To say that World War II drastically affected life in the United States is an understatement. In 1945, the College of William & Mary had become a woman’s college by the looks of the male to female ratio on campus.
Of the many affected by the war was Juanita Byrd, one of the International Mission Board’s (IMB) displaced missionaries to China. A native Mississippian, she began serving in Shanghai University as an educator and missionary in 1929. With the Japanese occupation of China, she had been evacuated to Manila in 1937. After a return to China later that year, she would spend time in a Japanese internment camp inside Shanghai for much of 1943 before being allowed to repatriate to the U.S. that September. She completed her Masters of Arts from Vanderbilt during 1944. In late 1944, Dr. Archibald F. Ward, Jr., pastor of Williamsburg Baptist, began challenging the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) of Virginia with the opportunity of collegiate ministry at William & Mary. Dr. Blanche Sydnor White was serving as Executive Secretary and corresponded with the IMB, and ultimately with Miss Byrd. Miss Byrd arrived in 1945 to “give herself wholly to the Baptist students in Williamsburg” for at least the originally agreed time of February 1 through September 1.1
Within a few weeks, Miss Byrd “suggested the Church provide a student center and said the Virginia WMU was interested in helping financially. Fifteen months later the Church agreed to accept $4,000 from the WMU to create a student center from the existing chapel in the South Wing. The funds were used to add a fireplace and kitchenette and redecorate.”2 With the hiring of Miss Byrd as secretary and the opening of the Student Center in 1946, the WMU was committing to the sponsorship of the BSU for the foreseeable future.
Miss Byrd’s heart was with her students in China, and she returned there in early 1946. She was succeeded by Mrs. Robert G. Caldwell, wife of a Professor of Sociology at the College, who became the first secretary to work in the new Student Center, and served for roughly one year, most likely 1946-47. Jean Harrup Cogle came to Williamsburg in September 1945 as a new student at the College of William & Mary. She and her future husband, Dennis began attending WBC in the Fall of 1946.
“After about a year the Caldwells moved away and Mrs. Esther Batchelder became our new leader. She was known to us and many succeeding years of students simply as Mrs. B and was an advisor on all sorts of personal problems.”3
Bill and Esther Batchelder were active members of WBC and the Williamsburg community since 1943, Bill working as the manager of the Williamsburg Lodge, one of the Colonial Williamsburg properties. Mrs. B was beloved by the students and served as secretary for six years until May 1953. The ministry grew in number of students during this time as the Student Center became a home away from home.
Students such as Edmond Fitzgerald (’50) were fond of playing ping pong and relaxing in the Student Center. The BSU started many of its longtime traditions during this time; students served in servant leadership positions, dorm visitations occurred, fun fellowship events drew in students, and state conferences allowed students from all over the state to connect. Another state VA BSU retreat was held in Williamsburg in 1951. And, of course, there were Sunday night dinners. Probably as old as the BSU itself, these dinners have been a welcoming time of fellowship and a space for discussion of Christian faith. Mrs. B would recount a story when the Presbyterian collegiate ministry next door needed to switch Sunday night dinner with the BSU because the Presbyterian’s were serving pork chops and Jewish students had come for dinner.
When Mrs. Batchelder resigned from the position of parttime secretary, the administrative responsibility for the college student program transferred from the Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia to the Virginia Baptist Student Department. This pioneering support of the WMU for collegiate ministry throughout Virginia was instrumental for Virginia Baptists recognizing its importance and committing to increasing its support in the coming years.
1. (Kay M. Byrd, Oaks of Righteousness, Yawn’s Publishing, 2012, p.87.) ↩
2. (From “History of the WBC 1828-1978,” p. 34.) ↩
3. (Jean Cogle, “A WBC Moment: Recollections of Longtime Members of the Williamsburg Baptist Church,” compiled 2003, p. 12.)↩