The quiet, darkened president’s house on top of Carr’s Hill had not seen much life for more than sixteen years. With Mr. Newcomb in residence, despite his good health, it would not see very much more. He was married in 1924 to Grace Shields Russell of Richmond. They had no children, and, as Mr. Newcomb was a shy and retiring sort of person, they lived a quiet life.
Mr. Newcomb’s fifty years at the University had a major impact on its quality and reputation. He earned his engineering degree from the University in 1903, and was appointed to its engineering faculty in 1905 as adjunct professor of civil engineering. After the war, Mr. Alderman appointed him to oversee the University’s centennial celebration.
In 1925, he became dean of the School of Engineering, succeeding his mentor, William M. Thornton. In 1926, he was appointed assistant to the president, and thereafter sometimes assumed the duties of the often bedridden Mr. Alderman. When Mr. Alderman died in 1931, Mr. Newcomb was appointed acting president, a post he had already held in all but name for five years.
Two and a half years later, in June of 1933, after the Board of Visitors had offered the presidency to several candidates, who turned it down, and after faculty and student resolutions in favor of his election, the board finally elected Mr. Newcomb president. Soon after his inauguration, he asked future University president Colgate Darden to serve as his advisor, a position in which Mr. Darden served during most of Mr. Newcomb’s administration.
The serene domestic life in the president’s house was made even more pleasant by Mrs. Newcomb’s musicianship; she was a talented pianist and played music with friends at Carr’s Hill. Occasionally the Newcombs did entertain guests, with luncheons for members of the Board of Visitors and gatherings before football games. They also entertained each entering class at the beginning of the school year and the graduating class at its end.
When it came to the business of running the University, Mr. Newcomb was no novice. He was familiar with the responsibilities of the office, and was especially adept at financial management. As it turned out, Mr. Newcomb’s appointment was a stroke of good luck for the University, especially given the financial upheaval that occurred worldwide during his administration. After the collapse of financial markets in 1929 and as the country slipped into economic depression, the state of Virginia suffered financial decline, leading to funding cuts for state agencies. The University endured a 10 percent across-the-board cut, while members of teaching and administrative staff experienced a 20 percent reduction in pay. Thanks to Mr. Newcomb’s deft management, however, paychecks never failed to be issued throughout the Depression. As for students, some found financial support through the National Youth Administration, but the University, like most other colleges and universities of the time, did not have much experience dealing with students who were not financially well off. Because they could not afford the cost of education, a number of students left during the Depression.
During these years, alternate means of funding the University were discovered. For instance, in reaction to the student newspaper College Topics not having enough funds to publish, the Student Assembly recommended to the Board of Visitors that a student activity fee be instituted. In 1934, the Board approved a $1.50 fee.
And while the state had reduced its appropriations to the University, private giving and federal money from New Deal funds allowed the University to expand. During these years, the University saw the erection of the Bayly Art Museum in 1934, Thornton Hall in 1935, and Alderman Library in 1938. Alderman Library in particular, built at a cost of $1 million, was the fulfillment of Mr. Alderman’s fondest wishes for and numerous efforts on behalf of the University. In addition to the physical space for books, President Newcomb acquired the McGregor collection of rare Americana consisting of 12,500 items, the basis of today’s Special Collections Library.
As he was a financial innovator, Mr. Newcomb was also a curricular leader, in spite of the fact that he, like Mr. Alderman, had not earned a doctoral degree through scholarship. (He did receive a number of honorary doctorates.) Along with Robert Kent Gooch, professor of government and foreign affairs, President Newcomb instituted the Honors Course, a program of advanced undergraduate study in the Departments of Economics, English, Geology, History, Mathematics, Philosophy, Physics, and Politics. The program was instrumental in the intellectual development of generations of the University’s best students (including President John Casteen, in English). Two of these programs still exist today, in the Departments of Philosophy and Politics.
John Newcomb also shrewdly recognized the importance of departmental specialization, avoiding duplication of services in the state’s various public universities, and providing specialized courses for graduate study. So, for instance, he focused on developing strength in American history for the Department of History, and topology for the Department of Mathematics.
The departments that saw the greatest development were Mathematics and Political Science. Additionally, he strengthened biology offerings by acquiring the Mountain Lake Biological Station. And he began the process of achieving Mr. Alderman’s goal of establishing a women’s division of the University of Virginia through the coordination of the University and Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg.
Not only did Mr. Newcomb have to deal with an expanding University in a shrinking economy, but also like Mr. Alderman, he had to deal with a world war. At Final Exercises in June of 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt gave the graduation address in Memorial Gymnasium. Early that morning, President Roosevelt had learned of Mussolini’s attack on France. At the exercises, Mr. Roosevelt announced, “On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor. Once more the future of the nation and of the American people is at stake.”
In December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and because students enlisted in the military services, enrollments declined precipitously, dropping about two-thirds in three years, from 3,000 in 1939 to 1,322 in 1944. Faculty also enlisted. At the beginning of the 1943–44 school year, 45 out of 215 members of the faculty were on military or diplomatic leave.
Even the library responded to the state of war. Alderman Library sheltered many Library of Congress holdings: several million documents, including copies of the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution.
After the war, students came streaming back to the University with the encouragement of the G.I. Bill (the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944). By the school year of 1946–47, the University took in over 3,300 veterans and $1,250,000 in G.I. Bill money.
Possibly because of his experience with the debilitated Alderman presidency, Mr. Newcomb decided to resign his position on his 65th birthday. In his resignation letter, he wrote,
"If I am alive on Dec. 18, 1946, I shall have reached my 65th birthday and therefore will be eligible for a minimum retiring allowance. I have had a firm conviction for many years that a college president should retire early rather than late. Moreover, the management of the University of Virginia during the period of the Second World War and the reconversion period has been exceedingly difficult and most onerous, taking a large toll of my physical strength. Accordingly, I tender you and through you to the board of visitors my resignation as president of the University of Virginia at the pleasure of board after Dec. 18 of this year."
At the time of his retirement, the University had approximately doubled in the size of its physical plant, its appropriations, and the number of Ph.D.’s graduated. Even after his retirement as president, he worked from an office on the Lawn overseeing massive building projects, including one he had conceived himself, the construction of New Cabell Hall.
After Mr. Newcomb stepped down from office, Colgate Darden, his successor, continued to consult him until Mr. Newcomb’s death in 1954. Mr. Darden noted to the Virginia newspaperman Guy Fridell, “He stayed on in an advisory capacity and was invaluable in helping me. He had a small house down beyond the gymnasium and I used to go down there frequently Sunday morning and talk with him.” When President Newcomb died, President Darden said, “I had come to rely on his wise counsel and guidance. He will be tremendously missed here at the University.”