Michael D’Orso ’75 lived in the old Eastern State Hospital building his freshman year at the College of William and Mary. The dilapidated hospital had been repurposed into a freshman dorm, called James Blair Terrace. Today, it is known as the Dillard Complex.
“It was like something out of a horror film,” D’Orso said. “Freshmen either lived at Yates or [James Blair Terrace]. It still had speakers on the walls for calling nurses and doctors. It was dark and dingy.”
While D’Orso became close with his fellow Terrace-dwellers, he also encountered mental patients on several occasions. He recalled that the new Eastern State Hospital was located across the lawn from his dorm. Outpatients, who were free to wander during certain hours, would come into James Blair Terrace and sit with freshman as they watched television. D’Orso and his freshman friends were none the wiser whether these newcomers were patients or other students they had yet to meet.
Living in James Blair Terrace, located three miles from campus, was a bonding experience for D’Orso and his fellow freshmen. His freshman roommate left school after two weeks, which gave D’Orso the rare privilege of living in a single.
“It was like living on an island. You were a survivor,” D’Orso said. “We sort of felt like a tribe.”
The remote location forced D’Orso to master the bus system. When he was on campus, he spent most of his time at Blow Memorial Hall, which previously served as a gym. He worked out with his friends and also worked in an office position at the gym. As a former high school athlete, D’Orso immediately threw himself into the world of college sports. While he initially was cut from the freshman basketball team, he ended up becoming a star of an intramural team he played on with his friends. He averaged 46 points a game, and his team was added to the intramural championship wall in the gym.
When D’Orso was not playing sports, he was writing about them. He covered the freshman football team for The Flat Hat. During his time as a reporter, he interviewed Coach Lou Holtz, who went on to coach for North Carolina State University and the New York Jets.
Because D’Orso spent the first semester of his freshman year wrapped up in sports, he learned a difficult lesson: he was not academically prepared for the College. The first semester of school, his grades suffered.
D’Orso recalled that, in high school, his mother would threaten him to do well in school, telling him students who performed poorly became ditch diggers. When D’Orso received his first semester report card, he brought it back to his room and opened it with dismay. He had received three Cs and an F.
“My first thought was ‘What does a ditch digger actually do?’” D’Orso said. “I was shocked.”
This disappointing report card served as a wake-up call for D’Orso. The next semester, he made a change in his dedication to his studies. Instead of spening all his free time in Blow Gymnasium, he began putting hours at Earl Gregg Swem Library.
Although he continued to play intramural sports, he made his team a lower priority. By the end of his freshman year, D’Orso had made a positive change in his grades.
“I took five classes, I got five Bs, and my confidence was restored,” D’Orso said.
While D’Orso focused on his grades after his upsetting academic performance first semester, he said he and his friends still managed to find time for mischief.
After his freshman year, D’Orso lived much closer to the heart of campus. He spent his sophomore and junior years in Dawson Hall, which he enjoyed because of its close proximity to Zable Stadium. Senior year, he lived in the Ludwell Apartments.
One day, he and his friends made a plan to drive from Ludwell to the Commons Dining Hall and go streaking. Although this plan was supposed to be a surprise, someone found out they were doing it and spread the word. When D’Orso and his friends pulled up in a friend’s bread delivery truck to the Commons, about 80 students had gathered to cheer them on.
“I was in nothing but shoes and a hat,” D’Orso said. “We streaked right through the Commons. We got away just in time.”
During his days in Dawson, D’Orso and five friends climbed into the football stadium press box at midnight on a weekday. At this time, the College’s mascot was Chief Wahoo, and the team name was the “Indians.” On the scoreboard, there was a huge image of Chief Wahoo, which would light up in the event of a touchdown. While D’Orso’s friends were making long-distance calls to California from the press box’s phone, D’Orso accidentally activated the scoreboard.
“I press one switch and the whole scoreboard lights up,” D’Orso said. “Chief Wahoo starts blinking on and off. We couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. We ran like scared rabbits.”
Despite his many antics during his time at the College, D’Orso graduated in 1975 with a degree in Philosophy. After graduation, he was accepted into both DePaul University’s Law School and the College’s Law School. However, he decided to forego a law degree and go to Colorado to ski instead. When he realized being a ski bum was not a viable career option, D’Orso returned to Williamsburg, contemplating giving law school a second try.
After a long conversation with the dean about his future, D’Orso ultimately did not pursue law school. In 1978, he took a position at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, where he taught tenth grade English. After teaching there for one year, he decided to go back to graduate school for teaching.
During his time in graduate school, D’Orso worked for William and Mary News, writing stories and taking photographs. He lived in on-campus housing with his wife, who had taken a position with Residence Life. They spent the first three years of their marriage in DuPont Hall. He then worked for the Virginian-Pilot. He now writes books on various subjects, from sports to public school education to politics.
D’Orso recalled that the best part of his time at the College was the sense of belonging.
“I grew up in the military. I hated it,” D’Orso said. “I wanted to belong. [The College] was so important to me in that way.”
Flat Hat News Editor Amanda Williams contributed to this story.