Where the elite meet

"We are a producer of North Carolina business leaders," the headmaster says. It's been that way for generations.
By Chris Richter

Sitting on a plush green couch in the concierge lounge on the 18th floor of the Marriott in downtown Charlotte, Dennis Campbell seems relaxed for someone who just helped give away almost $55 million. The Duke Endowment, the Southeast’s largest philanthropic foundation, hit a milestone at its meeting, surpassing $2 billion in grants since James B. Duke started it in 1924. It handed out $106 million last year.

Campbell is one of the foundation’s 15 trustees. But the tie binding him to three of the others has little to do with the tobacco tycoon. He’s headmaster of Woodberry Forest, an all-boys boarding school nestled at the foot of the Appalachians about 35 miles northeast of Charlottesville, Va. The other three are alumni.

Woodberry is small — about 390 students in grades nine through 12 at the start of the 2004-05 school year — but its influence far exceeds its size. Alumni include celebrities such as actor Randolph Scott, class of 1917, songwriter Johnny Mercer, class of ’27, and Marvin P. Bush — the president’s youngest brother — class of ’75. But more important than that, this Virginia school trains the Tar Heel elite.

“We are a producer of North Carolina business leaders,” Campbell says. Among the first graduates from North Carolina was James G. Hanes, class of 1905, whose Winston-Salem family started Hanes Hosiery Mills. His brother, Robert M. Hanes, graduated two years later and was a driving force behind Wachovia’s growth and Research Triangle Park’s creation.

The alumni directory reads like a who’s who of North Carolina movers and shakers. Bowman Gray Jr., class of ’25, was chairman of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. His brother, L. Gordon Gray ’26 was in Harry Truman’s Cabinet and succeeded Frank Porter Graham as president of the UNC system. Archie Davis ’29 was chairman of Wachovia and president of the Research Triangle Foundation. Felix Harvey ’39 led Kinston-based Harvey Enterprises to a dominant role in Eastern North Carolina politics and commerce. Bill Lee ’47 was CEO of Duke Power. Tim Belk ’73 last year became CEO of the Charlotte-based department-store chain that bears his family’s name.

Last school year, 115 students came from North Carolina — one more than from Virginia. South Carolina was a distant third with 32. Close to a quarter of the student body are sons or grandsons of alumni. The bond is strong. Roddey Dowd Jr. ’74 is a third-generation alumnus. A Carolina graduate, he’s president of Charlotte Pipe & Foundry, one of the largest ironworks in North Carolina. “My mom asks me, ‘Why aren’t you more devoted to Chapel Hill?’ I say, ‘Mom, my allegiance is to Woodberry.’”

The boy in the photograph sits on a staircase outside a brick building, staring into the distance. He’s 17, maybe 18, wearing dark slacks and a white shirt with sleeves rolled nearly to his elbows. C.D. Spangler Jr. will become the second-wealthiest man in North Carolina — worth $2.1 billion in 2004, according to Forbes magazine’s annual ranking of the world’s richest people — as well as UNC president from 1986 to 1997. Here, though, prepping more than 50 years ago to attend Carolina, he was “Dickey,” a good basketball rebounder and, according to his senior yearbook, “on the ball, both on hardwood and with femmes.”

After finishing Alexander Graham Junior High School in Charlotte, he started Woodberry as a fourth-former, the equivalent of a sophomore. Freshmen are third-formers; seniors are sixth-formers. It was his parents’ decision to send him. “They had heard that Woodberry Forest had a good academic program,” he recalls.

The program is rigorous. Students attend class six days a week — half-days Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. Days are segmented into blocks from 7:15 a.m. to midnight, for everything from quiet breaks to study hall to athletics. “They expect a lot out of you,” says William Blair, a rising junior from Wilmington whose father was class of 1977 and grandfather was class of 1954.

Woodberry rarely advertises. Parents who don’t know about it learn through word of mouth, Campbell says, or their own research. Students must apply, take the Secondary School Admission Test, come for interviews and submit three letters of recommendation. About 310 applied for the 2004-05 school year — 176 were accepted. Tuition, room and board ran $30,200.

Teacher Matt Boesen incorporates into his history classes material from upper-level undergraduate classes at the University of Virginia, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1998. He taught at Phillips Exeter Academy, a 1,050-student coed boarding and day school in Exeter, N.H., before coming to Woodberry in 2001. He’s one of 82 faculty members. Teachers are “masters,” students are “boys.” The student/teacher ratio is 4.7-to-1. “There’s more quality control as a teacher,” he says. “You know exactly at the end of class what has sunk in and what has not.”

It’s late Friday morning, just before lunch, and seniors settle in for Ben Hale’s English 600 class. The classroom walls are plastered with posters. Hanging in one corner is a tapestry of Elvis Presley. A bumper sticker above a chalkboard proclaims: “Washington and Lee is THE University of Virginia.” Students sit in a semicircle of desks. There are nine, including one of the two girls enrolled in the school. Daughters of faculty members can attend free, but they must endure the same admissions process. There are boys in the class from Charlotte, Pinehurst, Flat Rock and Concord.

Hale, with close-cropped hair and dressed in light-green pants and a blue shirt with a red pen in the pocket, bounds around the room. He teaches in a Socratic style, quizzing students on their reading. He’s intense — a friendly drill sergeant — and loud. What’s the difference between Bacon and Montaigne? The students had been assigned to read Francis Bacon’s On Revenge and Michel de Montaigne’s Of Drunkenness. “Bacon’s a lot drier,” the student from Concord says. “Montaigne is more fun to read because he throws in stories and anecdotes.”

Students are engaged and have a casual rapport with Hale. It isn’t unique. Nearly all faculty members and their families live in houses or apartments on campus. Most coach sports or are advisers for extracurricular activities. Four times a week, students sit 10 to a table for dinner with a faculty member. Students watch everything he does, Boesen says, from his reaction to swearing in the classroom to how he handles his toddler daughter in the dining hall when she starts screaming. “People do leave,” he says. “They just don’t want to live that public a life.”

It can be a challenge, Campbell says, to find new faculty. As with any school, Woodberry must consider a candidate’s qualifications. But if you need a Chinese teacher, he says, “you’ve got to find somebody who can teach Chinese and who wants to be fully engaged in the residential life and total life of the community.”

Despite that community’s prestige, it doesn’t produce a horde of Harvard-bound graduates each year. The average Scholastic Aptitude Test score is 1,287, compared with the national average of 1,026 last year. Of 98 students in the class of 2004, 30 went to college in North Carolina, including 16 to UNC Chapel Hill, five to N.C. State and two to Duke. Three entered Ivy League schools — two at Princeton, one at Cornell. Woodberry has produced 41 Morehead Scholars since Carolina began granting the award to students from out-of-state schools in 1954 and was one of the first two out-of-state schools from which the John Motley Morehead Foundation accepted applications.

The transition to college can be rocky, some alumni say. After four years of scrutiny and structure, some students don’t handle the freedom well. “There have been some spectacular failures, at least during the first couple of years of college,” says Charlie Lucas ’80, a Duke Endowment trustee and partner in The McAulay Firm, a Charlotte executive-search company. Campbell says it isn’t unique to Woodberry. “It doesn’t have anything to do with a boarding school or an independent day school or a public high school. It has to do with the student.”

A Woodberry graduate might be unfamiliar with the freedom of college, but the setting likely will look familiar. The school, in many ways, resembles a small college. It’s spread across 1,100 acres along the Rapidan River. Students buy their textbooks at the campus store. The main building — the Walker Building, with its four massive white columns — houses dorm rooms, administrative offices and the cafeteria. The school has more than a half-dozen athletic fields. Dorms, some faculty residences, the basketball gym and classroom buildings are scattered around the main quadrangle. Across from the Walker Building is the headmaster’s residence, built in 1793.

The headmaster’s job bears more resemblance to a university president’s than to a high-school principal’s. It pays almost as well. According to the school’s 2003 tax filings, Campbell received a salary of $237,500. James Oblinger, who became chancellor of N.C. State University in January, will make $274,797 this year.

Teachers aren’t starving, either. The average annual salary is about $46,800, compared with $44,628 for Virginia public schools in 2003-04. Woodberry teachers also get free housing, utilities and perks such as continuing education, which the school pays for. And there are few discipline problems. Boesen says he has kicked one student out of class in his four years there. “They’re very deferential to authority. They work very hard. They’re willing, like the organization men of the ’50s, to sort of climb up the corporate ladder. And they just want to fit into the system.”

Campbell, 59, became headmaster in 1997 after 15 years as dean of Duke University’s divinity school. A Texas native, he attended public high school in Illinois and college at Duke. He earned a divinity degree from Yale University and his Ph.D. from Duke. He replaced Maj. Gen. John Grinalds, who left Woodberry to become president of The Citadel, the public military college in Charleston, S.C.

One reason Campbell says he came to Woodberry was because he was interested in institution building. Part of building such an institution is raising money, and like a university president, that’s among his primary responsibilities. He estimates that it is about a third of his job. On his way to the Duke Endowment meeting, he stopped in High Point to attend a fundraiser. As of late 2004, the school’s endowment was about $175 million — more than that of UNC Greensboro, about $123 million, and UNC Charlotte, about $85 million.

Campbell teaches occasionally and leads chapel services. But much of his job resembles corporate management. Woodberry has an annual budget of about $22 million and 175 full-time employees. It has its own post office, store, water plant, sewer plant and a nine-hole golf course by Donald Ross, who also designed Pinehurst No. 2.

Woodberry’s roots lie in the sensibilities of 19th-century Virginia’s landed gentry. Confederate Capt. Robert S. Walker returned from the Civil War to tend his family’s farm in Madison County. In 1872, his father gave him and his sister Woodberry Forest, a 250-acre farm in nearby Orange County once owned by William Madison, brother of James Madison. Thomas Jefferson had designed the farm’s main house — today the headmaster’s residence.

Walker, who married in 1874, had six sons by the mid-1880s. His wife didn’t think the local schools were suitable, according to Elizabeth Copeland Norfleet’s Woodberry Forest: A Venture in Faith, a school history published in 1955. The gentry viewed the public schools with disdain, says Larry Huffman, an adjunct education professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. “These parents wanted what was best for their kids. You can’t argue with that. But they kind of looked down on the public schools.”

A neighbor’s daughter began tutoring four of the Walker boys in 1887. The Walkers hired a teacher for their children and four other pupils in 1889 — the year the school cites as its first. Woodberry grew to 53 students and three teachers within seven years. Tuition in 1896 was $255. Between 1905 and 1915, Huffman says, Virginia began a push to promote secondary public education. As their reputations and curricula grew, public high schools squeezed out some private academies. Others, such as Woodberry, thrived, attracting students from states such as North Carolina. “If you wanted to get your children into Harvard or Yale or any of the Ivies, those were the kind of schools you’d send your child to,” Huffman says.

Private education in the South resurged after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Segregation academies sprang up as resistant white parents sought alternatives to integrated schools. Woodberry, though, was in a different league: Its students were going to go there anyway, no matter the state of public schools. Its first black students were admitted in 1969. Eighteen blacks were among the 35 minority students — 9% of the student body — last fall. Campbell says the school also is committed to increasing socioeconomic diversity among its students, but that will take more financial aid. About 30% receive some now. The average grant is about $19,200 a year.

Though its demographics have shifted during the last 40 years, the school has changed little. Alumni, no matter the generation, speak of their time at Woodberry in the same terms. The cornerstone of that experience is the honor system. Begun in 1899, it deals with three broad categories: lying, cheating and stealing. Other offenses that can lead to dismissal include gambling, hazing and involvement with drugs or alcohol under the school’s jurisdiction. “One of the worst things that anyone has to deal with is when you have to send a student away,” Campbell says. “But if you don’t do that, then you haven’t got anything either. Then you don’t have an honor system that works.”

Students administer it. “Over the four years, the kids basically get socialized by their peers, not by the faculty,” Boesen says. A group of seniors, called prefects, govern it. Students and faculty nominate candidates, who are interviewed by the headmaster, the academic dean, the dean of students and two faculty members. The headmaster appoints prefects. Seven of the 18 prefects last year were from North Carolina.

If there is a suspected violation, the prefects investigate, interviewing those involved and meeting privately to discuss the case. The headmaster makes the final decision but rarely deviates from the prefects’ recommendation. After a student is expelled, the headmaster convenes an assembly to explain what happened. Woodberry is too small for a student to leave without others knowing. “You need to tell the truth to people,” Campbell says. “You don’t want gossip. You don’t want uncertainty.”

The prefect system serves two purposes, says Russell M. Robinson II, chairman of the Duke Endowment and a founding partner of Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, a powerful Charlotte law firm. He was a prefect in 1950. “One is to give the students, through their representatives on the prefect board, a sense of ownership in the honor system. It was their system and theirs to preserve and strengthen. It also gave the prefect board members an opportunity to learn that kind of leadership.”

The honor system’s influence is evident around campus. Unoccupied study carrels in the library are stuffed with personal belongings. The students aren’t in the stacks — they’re in class. When the bell rings for lunch, boys stream into the cafeteria, shedding their backpacks outside. It isn’t unusual to see a bicycle without a lock, a skateboard left outside a dorm or a sweater draped over a chair in an empty classroom.

The system isn’t oppressive, students say, but as Blair notes, “it’s always kind of on your mind. Especially when someone gets kicked out for breaching the honor system, it really reminds you of the seriousness of it.” Nor is it perfect. Infractions slip by — students aren’t obligated to turn in peers, though they must answer if questioned. Boesen suspects things go on in the dorms, but the atmosphere is different than at other boarding schools where “there’s a hidden code among the students that you simply do not say certain things to the faculty. It breeds not necessarily a tone of distrust but certainly an us-versus-them mentality.”

There’s a distinct bond among the students. Many alumni say their closest friends today were Woodberry classmates. Students are there during what some alumni call the most formative years of their lives. “It is that unique situation you’re living in for all those years with those same people,” Lucas says. “They’re experiencing the exact same thing you are. It’s that unique situation that ties you together forever. There’s no way somebody who goes to a big, day high school can understand that.” It crosses generations, too. Lucas says he and entrepreneur Frank Kenan ’31 often would talk about their Woodberry years, though they graduated almost a half-century apart.

It’s like being in limited misery together, one alumnus jokes. Dowd agrees. “You’re just there on that big old farm. It’s cold as hell in the winter. It gets dark early. You go to school five and a half days a week.”

The bonds last. Spangler went backpacking for years with Robinson and two other alumni who graduated the same year. Alex Bernhardt ’61 is chairman and CEO of Lenoir-based Bernhardt Furniture. He had three Woodberry classmates in his wedding. His roommate at Davidson College was a graduate. The president of his company, Lewis Norman, was in his class. “He and I met in the fourth form at Woodberry Forest, and we have been closest friends ever since.”

It helps that Woodberry is a school for boys. Alumni say they wouldn’t have it any other way. Even current students blanch at the thought of going coed.

“Of course I miss girls,” says Billy Armfield, a rising junior. “Who doesn’t? But not having them, it’s one less thing to worry about.” His father is William J. “Billy” Armfield IV, class of ’52, the former president of Madison yarn manufacturer Macfield, former chairman of Greensboro-based yarn producer and processor Unifi and former chairman of the UNC Chapel Hill board of trustees. If you’ve had a late night and want to sleep in, young Armfield explains, you can roll out of bed, brush your teeth and be on your way. Around girls, you have to be careful about your manners. At Woodberry, “I try to eat politely. But it’s something you don’t have to worry about.”

Campbell laughs — there’s more to it than not having to comb your hair. Students benefit from programs designed around the way boys learn. “More and more research is showing that for a lot of students, both male and female, single-sex education, especially during the adolescent years, is very productive.” It’s something the school promotes among students. Prominent supporters of single-sex education have spoken there, including scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys.

But Woodberry is no monastery. There are mixers with girls schools. Boys don’t play female roles in school plays. They bring in girls from local public high schools. Finding them isn’t hard. “Girls always want to come here and participate in the Woodberry plays,” Armfield says. Boys can invite girls to spend the weekend, but couples are kept on a tight leash. They can’t leave campus. The girl must stay with a faculty member, and she cannot enter a dormitory.

Staying boys-only would be for the best, says Lucas, who was a Morehead Scholar. “We could perform every day without having to worry about what the girl who was sitting two desks away was thinking. That’s a liberating feeling. You don’t know it at the time, but, boy, it helps you perform at a different level.”

A tall, lanky boy with shaggy blond hair, Billy Armfield wears tennis shoes, khaki pants and a green-and-white-striped polo shirt with a pink collar. It’s similar to what most boys wear. On formal occasions, such as chapel, they put on a coat and tie. He seems certain about his future. “Next year, my dad wants me to start taking Chinese because China’s the fastest-growing economy.” He wants to go to Carolina, major in business and minor in Chinese and Spanish, which he has taken since fourth grade. Then it’s off to work in China, Spain or Mexico a few years before returning to the United States for an MBA. “Then, hopefully, I’ll have some offers on the table.”

His plan is a bit presumptuous, he admits. Maybe. But Woodberry boys have watched alumni tread a well-worn path to prominence in business, law, medicine and politics. The students are high achievers, and that path, alumni say, always will be there. It just might lead in a different direction. The North Carolina economy is changing, hemorrhaging jobs in industries that made many Woodberry alumni wealthy, and textile and furniture tycoons could soon be endangered species. “You’ll see similar patterns,” Lucas says, “but I think it will be different businesses and different industries.”

The pipeline from North Carolina will stay open, and parents who can pay will be more than willing to do so. “It’s not a cheap meal ticket,” says Dowd, who has a son there. But it’s worth it. “If I had to beg, borrow or steal, I’d do it.”

Well, maybe not steal, he corrects himself. That would violate the honor system.