Dr. Bob Wilson

Bob Wilson is in a "fairly celebratory" mood these days. 

The Georgia College Professor Emeritus of History and University Historian has finished chronicling 25 years at the school. It's a period during which he says the school underwent its "most amazing transformation" in history. 

The new book text is in the hands of the designers, and he is hopeful it will be out in the fall.

The proposed title is "Georgia College 1889 to 2014: 125 Years of a Liberal Public Arts University."

He added three new chapters to the school's history, breaking them down by the presidents during that time: Edward Speir, Rosemary DePaolo and Dorothy Leland. He also added an epilogue about current president Steve Dorman, as well as updating earlier parts of the book with new information and photographs.

The first book on Georgia College's history came out in 1979, and was organized by Bill Hair. Hair asked James Bonner to write the first chapter, and Ed Dawson to take the school history into the 1930s. Then Hair told the story through 1979. 

When the school wanted the book updated through 1989, its centennial, Wilson took on the task. 

"So I've done a 10-year period and then a 25-year period. I don't know if I've got another 25-year period in me," he said, laughing. 

Wilson retired from the college in 2015. 

Wilson said the updated book ends in 2014 because it was the school's quasquicentennial (125th anniversary).

Of the three Georgia College presidents covered, Wilson said: "Each had their own interests, which were reflected in what they loved. Speir was into international affairs and sports and music. DePaolo was a great music fan, a jazz fan. Leland was a fan of the arts, and the college art department grew like wildfire."

Wilson said he conducted extensive interviews with each of the three presidents, Speir before he died in 2015. DePaolo now lives with her husband on the island of Malta. Leland lives in her native California.

In a Zoom talk to the Kiwanis Club and in a later interview, Wilson talked about the accomplishments under each.

ED SPEIR (1981-1996)

Speir and his vice president for academic affairs, Ralph Hemphill, made it mandatory that all students admitted to Georgia College pass a college preparatory curriculum. It raised the GPAs of incoming students. 

Speir and Hemphill wanted to make Georgia College more of a regional university, like Georgia Southern or Valdosta State. All the while, they were playing a chess game with Macon State, afraid that it would become a four-year school and overwhelm this area and Georgia College would "sort of whither on the vine," Wilson said.

That all changed when Stephen Portch, then chancellor of the University System of Georgia, put a stop  to the "wannabe stuff" and said decisions would be made in Atlanta.

Portch decided one of the state's 34 institutions should be designated a "public liberal arts college." He selected Georgia College.

"Portch chose Georgia College because he liked the look of the campus, it was beautiful, and he also was a big fan of Flannery O'Connor," Wilson said. "That didn't hurt."

Wilson said Georgia College now had "its own special niche and we weren't competing with the other colleges in the same way."

Also, the school became a university and the name was changed to Georgia College and State University.

ROSEMARY DEPAOLO (1997-2003)

If Georgia College got its new mission under Speir, DePaolo "revolutionized this place," Wilson said.

"She knew the liberal arts," Wilson said. "Her background was extraordinary and she could convey it. When you were in her presence, there's something called charisma, and she had it in spades."

Wilson said DePaolo's mission was to make Georgia College like a public Ivy League school.

"If you couldn't afford to go to Harvard or Yale, you could come to Georgia College and have a similar experience," he said.

DePaola wanted a low teacher-student ratio, and she wanted more of a sense of community on campus. She had the data that showed students who lived on campus had better GPAs.

Georgia College had long been a commuter school, and a lot of locals pushed back about their children having to live on campus. 

Wilson said he told DePaolo that many "town girls" commuted to college. "One of them was Flannery O'Connor, and she didn't do too bad," he said. 

DePaolo made Georgia College's mission as the state's only liberal arts university work, Wilson said.

"In many ways, it was our golden age."

DOROTHY LELAND (2004-2011)

Leland, like DePaolo, was infused with the liberal arts. 

"She was a philosophy major," Wilson said. "She didn't have the same light-up-the-room personality that DePaolo had, but she was no-nonsense, thoughtful and just a wonderful woman. And she was a financial whiz, which was a good thing when we had a huge recession in 2007."

The budget was cut and the faculty had some attrition, but no one was let go and the school hardly skipped a beat under Leland. 

"We've always seemed to have the right person at the right time at this college," Wilson said. 

Under Leland, new dorms were built and the West campus was developed. Leland continued the separation of the professional programs from the liberal arts.

And Leland continued to reach out to downtown Milledgeville, encouraging restaurants and shops that catered to students.

WHAT'S NEXT

It took Wilson, 75, almost four years to do his research and writing, and he frequently had to tell his wife, who is ready to travel, that he couldn't leave until the book was finished. Now that it is, it's hard to travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That's why he's just "fairly" celebratory. 

When the book is published and the pandemic abates, then he can be totally celebratory.

Reach Rick Millians at 803-331-4290 or rdmillians@aol.com.

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