- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

HAMPDEN-SYDNEY, Va. | You may be accomplished, and you may be cool. But step aside. You’re no Chris Howard.

As a teenager, Mr. Howard helped lead his team to a Texas state high school football championship. At the Air Force Academy, he was a standout running back, academic All-American, class president and Rhodes scholar. He earned an Oxford doctorate and Harvard MBA, worked at two Fortune 500 companies, started a foundation for South African students. He won a Bronze Star in Afghanistan, survived a plane crash, and is writing a book. He rubs shoulders at the Aspen Institute, Council on Foreign Relations and Renaissance Weekend. He’s handsome, dresses like a GQ cover model, has a beautiful, charming wife, and benches 205.

Nobody who knew Mr. Howard was surprised when, just 40 years old, he added college president to that almost comical resume.

The surprise was where: tiny and tradition-bound Hampden-Sydney College.

It was a place that matched his personality. But there wouldn’t be many black faces around - and Mr. Howard is black.

“I said, ‘Hampton? That’s great,’ ” recalled Marine Lt. Col. Jerry Carter, Mr. Howard’s best friend from their military days, mistakenly assuming his buddy had been tapped to head historically black Hampton University, about 120 miles east of here.

“No, Hampden-Sydney,” Mr. Howard replied.

“What’s that?” Col. Carter asked.

Visiting Hampden-Sydney, 60 miles southwest of Richmond, feels like stepping onto a 19th-century campus. It’s one of three remaining all-male colleges. Students still take rhetoric, receive uninflated grades and dress in coat and (often bow) tie for football games. Visitors are greeted by passers-by, per instructions in a book of manners assigned to all new students. Backpacks are left lying about without fear of theft, thanks to a revered honor code.

It’s also overwhelmingly white. The 5 percent of students who are black isn’t far off other Virginia schools, but there is a special weight of history here. Surrounding Prince Edward County was on the losing side of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation lawsuit; later, it shuttered its own public schools for five years rather than integrate them.

So far, Mr. Howard and Hampden-Sydney look like a perfect match.

On a recent Friday, with a reporter tagging along for the day, Mr. Howard bounded across a campus older than America to address a group of the college’s famously fanatical alumni, some getting their first glimpse of their new president, just two months on the job.

The all-white audience complimented his resume, but wanted to know, why here?

“I feel like I knew the contours of a Hampden-Sydney before I knew of Hampden-Sydney,” Mr. Howard answered, portraits of 10 of his 23 presidential predecessors lining the walls around him. He talked about his own mentors and upbringing, and how the hands-on approach here struck a chord. He talked about how Col. Carter was shaped by his experience at Morehouse, the equally proud historically black all-male college.

“I wanted a place that was small and ‘high-touch,’ ” Mr. Howard told the group. “I wanted a place that deals with character. I wanted a place in the South. I wanted a place that plays some good football.”

He talked up the college’s historical ties to the military, dating to the Revolutionary War, and promised not to move too fast: “I’ve got to be very humble. Institutions of higher education don’t necessarily cotton to quick change. You leave a lot behind you might need.” He departed to a standing ovation.

“I’m not just blowing smoke. It’s the way I was raised,” said Mr. Howard, sipping a manhattan with Maker’s Mark bourbon in a downtown Raleigh, N.C., hotel bar after giving a similar talk to parents and alumni there last month. “I was an African-American who grew up in the South with a father who was an Army officer. I went into the military myself. I had no choice but to say, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ That made me very comfortable to transition to Hampden-Sydney.”

Mr. Howard hits the gym at 6:45 each morning, his special assistant, Drew Prehmus, in tow with a pad of paper and BlackBerry. “He never turns off,” Mr. Prehmus says.

Mr. Howard regularly joins students for cafeteria meals, and has held dozens of meetings with them, including the first presidential address to the full student body in 20 years.

He knows his job isn’t to be students’ friend; Hampden-Sydney has serious challenges, including substance abuse, highlighted by a 2007 drug raid that stained the college’s reputation. “I want you to know the buck stops here,” Mr. Howard tells the parents and alumni in Raleigh, outlining several steps he’s taken to combat the problem.

Mr. Howard also wants to elevate Hampden-Sydney, which has Presbyterian roots and dates to 1775, to the very top tier of liberal arts colleges. Average SAT scores are a solid but unspectacular 1109.

Beating out 100 candidates, Mr. Howard accepted the school’s presidency beneath a portrait of Confederate President Jefferson Davis at the formerly all-white Commonwealth Club in Richmond.

Stephen Trachtenberg, a longtime president of George Washington University who mentored Mr. Howard and recommended him for the job, seems to doubt this small school in Virginia is the end of the line.

“[President] Obama was lucky he didn’t have to come up against Chris Howard,” he said. “I think he’ll make an extraordinary president of Hampden-Sydney, but I think he’s a man we’re going to hear more from.”

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