Davidson hangs students out to dry.

Chambers Building on the campus of Davidson College.
Chambers Building on the campus of Davidson College.


WHEN ONE OF THE NATION’S most prestigious higher education institutions announces a policy change—however slight–it can produce near seismic results–in the eyes of beholders, anyway. “Beholding,” in this case, are faculty, students and alumni of Davidson College.  Who knows what may break loose?

Buildings may quake, forcing ivy to seek new places to climb. The tradition of ninety years is entrenched, but Dr. Carol Quillen—completing two years in the presidency after twenty years’ teaching/administrative posts at Rice University–has announced closure of the campus laundry next spring.

She may “batten down” hatches, or maybe not.


   At first blush, it seems a “ho-hum” decision, but it will save $400,000 annually. Savings are more than needed for additional self-serve machines planned for residence halls throughout the campus in Davidson, NC.

Davidson–an all-male school founded in 1837 that became co-ed in the mid-70s–has long been considered one of the nation’s best. Acceptance for enrollment is highly competitive, and graduates (including President Woodrow Wilson) have distinguished themselves in numerous fields. Endowment now exceeds $500 million, and in 2012 Davidson received a record single gift–$45 million–from Duke Endowment.

Back to the laundry’s 1911 beginnings. Faculty complained that students–sometimes heading straight to class from work in the fields—brought with them malodorous air. (Arrid deodorant wasn’t yet around, so there were no “half safe” warnings. Hmmm, students may have seen this as a trick to introduce fractions.)


Lula Bell Houston at the laundry named in her honor. Photograph: Davidson University
Lula Bell Houston at the laundry named in her honor. Photograph: Davidson College

Faculty called for construction of a campus laundry, where workers would wash, press, fold and package students’ soiled laundry.

The administration responded—albeit a decade later—and a tradition was born. Students were happy, and faculty was happier. (As a former college president, I’m hesitant to say faculty is “happiest” about anything.) Students and workers cheerfully mingle, perhaps singing “happy little washday songs.” Over the years, the college’s “free” laundry service became a quirky, but effective “selling point” for prospective students, and a cherished tradition for those enrolled.

In fact, Davidson honored Lula Bell Houston–who toiled in the laundry for fifty-seven years–by naming it in her honor when she retired in 2004. She is one of two former staffers whose names adorn buildings at Davidson. The structure will be converted to other uses, but the name remains.


   For ages, most of the 2,000 students took full advantage of the “free” service—the actual cost “built in” the annual price tag that is now north of $50,000. In recent years, though, interest has flagged. Most freshmen use it, but only about a third of seniors are doing so.

Female students prefer doing their own laundry, and senior guys—opting for several “wearings” between washes—eschew carrying their weighty bags uphill to the laundry.

A handful of students in off-campus apartments have other issues—like convincing parents they are eating properly. One mom called, reminding her son to eat something green every day. “Relax, mom,” he replied, “I ate some toast just this morning.”


   Alumni, generally, are “tongue-in-cheek.” Larry Dagenhart, proud graduate, respected attorney and Class of ’53 valedictorian, moved his cheek-languishing tongue to its “upright and locked position” for comment.

Surprised, he responded, “We gave up vespers, we gave up chapel, we went co-ed, we even gave up the marching band, but dad-gum-it, we can’t give up the laundry. What is the world coming to?”

It’s a given that college students are wearing fewer clothes these days, a/c has come along, and deodorants are both dependable and handy.


   We’ve learned to exist without trading stamps, and Davidson students will “press on,” even if the laundry doesn’t.  Davidson is aligning its resources to meet educational priorities within higher education’s changing landscape.

For now, though, reporters and headline writers are feasting on the item. Imagine headline possibilities: Davidson:  Comes Clean, Scrubs Laundry, Hangs Students Out to Dry, Washday Blues and Airs Dirty Laundry. (Students will rub their own dubs, hopefully keeping cleanliness and godliness in the same yoke.)

Hurrah for Davidson College’s rich history of preparing students for whatever comes next. I’d love to meet Lula Bell Houston, who may feel drip/dry and permanent press have taken things too far. Me, I don’t know whether to wash or hang out.


   Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Speaking inquiries/comments to: [email protected] Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: Twitter: @donnewbury


Please click the book cover image to read more about Don Newbury’s inspirational and humorous stories in When The Porch Light’s On.



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