Reinhardt’s most characteristic building has been designated the Burgess Building ever since president J.R. Burgess retired in 1974. This fact was generally unknown, however: the entire time I’ve been at Reinhardt people have simply called it the Administration Building. Here is what it looked like back in 2006:
The plaque to the right of the main doors was the only public acknowledgement of its true name:
This afternoon Reinhardt, in the presence of Burgess’s daughter Martha Burgess Blanton, rededicated the building to President Burgess, and unveiled a new inscription on the entablature:
Portraits of Dr. and Mrs. Burgess were rehung in the main foyer:
If Dr. Burgess is known for anything it is for the planting of many varieties of tree on the Reinhardt campus. The main strand is known as the Burgess Arboretum and is one of the things that makes Reinhardt’s campus so attractive. From the 1960s, here is Burgess’s master plan of all the trees he wanted planted on campus:
The audience heard from Reinhardt’s President Kina Mallard, VP of Advancement Tim Norton, President Emeritus Floyd Falany, Board Chairman Billy Hasty, and History Program member Professor Ken Wheeler, whose remarks are reprinted below, by kind permission of the author.
Brief Remarks on the Importance of James Rowland Burgess, Jr., and Martha Stallings Burgess in the History of Reinhardt University
This place, Reinhardt and Waleska, appears different from how it looked in 1944, when Rowland Burgess came here to visit Reinhardt and consider becoming its president. Oh, the road to Waleska from Canton was made of beautiful concrete, but once a person entered Waleska the car started to slip and slide in the mud and loose dirt of the town—which had no paved streets. And as Rowland Burgess toured the campus, it was not inspiring. Dobbs Hall was closed in need of repair. It had 55 broken window panes, and Burgess said the wooden steps leading into the building were so rickety as to be actually dangerous. Reinhardt housed the elementary school, had a high school, the Reinhardt Academy, with 40 or 50 students, and as for the college, Reinhardt had 16 collegiate students. But Burgess took the job, and he and his wife Martha and their children moved into the president’s home, which is today our Admissions House. Livestock grazed across the street, and the Burgesses walked across the campus, which was covered in old stumps, privet, and invasive honeysuckle. The place needed a lot of work.
The Burgesses knew education. Martha had had two years at a teacher training college in Athens, Georgia, before she married Rowland. And Rowland knew Methodist higher education. He started his undergraduate years at Young Harris College, overseen by two Reinhardt graduates, Joe and Ella Sharp, and Burgess finished his undergraduate years at Emory. Rowland had Christian conviction—a sermon in his youth emphasized that “the harvest is truly great but the laborers are few,” which convinced him that he wished to “labor for the master.” Rather than go into parish ministry, he went into education and became a school superintendent for several years before coming to Reinhardt in his late 30s.
The work was not glamorous. Rowland Burgess ordered blocks of ice for the cafeteria, which had no refrigerator. He personally opened sewer lines that clogged. And while presidents today read The Chronicle of Higher Education, Burgess subscribed to the Guernsey Breeders Journal in an effort to improve the quality of the herd of cattle on the college farm. That farm included crops of cotton, corn, sorghum, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, various vegetables, and of course hay. They had hogs in addition to the cattle. A farm manager kept up with all of it, assisted by students whose job it was to plant, hoe, harvest, milk, bale, and so on. Everything that could be eaten in the cafeteria was eaten there, which kept costs low. But Burgess always had to drive to Atlanta at the end of each year and visit Mr. Dobbs to ask for a check to cover the annual deficit, a check that was usually grudgingly written. Reinhardt College had no endowment; it ran on a shoestring.
Over time, though, the college did well. The end of World War II brought veterans who had the G.I. Bill. One was my old next-door neighbor in Canton, R. J. Chastain. He was a Ball Ground boy who volunteered and wound up as an infantryman in Europe. After the war, Chastain rented an apartment in Canton with some other vets, and they would carpool up to Reinhardt. He had not yet graduated from high school, so he finished his high school diploma here, and then stayed for a couple of quarters of collegiate coursework. He represented a trend, and enrollments grew.
While Rowland presided over Reinhardt, Martha kept taking college courses. She finished her bachelor’s degree, obtained a master’s degree, and by the time the Burgesses retired from Reinhardt in 1973, Martha had taught here for 25 years, retiring as a professor of the behavioral sciences.
These were eventful years. Rowland Burgess had a certain genius for publicity. In 1949, Burgess got a federal grant to hold a “Conservation Field Day” at Reinhardt. The college bought some additional acreage, and in one amazing day tens of thousands of people came to the campus, cleared and improved the new acreage, and enjoyed the highlight, a visit from Harry S. Truman’s vice president, Alben W. Barkley. There are still some old-timers in this area who recall coming to Reinhardt as young people to participate in the biggest “work day” in the school’s history.
These were the years, too, when the Waleskans built an elementary school off the campus, and in the middle 1950s the Academy closed, so that Reinhardt became, for the first time in its existence, a purely collegiate institution. The Burgesses did not miss the high school. Some students had been local, but others boarded here, and many times they came to Reinhardt because they had been kicked out of some school system elsewhere. Rowland Burgess wrote in his memoir that “Years later . . . a lady called to ask if we still took ‘juvenile delinquents.’ I was happy to tell her that we didn’t. She said, ‘Well, I’m glad. You took my niece once and she’s still no good.’”
The Burgesses were shaped by the times. In 1954, the Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. the Board of Education decision shook a segregated South. At Reinhardt, one trustee insisted this was why they had to keep Reinhardt open—the public schools would be forced to integrate. When powerful trustees over the next several years said that Reinhardt would never integrate racially, Rowland Burgess would not agree or argue, but just say “We’ll see.” When, in 1966, the federal government wrote to Reinhardt and said federally subsidized student loans could go only to integrated schools, President Burgess created an integrated Reinhardt. He went to Canton and talked with Mr. Bell, the principal of the black school there, and asked about who would be a good student to come to Reinhardt. Bell said Burgess wanted a young man named James T. “Jay” Jordan. Burgess and Bell talked with Jordan and his parents about Jay coming, and he entered Reinhardt in the fall of 1966, Reinhardt’s first African-American student. President Burgess took a strong interest in Jordan’s acceptance by students and everyone else on campus, and in fact things worked out very well. Jordan was a friendly person, a good athlete, a capable student, and he wound up having a good two years at Reinhardt. Other African-American students followed in succeeding years, and so the Burgesses, in their understated way, led Reinhardt into a positive future for the school and its students.
The world changes, and Reinhardt has changed. Our president no longer subscribes to the Guernsey Breeders Journal. The streets of Waleska are paved. Reinhardt has not only survived but thrived and done well. And in all of that, the Burgess influence is still here. One can see it in this very building, which serves our campus. One can see it in the library, which Burgess built. And, of course, one sees it outdoors on a beautiful campus, a good portion of which was planted by Rowland Burgess. The privet and the stumps are gone, replaced by trees and shrubs and flowers that create an inspiring environment in which to read, and study, and learn. Time and again, when people visit me from other schools they remark how uplifting this campus is.
The Burgesses wrote poetry, and published some of their poems. In one poem, reflecting on her teaching, Martha Burgess wrote, “How can she know where her influence begins/ Much less tell where it has its end.” I would argue that that influence has not ended. It goes on in the students of Reinhardt from that time, who are still living out their lives, and the spirit of the Burgesses is still here on this campus—it is a spirit of unselfish service, of long devotion and faithfulness, of Christian generosity, of personal warmth toward people and good humor about life. It is a valuable inheritance, and we can all be grateful for that gift.
Burgess, James Rowland, Jr., “Three Times Ten: My Thirty Years at Reinhardt College (unpublished ms., Box 2, Burgess Papers, Reinhardt University)
Flashing Eyes, Trilliums, and Trees: Personal Poems and Verses of James Rowland Burgess and Martha Stallings Burgess (Reinhardt College, 1982)
Hinson, Tyler B., “Laboring for the Master: James Rowland Burgess, Jr. and the Birth of Modern Reinhardt” (unpublished paper, 2010)