Bishop

Curtis Vance Bishop (July 8, 1894-February 19, 1966) served as president of Averett College for thirty years, the longest tenure of any of its presidents. He also was mayor of Danville for seven years and, through the years, performed an ever-increasing role in the educational, religious, cultural and civic life in the Danville community.

Bishop, born in Inman in the Campobello Township of Spartanburg County, South Carolina, was the son of Albert Palmer Bishop, who often went by his middle name, Palmer, and his wife, Nannie Evelyn Thompson Bishop. One of eight children, his father was a farmer and at age 15, Curtis was working as a farm laborer on the family farm growing cotton and later peaches. His father tried to instill self-reliance and industry in his children by giving each of them an acre of land on which to grow a crop. Young Curtis did so well with his acre that he won first place for his corn crop in a county fair competition. In addition to the focus placed on hard work, he grew up in and was shaped by an upcountry South Carolina environment which included conservative Baptist religion and all that it implied, Democratic politics, white supremacy, and segregation.

Besides religion, there were additional influences. Bishop graduated from Spartan Academy in Welford, South Carolina, and, after a tour of duty in the U. S. Navy during World War I, he attended the University of Richmond for two years until his money was depleted. He then returned to Spartan Academy to teach. He also worked weekends at the J. O. Jones Clothing Store in Spartanburg in order to earn enough money for tuition at Furman University in Greenville. Graduating from Furman with a B. A. in 1923, he became principal of Spartan Academy where he hired a beautiful young history teacher, Helen Butler McDowell (December 6, 190 -June 14, 1991), whom he married the following year.

In 1924, he joined the faculty of Furman University as Associate Instructor in English at a starting salary of $1,200 per year plus room and board. He stayed at Furman for six years. While he was there, the President of Furman, William McGlothlin, encouraged Bishop to earn a master’s degree in English. He did so at the University of Texas during summer sessions and was awarded his M. A. in 1928.

In 1930, the President of Averett College, John W. Cammack, offered Bishop a vice presidency and a teaching position in English, which he accepted. Over the next six years, Bishop took on increasing responsibilities at Averett. In 1934-1935, Cammack took a sabbatical leave-of-absence, leaving Bishop in charge as interim president. Then Cammack, suffering domestic and health problems, made an injudicious statement in the Baptist state newspaper that sparked public controversy and increased opposition to his continuing at Averett. In March 1936, Cammack resigned and the board of trustees chose Bishop to succeed him as the ninth president of the college, a position he would hold for thirty years until his death in 1966.

When Dr. Bishop arrived at Averett, there were 17 facuulty members. At the end of his tenure, the faculty had grown to 50 people. When he became president, the institution included a preparatory school as well as a junior college. Bishop abolished the preparatory school and turned Averett into solely a junior college. During his tenure, the college engaged in an aggressive building program which, over the years, refurbished the President’s House (now the Alumni Building) and converted a swampy and wild back campus into an amphitheater. The college landscaped lawns which served as sites for May Day pageants, commencement exercises, the Daisy chain, and receptions, and saw the construction of the five-story Davenport Hall, Danville Hall, a new gymnasium, Pritchett Auditorium and Bishop Hall. Many of these new buildings were connected, allowing students and faculty to go from building to building without walking outside.

The completion of Bishop Hall allowed for an increase in the resident student population to 400 females. Finally, in 1965 a three-story administrative wing on the southwest face and a two-story dormitory-classroom wing on the northeast face of Main Building were added. With its main entrance on Mountain View Avenue, the administrative wing contains 3,600 square feet with fifteen offices that serve the academic dean, dean of students, business manager and their staffs.

Bishop left a college over two-and-one-half times larger in square footage of buildings than the college he had inherited. Indeed, it was Curtis Bishop who built Averett College, because the buildings erected during his tenure are still in use today. He guided Averett through periods of depression and prosperity, across its centennial and into a promising second century. He built fine facilities, strong curricula, and organized a faculty of scholars who collaborated to make Averett College an institution of distinction in its field.

During his tenure, the library increased its holdings from 6,000 volumes in 1937 to 15,000 volumes in 1966. Pre-professional programs were also added during his tenure. Bishop was very active in recruiting students for Averett, traveling 25,000 to 30,000 miles annually visiting homes, churches, and Baptist associations in search of prospective students. For a number of years, he even chartered a Pullman car to bring prospective students from northern states, a strategy that resultrf in the enrollment of a large number of students from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. In fact, by the 1950s, the number of students from these states was only exceeded by the number of students from Virginia. By the end of Bishop’s tenure, Averett’s reputation was such that it was turning down several times the number of students it was able to enroll.

After World War II, when Gov. William M Tuck called on Virginia’s women’s colleges to admit men, Averett admitted 40—twice the number the Governor suggested. Some of these day student veterans found wives from the female students of the school. Dr. Bishop’s paternalistic administrative style resulted in some friction with faculty, students and the leadership of Virginia Baptists which he managed to survive, so Averett continued to be a Baptist school devoted to Baptist principles throughout his administration.

Prominent in educational circles regionally and nationally, Bishop was a former president of both the Southern Association of Junior Colleges and the American Association of Junior Colleges. He also served as chairman and as a member of various committees of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Academic honors later in life included an honorary Litt.D. degree at Furman in 1943 and an LL.D. from the University of Richmond in 1957.

Bishop’s activities and interests were not confined to Averett College and education. Over the years, he became an esteemed community leader. He served as a deacon and as teacher of the Men’s Bible Class in First Baptist Church and, shortly before his death, was busy in helping bring the Rev. Luke Smith to pastor the church and seeing him installed. In his first year in Danville, he became an active member of the Rotary Club and was elected president of the club the next year. In 1945, he was elected Rotary District Governor for forty-four clubs in Tennessee and Virginia. The Danville Chamber of Commerce elected him vice president in 1945 and president in 1946.

He served on the boards of trustees of the Memorial Hospital and the Community Chest ,which later became the United Way. He was also active in the YMCA and the Boy Scouts of America. In 1950, local civic leaders persuaded him to offer candidacy for city council. He did not campaign actively, but his reputation for responsible leadership and his warmth and charm gave him first place in the balloting. He was the new council’s unanimous choice for mayor and president of council.

While on council, he used his influence on behalf of bond issues for electric power and schools and supported a change of Danville’s government to the council-manager form. This form copied the trustees-president form of collegiate administration and the directors-president form of corporate administration, which were becoming the norm in the United States at that time. The change has continued as Danville’s form of government to this day.

He took his place in the leadership structure of Southside Virginia that included such Democrat Byrd Machine stalwarts as State Senator Landon Wyatt, Sr. who was his personal friend and gave him backing on the Averett College Board of Trustees and in the state. In 1956, he was re-elected as councilman and mayor, but a severe heart attack the following year forced his resignation as mayor. He declined to seek a third term on council. On December 20, 1951, Bishop received the Kiwanis Club’s Outstanding Citizen of Danville Award at the Hotel Danville in recognition of his many contributions to the city and its citizens. When he died in 1966 after hospitalization because of pneumonia and a stroke, the flag at the Municipal Building was flown at half staff by order of the current mayor, W. C. McCubbins, an editorial column in his remembrance was written in the Danville Registe,r and his obituary appeared in a number of newspapers including the Chicago Tribune.

Dr. Bishop and his family lived in the President’s House at 202 Mountain View Avenue. He had two sons, Curtis V. Bishop, Jr. and Edward McDowell Bishop. In 1991, Curtis, Jr. was living in Grenada and Edward was living in Richmond. Dr. Bishop’s wife was born in Kingstree, South Carolina, the daughter of Edward A. McDowell and Eva Scott McDowell. She was a president of The Wednesday Club, the Shakespeare Study Club of Danville and the Danville Music Study Club. A president of the Woman’s Missionary Union of First Baptist Church, she was a charter member and past president of the Forest Hills Garden Club of Danville. She died in a nursing home in Richmond and is buried beside her husband in Mountain View Cemetery in Danville near Averett College where they devoted so many years of their lives.

Bishop Avenue runs north from 1121 West Main Street to Memorial Drive. In 2005 there were 32 households located on the street.