Change that reverberates

George ('79) and Sam ('15) Harrison in front of Keezell Hall. (Photo by Katie Landes, JMU photography services)

George (’79) and Sam (’15) Harrison in front of Keezell Hall on JMU’s campus. (Photo by Katie Landes, JMU photography services)

When Sam Harrison graduates from JMU next year with a degree in computer science and a minor in math, he’ll have his parents to thank, his professors, probably his friends, and one man he’s never met — but if it weren’t for that man there might not be a James Madison University.

And there might not be a Sam Harrison.

The man Sam never met, Sen. George B. Keezell, is legendary in the annals of the university. Determined to have the Commonwealth of Virginia plant a new school in Harrisonburg early in the 20th century, the politically adept senator from Rockingham County plied some legislative maneuvers to persuade the Virginia’s General Assembly to bring a new Normal School to the city. As a result of the senator’s determination, Virginia’s newest Normal School, the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Harrisonburg — now JMU — came to be in 1908.

A grandfatherly figure who towered above most of his contemporaries at 6 feet 6 inches tall, Senator Keezell was “a sincere advocate of education for women,” wrote JMU historian Raymond Dingledine in his book, Madison College: The First Fifty Years. It didn’t hurt that Keezell was also the ranking member of the Committee on Public Institutions and Education and chairman of the Finance Committee. As chairman of yet another special committee, the senator also helped negotiate for the land on which the campus would be built.

In 1958, 17 years after the senator’s death, Madison College celebrated its golden anniversary. At the time, the college presented a tribute to Sen. Keezell, deeming him to be the “father of the institution.”

Sen. George B. Keezell

Sen. George B. Keezell

Born in 1854, George B. Keezell came from a family that valued education, so it’s not hard to understand why bringing a new school to the valley was a top priority for him. According to biographer Lyon Gardiner Tyler in Vol. III of the Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography: “He utilized every spare moment to read history and biography, and standard literature of all kinds, and this supplemented the educational training he acquired at a collegiate institute in Baltimore, Maryland.”

Many of the senator’s children and grandchildren would seek higher education as well, including his son Rembrandt who was valedictorian of the class of 1914 at  Virginia Military Institute, and his granddaughters, Rennie Keezell Harrison, a 1945 graduate of the College of William and Mary, and her sister Narice. Narice Keezell Bowman, who lives in Midlothian, Va., is a 1947 education graduate of Madison College. She was, perhaps, the first person close to the senator to benefit directly from her grandfather’s efforts.

The legacy didn’t end there. Senator Keezell’s great-grandsons also graduated from JMU — George Harrison, a 1979 political science graduate, and Bill Harrison, a 1978 history graduate. Bill later earned an M.A. in history from the University of Virginia.  Today, George is a banker in Richmond, Va. Sadly, Bill, a successful real estate professional, died in 2009.

The Keezell Building in downtown Harrisonburg

The Keezell Building in downtown Harrisonburg

The Keezell legacy is significant, especially in Virginia education, and it is built on a penchant for community involvement. George Harrison remembers growing up in Harrisonburg and learning a strong work ethic from his grandmother,  Meta Keezell who owned and managed the Keezell Building in downtown Harrisonburg after her husband Rembrandt returned from service as a Captain in the U.S. Army in France during World War I. Meta Keezell was also active in the American Legion Auxiliary and the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation. Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record,* which Senator Keezell owned until 1923 when he sold it to fellow senator Harry F. Byrd Sr, operated out of the Keezell Building from 1907 to 1941. The building still stands on the corner of Newman and Main Steet in the heart of Harrisonburg. It was added to the National Register of Historic Property in 2007.

Interestingly, the newspaper’s link to the early days of the university, is even closer. Not only did the newspaper play an important role in promoting Harrisonburg as the new school’s ideal location, according to Dingledine, the first office of the first president, Julian A. Burruss, was located in the Keezell Building in the offices of the News-Register. In fact, he shared the editor’s office when he first came to town.

And then there is Sam Harrison. The good senator was Sam’s great, great grandfather. So when Sam Harrison graduates next spring as a member of JMU’s Class of 2015, it will mark the fifth generation of Senator Keezell’s family to benefit from the institution he promoted more than a century ago.

For the extended Keezell family, this reverberating change is personal, but for more than 100,000 graduates of JMU — and the next 100,000, yet to enroll — it is an opportunity second to none.

Thanks to George and Sam Harrison and to Daily News-Record editor Peter Yates for their help in gathering information for this story.

*Originally the Rockingham County Record, through mergers and name changes, the paper became the Daily News-Record.
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About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

3 Responses to Change that reverberates

  1. Stretch says:

    We need a lot more inihtsgs like this!

    Like

  2. grahammb says:

    Thanks! This was fun to write. JMU has such an interesting history! I also remember George’s parents, so that made it extra special.

    Like

  3. What a great story! I love that JMU still serves the fifth generation of Senator Keezell.

    Like

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