The Sun Dial
by Meredith Minter, class of 1984
What's 33 inches high, shaped like a Grecian urn, and made of weathered grey marble? Give up? Well, you have reason; it doesn't exist.But—once it did. It stood proudly before Main Hall, brass gnomon gleaming in the sun. And it was very special. It was the Sun Dial's sundial.
Oh, the connection between the two was at best tenuous. It wasn't donated by the paper, or raised in the paper's honor. It was dedicated on Founder's Day, 1915, to Dr. Smith's memory. In fact, there was nothing to link them but this: it gave the Sun Dial its name.
That christening was as unlikely as the name itself, and it happened like this. All year, from the day the S.G. president first suggested a paper, the prospective staff had labored under the necessity of a name. At first, it seemed the question might be academic; the proposal met bitter opposition from most S.G. members, who were convinced that it could not be a financial success. (That May, the first editor quietly avenged herself by charitably offering to bail S.G. out of debt—with the Sun Dial's surplus!). Finally, however, the editors got permission to publish—and there was still no name.
They decided to let the student body make the choice. Suggestions were taken, and all Randolph-Macon voted. The editors, to their delight, found that one suggestion was the winner by a large majority. They read the results, eager to learn what name would dignify their small weekly, what the consensus felt would best express the spirit of the College.
It seemed that their compatriots had taken the word "spirit" too literally. The winning name swam before the editor's eyes: Randolph-Macon Rah! Rah! A look at the others' faces convinced her they shared her opinion. Whatever the paper's name might be, it wouldn't be that!
Now, the editor-in-chief belonged to other clubs, and she was on the committee for Founder's Day. As the staff sat, lost in thought, her mind strayed to the proposed memorial. She muttered something about it. "That's it!" one of them cried, with relief. "We'll call it the Sun Dial." And, of course, they did.
That first year, the Sun Dial did not even have an office—they shared a room with Dr. Terrell, the Infirmarian. Nevertheless, they produced an attractive, newsy paper, only slightly marred by the small size of headlines, which were only slightly larger, and no darker, than the text. One page was given over to alumnae news—this was before the days of the Bulletin. Another was filled with editorials.
In the next few years, the Sun Dial began to use boldface type for its headlines, and by 1923 they had progressed to a banner headline. Varied type took longer—it was not until the thirties that the paper looked at all as it does today. The size and number of pages shifted like Silly Putty, now the size (if not the length) of a metropolitan daily, now more like Time magazine.
The content, on the other hand, stayed much the same till the sixties. A book review column, first called "Biblio-blisses," then renamed, with stunning originality, "Book Review," and finally called "Blue (or Green, or Grey) Wing Chair," ran for thirty years. A gossip column, for those whose reading ended with their parallel, ran nearly as long under fifteen different names—the best being "The Fly Swatter" and "Shadows on the Dial." "Beyond the Wall," which began in the thirties under the name of "Extra Muros" ("Beyond the Walls" in Latin) has continued to the present.
Perhaps the longest-running of the columns, certainly the longest under a single name, was "The Nut Cracker," which ran from 1919 well into the fifties. It was devoted to dubious humor, and was shortened but not replaced upon the appearance of The Old Maid, R-M's humor magazine. Among the atrocities it perpetrated were the following:
VMI Guy: Gee, if all the men disappeared from Earth, you girls would sure be lonely!
R-M Girl: Oh, I don't know about that; we'd still have you cadets!
A: Gee, I wonder why they hung that picture?
B: Probably because they couldn't catch the artist!
Humor columns aside, the Sun Dial staff has always known how to have fun. One year, about 1950, the staffers challenged the Helianthus to a basketball game. The hilarious interchanges that followed lent new meaning to yellow journalism, but were (presumably) overlooked by the Heli team. The week before the game, the Sun Dial trumpeted "SUN DIAL to play (and then, in the smallest possible type) Heli." The next week, there was a discreet silence on the sports pages, and an air as of deep mourning. The Heli, as its staff proclaimed loudly in their yearbook, had won.
If the Sun Dial had fun in ordinary years, they celebrated their anniversaries with double excitement. Previous editors wrote in congratulation, describing the efforts that went into their years with the paper. One of them, in the Sun Dial's golden issue, remembered producing the paper's silver edition.
"The night of the banquet," she wrote, "I could hardly speak because of laryngitis (probably from fatigue). My response to the toast was somewhat labored, and when they sang, 'The Old Grey Mare, She Ain't What She Used To Be,' I felt they had really hit the nail on the head."
But the paper had its serious side. In both world wars, it recorded the College's war work with earnest enthusiasm, even placing the reminder, "Buy War Bonds" on its masthead. Between them, it campaigned vigorously, for suffrage and for peace. In the sixties, it reflected campus activism, becoming almost wholly devoted to news from "beyond the wall." There was always something about it that was liberal, at least in terms of the conservative school it served.
Yet it had continuity, too, for all its liberalism. The columns, the editorials, even the features were the same year after year. Editor after editor reminded students to respect their friends' busy signs, each apparently meeting with similar lack of success. Sometimes, they succeeded in changing the things they criticized, as did a 1920's editor who noticed that the buildings' fifth floors had no fire escapes. More often, they didn't, but they kept trying.
However spelled, the Sun Dial is the Sundial. And, should proof be needed, this quote, from April 1, 1915, convinces at once. "Seven Reasons," it is headlined, "Why the Staff Get Low Grades:"
S eeking subscriptions
U sing our brains (?)
N umbering words
D earth of editorials
I nterviewing people
A dvertising hunting
L ooking for news.
I rest my case.
Originally published in The Sundial on February 5, 1982 (Vol. 66, no. 15, p. 4)
This article is taken from "The Past Master," a column written by Meredith Minter Dixon, class of 1984, for the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College student newspaper, The Sundial. It is published here with her permission.
Mrs. Dixon has written an invaluable multi-volume set, Maconiana: A Social History of Randolph-Macon Woman's College. For additional information, please visit her author's page on Amazon.
Please contact Mrs. Dixon (dixonm at pobox dot com) if you have comments or questions about her articles.