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The Order of Vandalia: A Brief History

A few days before homecoming in 1960, President Elvis J. Stahr outlined his idea for a special honor for those he termed “the University’s most loyal servants,” and charged three men sitting in his office with the task of designing such an award. “And,” he added, “I want it in place by next spring.”

David W. Jacobs, executive secretary of the Alumni Association; Joseph C. Gluck, director of student affairs; and Donovan H. Bond director of development and executive director of the WVU Foundation, were the three whom Stahr gave the assignment. “I want this to be something that is uniquely West Virginian,” he explained. “It should be on the same level of distinction as an honorary degree, but should be for outstanding service to the University rather than professional career achievement.”

He added only one other stipulation: rules governing – and restricting – selection should be as few as possible.

Within a few weeks the committee had a set of recommendations ready for the Board of Governors, including the name: The Order of Vandalia. The Board was to make the first selections, which were to be announced during the institution’s traditional spring activates in 1961. The Board accepted the recommendations and directed the three-man committee to design a medallion and certificate, and to recommend “such other procedures as may be present.”

The committee provided suggestions and sketches for the L.G. Balfour Co., of Attleboro, Massachusetts, which in turn produced the bronze medallion bearing scenes from the three Morgantown campuses, and incorporating the State’s familiar mountain laurel leaves. A certificate was provided in black-and-white outline, embracing well-known West Virginia scenes and traditional Mountaineer figure.

The Vandalia Element

The name of the Order was a direct fulfillment of President Stahr’s demand that the award be “uniquely West Virginian.” Gluck and Bond both were familiar with the connections between Vandalia and the Mountain State, and Jacobs quickly accepted their recommendations that the award bear that name. “Vandalia,” it is true, exists as a town in seven states; but it was in present-day West Virginia that the name and the vision it represented were to become the most familiar. It almost became the 14th British colony, and it would have been a big one. It would have been the only colony without a seacoast, and it would have been based on vast acres of timber, water resources and plentiful wild game; it has been described as the biggest real estate venture in American history.

Despite opposition from such diverse and powerful individuals as Virginia’s Governor Dunmore and Col. George Washington (who had their own land-grant dreams), and an unlikely coalition within the House of Commons in London, the Vandalia scheme came within a few days or weeks of success, only to fail because of an event 600 miles away which can only be described as unpredicted and unpredictable.

Trappers and hunters on the frontier had been periodically raided and robbed of their cabins and furs by the French and Indians during the seven-year struggle that ended with peace in 1763, and they petitioned for redress first in the form of money, later in the form of grant. They organized themselves into companies or groups that today would be called developers or speculators – and not necessarily in the best sense of the word. They hired lawyers in Philadelphia to carry their cause to the Crown. And they had powerful backing with which to counter Dunmore, Washington and others. They had Benjamin Franklin and his son, William, later royal governor of New Jersey; they had distinguished Wharton family of Philadelphia; Sir William Johnson, superintendent of Indian affairs for the King in the northern colonies; the influential Walpoles of London; and equally powerful coalitions within the House of Commons, the House of Lords, Virginia’s House of Burgesses, and the King’s circle of advisors. (The adage that “politics make strange bedfellows” did not originate with the Vandalia proposal, but it certainly applied.)

The grant they first sought would have been called Indiana; a section later added was known as the Walpole Purchase; and at all stages of the scheme – which lasted from the mid-1760’s until 1773 – from one-third to two-thirds of what is now West Virginia would have been included.

In its final form Vandalia would have begun at Pittsburgh, come down the Monongahela to the Mason-Dixon Line, then east along the northern border of Monongalia and Preston counties to the crest of Allegheny Mountain, which it would have followed generally southwest through the Lewisburg sector into the Cumberland Gap country of eastern Tennessee, then west of the Kentucky River, down that stream to the Ohio, and finally back up the Beautiful River to Pittsburgh.

The petitioners had come to recognize the strong influence of Queen Charlotte on her husband, George III, and knew that she was deeply interested in her genealogy, and that she proudly traced her blood lines back to those colorful rascals, the Vandals. So they discarded the Indian label, named their proposed colony Vandalia to flatter the Queen, and gained a powerful ally. Vandalia it would be, and the capital would be Point Pleasant. Step by step, the petition was approved at every governmental level. It had cleared the desk of the top legal authorities, and was prepared for the King’s approval.

But in one of history’s classic examples of poor timing (at least from our viewpoint) Sam Adams had his lads – most of them rough-and-ready member of the Sons of Liberty – chose this particular moment to dress themselves as Indians, and show their disdain for the tax on tea – and for the British colonial policy in general – by boarding a ship in Boston Harbor and dumping its cargo of tea overboard. News of the deed reached London just about the time the now fully approved Vandalia Charter was probably on its way to the King for his signature. But the monarch by now had had more than enough of the colonists’ rebellious attitudes and actions. He certainly was not about to cooperate with any more of their requests, and surely was not going to grant another colonial charter. The rest is history.

Efforts to perpetuate the name – and the geographic entity – persisted until after the United States was formed. The scheme died in 1773, but the dream did not; and when statehood was granted 90 years later, there were those who would have preferred “Vandalia” to “West Virginia” as the name of the 35th state.

The Order’s Early Period

For its first class of honorees, the Board of Governors selected three men who reflected long careers of service to the University through the Alumni Association, the WVU Foundation and through the institution’s governing bodies – Charles R. Hodges, Houston G. Young, and Arthur B. Koontz. Their certificates were hand-colored by students of Professor John Clarkson’s water color classes, the medallions were engraved with their recipients’ names, and the awards were presented as a part of the then-popular Spring Awards (“Link Day”) Ceremonies.

Again in 1962, the Link Day activities on the courtyard in front of the University Library were the setting for Vandalia awards, these to Clyde L. Colson and Arthur Clinton Spurr.

The Board, through its early selections, pretty much laid down the criteria that have guided later committees in their nominations. Non-alumni were among the first honorees, as were officials of the Alumni Association, the Foundation, and the Loyalty Permanent Endowment Fund. A retired University administrator in 1962 was followed a year later by a distinguished emeritus professor. A major benefactor in 1965, a former University president in 1967, and an eminent Extension worker in 1969 – all these fulfilled President Stahr’s original directive that the rules governing selection be as few as possible, and certainly not restrictive.

The Order’s Second Period

In the years following the replacement of the Board of Governors by the Board of Regents, the Order went through a period in which selections were fewer in number – in 1973 and in 1975 there were none at all. Then, in 1979, President Gene Budig recognized the program, named a committee charged with recommending nominees to the President (and to his advisory board), and suggested that the new group should adopt some guiding principles which would incorporate the traditions followed during the Order’s early years.

Two changes in procedure were recommended and adopted in 1979. The certificate was replaced with one of a more conventional form. And the Vandalia sash was used for the first time, patterned on medieval academic tradition. Each blue sash, embroidered in gold, bears the names of several of the members of the Order, so that all the sashes together form a permanent roster of its members. The sashes are worn only at Vandalia Inductions.

The ceremony on May 12 of that year was held in junction with the rededication of Woodburn circle, which had just been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The committee, adhering to the original idea of “as few rules as possible,” developed a short list of operating guidelines, which with minor adjustments, continue to govern the selection process.

Two of the guidelines are that posthumous awards are to be made only in very unusual circumstances, and that the awardees must be present for their induction.

At the induction ceremony each year, West Virginia University welcomes its newest members to the Order of Vandalia, remembers those who have died during the year, and celebrates the contributions of all its Vandalians.