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The Namesake

January 24, 2019
By Noah Petersen '19

“This building … is named in honor of one of the truly great alumnae of our college,” said Professor Caroline Sinclair. “One whose intelligence, energy, character and professional skill set an example for all who will enter these halls with purpose.”

Sinclair was speaking in late 1963 at the opening of Adair Hall, William & Mary’s new women’s gymnasium. The building marked a large step forward for women’s athletics at the university, long hindered by poor facilities. Costing nearly $700,000 — almost $6 million in today’s money — Adair Hall contained a gymnasium, an Olympic-size pool, and full-size tennis courts right outside. It was a new campus landmark, one of the first of its kind at William & Mary, named for a woman and designed for women.

In the 55 years since it opened, Adair Hall has stood alone at William & Mary with a special honor. Adair, which now houses the Departments of Kinesiology & Health Sciences and Dance, was the first academic building on campus named for a woman. This year, as we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of coeducation, it’s time to look back to that quiet corner of campus and remember Adair Hall and the legacy of its namesake.

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Born in 1885, Cornelia Storrs Adair ’23 was the fifth of her family’s eight children. They lived in small Monroe County, West Virginia, before moving to Richmond, Virginia, according to the Encyclopedia Virginia. After high school, 19-year-old Adair began teaching at Elba Elementary School. She taught at three other elementary schools before enrolling as a full-time student at William & Mary, then just recently turned co-ed. After graduation, Adair moved to Bainbridge Junior High School and later became principal of Franklin (now Swansboro) Elementary School, where she stayed until her retirement in 1954.

Adair’s namesake, her aunt Cornelia Storrs Taylor, taught her to care about teachers and students inside and outside of the classroom. On her own time, Adair campaigned for improved teacher salaries, working conditions and retirement plans. She thought education was a fundamental right and often worked with disabled students, eventually founding an organization dedicated to their support. Adair supported equal rights and equal pay for women throughout her life and was involved in Virginia League for Planned Parenthood and the American Association of University Women.

In 1927, after five years as treasurer, Adair became the first classroom teacher elected the president of the National Education Association, according to the Encyclopedia of Virginia. For a year, she travelled with the organization, and even with other offers on the table, Adair returned to her old job after the year was out. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and in 1934, Adair became the first woman awarded the William & Mary Alumni Medallion.

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Adair Hall isn’t the same as it was 55 years ago. The tennis courts are gone, along with the gym equipment. Where there once was seating looking over the first-floor pool, there is now a line of offices.

Kinesiology Professor John Charles works in one of those offices and enjoys his “waterfront property.” For the last 39 years, Charles has worked in Adair and seen it evolve from a women’s gymnasium to an academic building with two departments inside.

When Charles first arrived, Adair was still the women’s physical education building. At that time, students were required to take four PE credits; the university offered courses like horseback riding and golf. Charles coached women’s tennis and taught classes.

Later, Charles became the first coach of the university’s varsity women’s soccer team, and he worked with players like Jill Ellis ’88, L.H.D. ’16, Megan McCarthy ’88 and Julie Shackford ’88. Charles saw the program through its early days as a low-budget operation, back when the team played on Barksdale Field and stopped traffic every time the ball rolled onto Jamestown Road. He enjoyed the work, but it was time consuming. His wife called him one night while he was away at a game in Northern Virginia and told him to hurry back. Charles arrived in time for the birth of his son, Sean Charles ’08, MS ’14 but knew it was time to quit coaching.  When University Athletics split from the Department of Physical Education in the mid-80s, assistant coach John Daly took over the team.

“I have a huge amount of respect for the women who developed the program in this building,” Charles said.

Those women include Joy Archer M.Ed. ’72 and Millie West L.H.D. ’17, who were on the committee that hired Charles, and all the students and athletes he’s worked with over the years. In his time here, Title IX has opened up proportional funding for men’s and women’s athletics, teachers no longer coach, and men and women now exercise in the same building.

For almost 40 years, Charles has watched Adair change. It’s aged gracefully, along with the cupboards and bookshelves in his office, which have been there the whole time. While the mission has changed, the building still evokes memories of its heritage of physical activity. When Charles eventually moves out, he said it will feel like leaving an old friend.

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Adair herself never saw the building with her name. Finished in 1963, Adair Hall opened a year after she passed away and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. There’s something of her legacy, though, left in the building — a namesake that students can live up to.

Charles, rocking on his office chair, looked out into the pool.

“Everything’s built on something,” he said.