Bill Pollard: Caretaker of Mary Baldwin’s Past

February 20, 2004

Bill PollardWilliam C. Pollard, Mary Baldwin’s volunteer archivist since he retired as college librarian emeritus in 1992, has a little wish list. He’d like to find a photo or other depiction of Mary Julia Baldwin, and he’d like to identify, definitively, the architect of the Administration Building, constructed in 1844 and one of the campus’s oldest structures. Bill figures the building’s elusive cornerstone, apparently obscured by later construction, contains the name — and more. Add the cornerstone to his list.

Don’t bet against Bill Pollard. His record of learning about key pieces of the college’s past and tracking them down is remarkably good. Take the large, century-old stained-glass window commemorating Miss Baldwin’s achievements and displayed prominently in Grafton Library. Pollard came across a reference to the window and eventually found it — in a coal bin in the basement of the old Bailey Hall, which was later removed to make way for the new Center for the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted.

When Pollard became the college’s archivist, he found that “literally, things were in attics and closets around campus.” Among his other discoveries — or recoveries — are a painting, of Baldwin’s dog Beauty, used as a prop in a college theatrical production, and an Mary Baldwin apple crate, left over from the days when the college owned an orchard that inspired Apple Day. Pollard spotted the crate at a nearby apple farm. “I knew what it was,” he says. “I had seen a photograph.”

When he isn’t adding to the college’s collection of artifacts that includes founder Rufus W. Bailey’s trunk (“very nice, leather bound, brass nailed, with his initials”) and Miss Baldwin’s books and letters, Pollard fields all manner of questions from faculty, staff, alumnae/i, and others.

“I do a lot of genealogical work,” he says. “You’d be amazed at how many requests I get for names of grandmothers and great-grandmothers.” He often consults student records, in longhand and going back to the 19th century. (Yes, those grades really are forever.) The search for distant relatives can be complicated; Staunton once had four schools or “seminaries” for young women, including Augusta Female Seminary, which became Mary Baldwin University.

Gracious and soft spoken, Pollard shares an office in the library with Patricia H. Menk, professor emerita of history and author of a history of the college. He’s from Farmville, North Carolina, a rural community about 60 miles east of Raleigh. Pollard has an undergraduate degree in comparative literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree from Florida State. Before becoming head librarian at Mary Baldwin in 1977, he held similar positions at the College of William and Mary and at what was then its Norfolk branch, now Old Dominion University. Earlier in his career, he was on the library staff at the University of Georgia.

Preceding Pollard at Mary Baldwin was one of three daughters, Elizabeth Pollard Hemeter ’73, who earned a law degree at the University of Virginia and is in Knoxville, Tennessee. He and his wife, Betsy, live a short walk from campus.

One of Pollard’s most notable efforts came when, after hearing alarming radio reports one icy day, he quickly made his way to campus to rescue from bursting pipes dozens of boxes of records and other papers stored in the enclosed area under the porch of the Administration Building.

Pollard thinks he may have identified the Administration Building’s architect, thanks to old photos and expert advice, as Thomas Blackburn, well known in his time.

As for a portrait of Mary Julia Baldwin, he’s not so confident. Yet, he knows that “she loved fine clothes” and, despite a facial deformity, was generally “described as handsome.” She certainly was prominent as head of the school that eventually bore her name. Could there be an attic, basement, or closet at Mary Baldwin that hasn’t been cleaned out in more than a few years?