At the St. George Tucker House, you never knew who was coming to dinner.
So say the descendants of Janet Coleman Kimbrough 1921, P ’53, P ’55, the last resident of the historic clapboard home in Colonial Williamsburg. The home, which was built by Kimbrough’s great-great-grandfather, W&M Professor St. George Tucker, in the late 18th century, housed seven generations of his family, many of whom attended William & Mary.
“When we were growing up, the Tucker House was a hub of interesting characters constantly passing through — there was a constant stream of visitors, friends and family, and an intellectual haven,” says Charles Kimbrough Barlowe ’83, P ’16, Kimbrough’s grandson. “Dinner was a lively affair, because she would prod you for your opinion on everything from family history to politics to science and human health. And you had better have a thoughtful answer!”
In 1918, Kimbrough became one of the first 24 women to attend William & Mary, where she majored in English. She went on to become one of the first women to attend medical school at the University of Virginia and from there, one of the first practicing female physicians in Virginia, seeing patients at Fort Eustis and publishing papers on treatments for pernicious anemia. By the time her grandchildren came on the scene, however, she was simply the doyenne of Tucker House, presiding over a large and complex network of family and friends.
“My siblings and I grew up in Atlanta but we came to Williamsburg at least twice a year,” says her granddaughter Lucy Kimbrough Henry ’87. “It always felt like going home because of the Tucker House and our family’s deep roots there.”
Janet Kimbrough was well-known for letting William & Mary students stay with her while they were enrolled; occupants ranged from her grandchildren to the children of old friends, acquaintances and distant relatives.
“My first year of law school, I lived there and slept in St. George Tucker’s bed, and it was cool to go to law school and sleep in the bed of an ancestor who had studied there before the Revolution,” says Erich Kimbrough J.D. ’95, Janet’s grandson. “The last two years I lived behind the house in the Levingston Kitchen, which was perfect except for this woodpecker that loved to show up before 6 in the morning and peck the roof. A beautiful bird, but how I hated it.”
All of her grandchildren attest that their grandmother kept all of these students free of charge, mainly because she loved having the company and having young people in the house. As much as she loved them, they loved her right back, partly for her ability to connect to the young people with such ease. Far from being the stereotypical older person regaling the younger generation with stories about “when I was your age,” she tried to relate.
“She always appreciated the commonality of students at that stage of life — she always noted the similarities between all of our collective experiences,” says Barlowe. “I would tell her stories and she would tell me that nothing had changed since she was a girl.”
At the same time, William & Mary has transformed in numerous ways over the past 100 years, in ways that every generation of the Kimbrough family has seen and acknowledged. The ever-present specter of social media influences every move both public and private, the footprint of the university is constantly growing and social norms have changed considerably.
“For my father (Raymond Kimbrough ’53, P ’80, P ’87, P ’95), he never would have considered using a drug, even marijuana, and the thought of being able to set foot in a woman’s dorm room was a pure fantasy — he wouldn’t have been able to get past the front desk,” points out Erich Kimbrough. “Yet, he related many stories of revelry, one of which involved being knee deep in the York River in the middle of the night trying to catch a crab with his bare hands.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the Kimbrough connection to William & Mary. Upon graduation, Anne Barlowe ’16 became the eighth generation to join the alumni ranks. It’s a tradition that the whole family hopes will continue into the future, knowing it would have made their grandmother so proud.
“She just called it ‘The College,’” remembers Doris Kimbrough ’80, with a laugh. “As though it were the only one in the world. And to us, especially as children, it really was.”