On Friday April 7, 1972, a group from George Mason College, led by Chancellor Lorin A. Thompson, met with Virginia Governor, A. Linwood Holton, Jr. at his office in Richmond. They were there to witness the Governor’s signing into law Virginia General Assembly Bill H 210 separating George Mason College from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. With the stroke of a pen George Mason University, as we know it today, was born. During that brief afternoon ceremony Thompson, George Mason College Dean, Robert Krug, Virginia Delegate, James Thomson, and members of George Mason’s Advisory Board and Student Government proudly looked on as Governor Holton signed one of the most important documents in the history of the young institution.
Serving in office from 1970 to 1974, Governor Holton was the first Republican elected Virginia Governor since Reconstruction. His election was one of the last nails in the coffin of the segregationist Byrd Political Machine, which had dominated Virginia politics since the turn of the century. During the fall of 1970, Holton made national headlines by enrolling his young children in Richmond’s integrated public school system instead of a private school (where they would not be exposed to children from low-income families or children of color).
Just eight months after that day in April of 1972 Governor Holton chose the new George Mason University to host his regional Governor’s Conference for the Northern Virginia area. At the time, Mason did not have an appropriate conference facility suitable for welcoming the nearly one-thousand guests, so the event was held in the brand-new George Mason basketball gym. Northern Virginia residents, business leaders, and constituents from all walks of life packed the bleachers for an opportunity to share their thoughts with the Governor.
We got the chance to meet Governor Holton in November of 2016. He was kind enough to give us an oral history interview. We travelled out to his home in Irvington, Virginia, just a few minutes away from the Chesapeake Bay. Governor Holton was a gracious host, and he answered our questions with a folksy humility rarely seen with a politician. He spoke about growing up in Southwestern Virginia, getting involved in politics, and his family. He told us a humorous story about campaigning for Governor in a crowded department store in Arlington, shaking hands with everyone and introducing himself, saying, “Hi, I’m Linwood Holton, and I’m running for Governor”. The story ends with him turning around and introducing himself to someone who does not respond, and he realizes that he just held out his hand and introduced himself to a mannequin. He also told us that, as Governor, he was very proud of what George Mason had accomplished. It was a pleasure to speak to someone so kind and generous with their time about that early era in our history.
Governor Holton passed away on Thursday, October 28 at his home in Irvington. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. He was a very special person and an important part of George Mason’s, and Virginia’s, history.
You will be missed, Governor Holton!
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