to go.’ So that’s how I ended up going to class at 8 am.”
Comey said that he once played a prank on his punctual roommate involving stationary from the Dean of Discipline’s office and accusations regarding a lamp that had been smashed outside the Campus Center.
“He was very much a straight arrow,” Comey said. “I aspired to be, I suppose. I am the Director of the FBI.”
When not studying for class, Comey participated in intramural basketball, football and ultimate Frisbee, volunteered at a nursing home on Monticello Road, and wrote for The Flat Hat.
“I started writing for The Flat Hat as a freshman,” Comey said. “My first hugely important article was about parking for football games. It was silly, but I was very excited about it. I did news until I was a junior and then junior [year] started writing a column, the name of which I can’t remember. There was a columnist for The New York Times called Russell Baker who wrote humorous takes on serious events. So I tried to be funny and a social commentator. At least I thought I was.”
He met his wife Patrice at the College, after she nominated him to run for the presidency of the Bryan Complex dorm council. Comey said that the details of their first encounter are still subject to controversy.
“She remembers meeting me as a freshman at a daiquiri party in the previously mentioned Lord of the Flies-esque Tyler Annex,” Comey said. “I don’t recall meeting her there.”
He had a better recollection of their subsequent interaction at a meeting designed to solicit candidates to run for office.
“She leaned over to someone I played basketball with at the gym and said, ‘Who’s that guy?’ and pointed at me,” Comey said. “I didn’t hear her, but she nominated me to run for president of the dorm council. We didn’t speak then, but I saw her at a dorm party a short time later. A mutual friend introduced us and we sat together on a couch. She let me talk about myself for three hours. Naturally, I walked away deeply in love with her, because she let me talk about myself, a habit which she has since fixed.”
Running unopposed, Comey won the Bryan Council election. He started dating Patrice a short time afterwards.
“That’s probably my last experience with elected politics and will be for my entire life,” Comey said. “The best part was meeting and falling in love with my wife… I grew a lot as a person … I was a bit of a jerk when I met her. I joke that we changed each other. She made me a nicer person; I made her a meaner person.”
Professor David Holmes knew Comey well as a student and taught both Patrice and their oldest daughter Maurene Comey ’10. Comey signed up for two of his courses senior year, but Holmes was invited to serve as a visiting professor elsewhere. Comey still took a class on significant books in western religion and bonded with Holmes’s substitute, the late visiting professor John Woolverton.
“As a student, Jim was highly informed, genuine, and superbly prepared for class,” Holmes said in an email. “Faculty who taught him believed that he could have excelled at any college in the land. In the area of religion, he was especially interested in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Protestant theologian especially noted for his concern for social justice. He reached the finals for the Rhodes Scholarship as a senior.”
“Jim Comey belongs to the great tradition of William and Mary alumni who serve as leaders of our nation,” College President Taylor Reveley said in an email. “He has made his alma mater enormously proud.”
Tiefel emphasized Comey’s continuing connection with the College.
“I think that students might like to know that Mr. Comey has been a generous supporter of the ethics program in the Religious Studies Department,” Tiefel said in an email. “Without his generosity, the Department might not have been able to offer a range of ethics courses. That points outside his years as student. But surely his commitments after college illumine who he was and is.”
Comey advised current students to keep an open mind about the courses they take.
“Sample widely. You’ll never get a chance to taste so many academic dishes,” Comey said. “Try to become a quality thinker … Life is a series of narrowing experiences, so you want to start as broad as you possibly can, before the funnel starts to narrow on you.”