Joseph Dupuy Eggleston Jr. was born in Prince Edward County on November 13, 1867 to Dr. Joseph Eggleston and Ann Carrington. He was the second of six children. He graduated from Hampden-Sydney College near Farmville in 1886 and taught in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia before serving as superintendent of schools in Asheville, North Carolina, from 1893 until 1900. Upon his appointment as editor and secretary of Bureau of Information and Publicity of the Southern Education Board at the University of Tennessee in 1902, he was charged with studying education conditions with the goal of improving social, economic, and cultural circumstances in the South by improving the quality of education throughout the region. He then returned to Prince Edward County to serve as its superintendent of schools, a position he held from 1903 to 1905.
Reflecting thespirit of the day, the General Assembly of Virginia revised the to make the position of superintendent of public instruction an elected official instead of a gubernatorial appointment. In 1905, Eggleston became Virginia’s first elected superintendent of public instruction.
Early in the 1900s, Virginia was in the midst of a crusade to upgrade a woefully inadequate public education system. Led by Governor(who served from 1902 to 1906) and Richmond Education Association members and , the May Campaign of 1905 carried the message of educational reform to the people of the state. While campaigning for state superintendent, Eggleston placed himself squarely on the side of the reformers. “Education,” he proclaimed, “should be the chief business of the State.” Though acknowledging that it was still the localities’ responsibility to support schools, he advocated an expanded role for the state, especially in establishing high schools and libraries and increasing teachers’ salaries, which, he claimed, had increased by only a dollar a month over the previous thirty-three years. Eggleston’s reform agenda also included consolidation of small rural schools, state control of textbook adoptions, and improvements in agricultural training.
State Superintendent of Schools
During his administration from 1906 to 1912, Eggleston was successful in implementing much of his program in spite of opposition from parsimonious legislators. His ideas were supported by the progressive temper of the day, improved state revenues, and the support of key officials, including Governor; , the widely respected president of the University of Virginia; and several legislators, notably William Hodges Mann of Nottoway County. Curbing some of his enthusiasm for change, Eggleston worked closely with reluctant assemblymen, reminding them of their own campaign promises to improve schools.
In 1906, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Mann High School Act to provide localities $50,000 annually, on a matching basis, to establish and maintain high schools. At the time, Virginia had only seventy-five high schools, many providing only rudimentary instruction above the elementary level. When Eggleston left office six years later, there were 448 high schools in the state. The assembly also authorized local school boards to borrow funds from the state Literary Fund for school construction, doubled teachers’ salaries, and provided more funding for traveling libraries.
Not neglecting higher education, the state took over ownership of the College of William and Mary and significantly increased appropriations to the University of Virginia. In 1908, responding to the demand for more facilities for training teachers, the legislature, after a fierce battle, established three normal schools for women, which opened in Harrisonburg in 1909, Fredericksburg in 1911, and Radford in 1912.
Eggleston had a broad vision of the role of education in the development of the larger community. “Good schools, good roads, good churches, rural telephones, rural free delivery of mails, and traveling libraries are needed,” he said, “and only by the irresistible strength of social cooperation can these blessings be assured to every community in the Commonwealth.” One of his favorite projects, arising from his experience with rural education, was farm demonstration work, whereby farmers would be instructed in procedures that would improve their productivity. He invited the nationally noted expert Seaman A. Knapp to Richmond to explain his methods. The first Virginia demonstration farms were set up in 1907. T. O. Sandy was the first state agricultural agent, John B. Pierce the first agent to work with African American farmers, and in 1910became the first full-time home demonstration agent in the nation. With Eggleston’s encouragement, the general assembly established an agricultural high school in each congressional district to provide instruction in the latest techniques for students pursuing careers in farming.
Eggleston’s handiwork produced remarkable results: significant increases in teachers’ salaries, length of school terms, and increased per-pupil expenditures. Teacher certification, school consolidation, and school privy requirements were also established. Virginia’s commitment to education improved at every level. Although Governor Swanson is rightly remembered as Virginia’s “educational governor,” he owed much of his success in that endeavor to school superintendent Joseph Eggleston.
In spite of these efforts, Virginia’s progress paled alongside that of the wealthier and more enlightened states of the Northeast. And the educational needs of black students remained woefully neglected. As the reform fervor faded, Virginia retreated to a traditional indifference and parsimony towards education; conflicts over control of the schools increased. “The terrific political fight made on me … in the assembly in 1910 took every ounce of strength I had,” Eggleston observed. “Since then the fight has continued; and it is a fight of ignorance in partnership with political knavery—a determination on the part of … the ringster to get possession of the schools.”
Worn out by such combat, Eggleston readily accepted the presidency of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in March 1913, after only six months as chief of the Division of Rural Education in the U.S. Bureau of Education (January to July of 1913). He brought to the position experience in agricultural education, but his policies at Tech in this and other areas were challenged by the same political opposition that he had confronted as superintendent. He lobbied for additional funding for the university, undertaking a prolific letter-writing campaign with alumni, newspaper editors, and legislators, but with little success. He urged Tech board members, alumni, and faculty to become “walking, talking, living ambassadors” to inform the public of Tech’s role in education in the state, particularly its agricultural extension work. Eggleston believed such work would benefit the citizens of Virginia through increased food production and improved rural living. He eventually won support for shifting the farm demonstration program to the university, a program for which he temporarily served as acting director.
Despite his limited success with the Virginia legislature, Eggleston received much praise at Tech. His appointments, consultations with faculty, and call for a new field house won support from all groups. He cemented relations with alumni through his letters to them, and by creating elaborate commencement exercises that drew them back to campus for reunions. With construction of the McBryde Building of Mechanic Arts in 1917, he established a new architectural model for the campus, in the neo-Gothic style.
The onset of World War I (1914–1918) sidetracked some of Eggleston’s long-term projects. An Reserve Officer Training Corps(ROTC) unit was established on campus and the university became a national training center for war. To support the war effort, Eggleston offered the services of the university’s extension service to the Federal Food Commission, to promote food production and conservation. His struggles with legislators in Richmond continued, however. A request for funds to increase faculty salaries was approved, but a bond issue for new buildings was defeated. He was more successful with federal officials, who approved his plan to train all teachers in vocational agriculture solely at Tech.
Discouraged with his failure to gain greater support from the legislature for programs at Tech, he resigned as university president early in 1919 and became the president of his alma mater, Hampden-Sydney College. Eggleston’s plans to transform Tech into a first-class university had been stymied by political opposition, but he had succeeded in improving morale among Tech’s constituents and prepared the groundwork for the notable achievements of his successor, Julian Burruss.
Reflecting his deep religious convictions, Eggleston returned to Hampden-Sydney with hopes of fostering Christian education at a church-related institution free of political infighting and student misbehavior. Unfortunately, college students of the 1920s were alike everywhere in their libertine social habits, especially their Prohibition-era drinking. Adding to the challenge, the control wielded by the Synod of the Presbyterian Church, which had taken over supervision of the college in 1919, was as exasperating to him as the General Assembly had been. The Synod’s unwillingness to support the floundering little college financially threatened its closing. Nonetheless, Eggleston was not deterred. He embarked on an ambitious fundraising campaign and proposed a grand master plan that included a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a student activities building, and a new library. “The College,” he said, “must either go ahead or go to pieces.”
It did neither. Lack of support from the Synod, combined with the dire economic climate of the Great Depression of the 1930s, frustrated Eggleston’s dreams, but his efforts ensured that the college would survive those difficult financial times. Enrollment increased during the depression as low tuition attracted students who could not afford to go elsewhere; and few left because Eggleston found them work cutting wood, caring for chickens, and maintaining the grounds. Professors’ salaries were cut 10 percent, but no wage reductions were imposed on the staff of buildings and grounds. On a brighter note, Eggleston’s genealogical studies of the college’s founders located John Morton, who paid for a new classroom building in memory of an ancestor who had been a founding trustee.
Eggleston never stopped trying to improve the institution. With faculty support, he liberalized the curriculum, created a freshman advising system, and made significant additions to the faculty. He resigned in 1935, but stayed on for four years until a successor was found. He continued his historical research at his home on campus until his death in 1953. For a man known for his strong religious and professional convictions, Joseph Eggleston had an accommodating attitude and an optimistic spirit that enabled him to achieve many goals. As he said late in his life, “Almost any problem of misunderstanding can be solved when disinterested men, having a common purpose, get together and talk things over.”