Five Generations Later
Recent grad shares family history with the University
June 25, 2012
When she was looking at colleges, Grace Preston,’12, never thought she’d end up at the University of Richmond.
The accounting major had received rowing scholarships at Clemson and Southern Methodist University. But one visit with her grandfather made her reconsider.
“The first thing I saw was the campus,” Preston recalls. “And I just fell in love with it.”
Preston is the latest of five generations from her family to call the University alma mater. In the late 1880s, Preston’s great-great-grandparents — Socrates Lawler Dorsey and Judith Virginia Hiter — attended Richmond College and what was then called the Richmond Female Institute, the precursor to Westhampton College. Their son, Clark Lawler Dorsey, studied at Richmond and played football before leaving to serve in World War I.
Dorsey returned from the war, but began working the family farm and never finished his studies. Later on he would bring his son John, Preston’s grandfather, to visit the campus. The two left a $5 deposit to secure the younger Dorsey’s spot in the entering class. The rest is, as they say, history.
John Dorsey, R’55, would play an important role in Preston's life at Richmond. He took her on that first visit that prompted her to consider the University. He and his wife came back for everything from reunions to move-in day.
"They just wanted to be here for everything," says Preston's mother, Nell O'Neil, B'83. "What grandparents want to come for move-in day? It isn't exactly glamorous."
Dorsey passed away two years ago, but Preston still carries his monogrammed handkerchief wherever she goes. Many other little traditions also connect her with her mother and grandmother. At her junior ring dance, she slipped on the same gold ring with the Westhampton College seal that both her mother and grandmother had worn. All three women lived in North Court during their years on campus. Preston and her mother even lived in the same room, which they discovered during move-in sophomore year.
“When I walked in to move Grace in, I was like, ‘I lived here! This was Ann Page’s side and this was mine.’ You can still find that sense of tradition as much as it changes, and people come and go,” says Preston’s mother Nell. “But it’s more about the people, even as beautiful a place as this is.”
Walking through campus conjures up the family history. Grace’s parents — O'Neil and Rob Preston, R’83 — met here. Though they’re divorced, they married in Cannon Memorial Chapel.
Her grandparents also met as students. Preston’s grandfather found especially creative ways around the 6 p.m. curfew to court Mary Luella Gilbert, W’54.
“One of his friends was a dishwasher over in North Court,” Preston explains. “Whenever his friend couldn’t do it, he always asked to so he could come over and see my grandmother during dinner.”
As an undergraduate, Preston has entertained the classmates of her grandparents by telling them about student life today during their reunions.
“It’s always fun to talk about the differences,” she says. “My grandfather and his friends used to always have a get-together in the alumni center. My first year he brought me in to describe the differences.”
Preston’s not entirely sure she would have liked to attend Richmond in the days of curfews and Westhampton Lake separating women from men. But her commitment to Richmond will extend beyond her four years here.
“I’ll always come back and go to my reunions,” she says. “It’s so much fun to see my mom with all her friends from Richmond come back. It kind of makes me love the idea of coming back and donating and always being involved.
“There wasn’t any pressure for me to go here,” Preston says. “I knew that I would always have a strong connection with my grandparents. But there is something even more special with me having a connection here.”