Virginia Tech Magazine
In Retrospect
Fall 2009

Paul N. Derring: Light from darkness by Clara B. Cox M.A. '84

"Out of his shadow has come sunshine for others, for he has influenced and inspired thousands of students."

Former Virginia Gov. WILLIAM W. TUCK in Sight and Insight

As a student at the College of William and Mary, Paul Neyron Derring, for whom Virginia Tech's Derring Hall is named, served on the staff of the college newspaper, wrote for the literary magazine, and helped edit the yearbook. He won medals for his oratory skills, sat on student council, participated in track and wrestling, and represented his school at the Southern Students' Conference. Additionally, he was secretary of his sophomore class, president of the Philomathean Society, and president of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) before graduating as class valedictorian.

He was also blind.

Paul Derring was born in Dendron, a mill village in Surry County, Va., in 1894. His father, a merchant, and his mother, a schoolteacher, sent him to private schools until 1906, when he enrolled in seventh grade at a new public school. That academic year changed his life. Early in 1907, another student shot him, leaving him blind.

After he healed enough to function, Derring took his doctor's advice and enrolled in the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in fall 1907. He was 13 years old; yet he had to learn his A, B, Cs again, this time using an embossed system of reading then used by the blind. He mastered the alphabet in two weeks.

After completing his studies at the special school in 1913, he wanted to continue his education. His father delivered him to the historic Williamsburg college, where the president tried to convince his father to take him back home. But Derring stayed--and changed the minds of administrators, faculty members, and fellow students about what he could do. "I never saw him despondent; I never heard him mention his handicap except as he was led to do so by the conversation of others; he never thought of doing less than others did," Professor W. H. Keeble said in a Virginian-Pilot article, adding, "Cheerfulness, courage, and grit are greater assets than eyesight."

After graduating in 1917, Derring struggled unsuccessfully to find someone who would give a job to a blind man. After about a year of fruitless searches and temporary jobs, he turned to Henry J. Langston, state student secretary of the Virginia YMCA, who had said to let him know if he could do anything to help Derring. "I wrote to him and told him that I was desperate, wanted to get into the war work of the YMCA, and would appreciate his help in securing an appointment. Within a few days he wired me to report at once to a training camp for war secretaries," Derring wrote in his book, Sight and Insight.

After completing the six weeks of training, he was interviewed by Carol M. Newman, camp secretary for the YMCA at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (popularly called VPI--today's Virginia Tech) and chair of the college's English department. Hired, Derring accompanied Newman (for whom Newman Library is named) to Blacksburg. At VPI, Derring began his job as associate student Army Training Corps secretary, which was part of the National War Work Program of the YMCA, and operated from the YMCA Building (today's Performing Arts Building).

Derring loaned students money, started student orientation, spurred a survey that led to formation of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, brought noted speakers to campus, and organized rural Sunday schools.
Before the year ended, however, Newman resigned from his YMCA duties, and Derring was appointed general secretary, beginning more than 45 years of service to Virginia Tech.

As general secretary, he counseled thousands of students and provided religious instruction and extra-curricular activities for them, becoming, in effect if not in title, the dean of students. "He was a friend of all students and a wise counselor. His sympathetic understanding of young men's problems enabled him to counsel with the wisdom and gentleness of an older brother. His excellent work soon endeared him to the corps of cadets and marked him as a man honored and respected for his strength of character, exceptional personality, and practical Christian life," Harry Temple wrote in The Bugle's Echo.

The Y secretary made loans to students and instituted student orientation. He spurred a student survey that led to formation of the Department of Philosophy and Religion and brought noted speakers to campus, such as George Washington Carver. He housed campus visitors; organized rural Sunday schools and trained cadets to be the teachers; and led a series of discussions that looked at the social implications of various topics, from interracial relations to ethical living. He established a clearinghouse for cadets who needed extra money so that townspeople and college officials could submit requests for part-time help and he could supply the student laborers, and he set up a YMCA Housing Bureau to help students looking for a room or apartment to rent. His work, Temple said, "permeated life at VPI."

In 1921, Derring married Katherine Cook, a VPI librarian who had been introduced to him by Newman. After the introduction, Derring frequented the library nightly. He wrote in Sight and Insight that "students and faculty asked me if I were looking for a book. I said, 'No, I am looking for a Cook.'" The couple had two daughters.

Derring took a year's leave of absence 1922-23 to work on a master's in philosophy at Vanderbilt University. According to William W. Tuck, a congressman and former Virginia governor, when Derring graduated, he became "one of the first, if not the first, sightless man to receive such a degree from that institution."

Derring continued to amaze people throughout his life. He relied on sounds to recognize people, places, and even objects and on his memory to recall names and to move unaided from one location to another. Ellison A. Smyth (1925) wrote in I Remember Paul, a collection of letters from alumni and friends, that when his father was riding his bicycle, Derring would call out, "Good morning, Dean. How are things today?" Derring later told Smyth his secret. "[H]e said the bike Dad rode was so old it had a characteristic squeak which Paul always recognized."

In the same book, a number of alumni remarked on Derring's uncanny ability to recall people's names from the sound of their voices, sometimes many years after they had last met. Allen W. Moore '33 said that he returned to campus several years after graduating. "I met Paul as he was coming down the sidewalk about half-way between the Quadrangle and the Mess Hall. I said, 'Hi, Paul.' He said, 'Hi, Allen, what are you doing up here, boy?' There wasn't a second's hesitation." John G. Van Oot '42 said that Derring also could "retrieve from his mental file the circumstances surrounding most of these people and praise or congratulate them on their positive accomplishments, or encourage or counsel them if they were having difficulties or disappointments. This ability was the main reason he was loved by students and faculty alike, and why he had so many friends on and off campus."

Derring's role as advisor to the students. his popularity with them, and the facilities offered in the Y building led to the building becoming the center of student life and activities. In 1937, Y offices were moved to the Student Activities Building (now Squires Student Center). There, according to D. Lyle Kinnear in The First 100 Years, "the program continued to grow and expand under Paul Derring and his assistants."

Sight and Insight: The Story of Paul N. Derring at Virginia Tech, edited by James K Sanford
Sight and Insight: The Story of Paul N. Derring at Virginia Tech, edited by James K. Sanford (1968)
In addition to his Y work, Derring served as a member the State Commission for the Visually Handicapped, a seat he held for 30 years after Gov. Harry F. Byrd appointed him in 1927. Allen W. Moore '33, in I Remember Paul, said that Derring, who "deliberately refused to recognize boundaries [that] blindness is expected to impose," regularly went alone to Richmond to attend the commission meetings.

Other off-campus activities included leading a $400,000 fundraising effort to construct a new Blacksburg Baptist Church building, helping raise $250,000 for a new Wesley Foundation Student Center, directing the local National Youth Administration program during the depression, and serving six years on the Blacksburg Town Council.

Derring's reputation spread, in part because he was in demand as a guest speaker, but more so because of his influence on student life at VPI. In 1944, the Richmond Times-Dispatch listed him as one of 12 most distinguished Virginians.

In 1957, President Walter S. Newman created a position of coordinator of religious affairs to coordinate all religious activities of various organizations on campus. Derring was asked to fill the job, and after 39 years as the Y secretary, he resigned to accept the new post.

Derring retired in 1964 at the mandatory retirement age of 70 after working under five presidents and serving thousands of students, many of whom considered him their second father. In recognition of his dedicated service, the board of visitors conferred upon him the title Director Emeritus of Campus Religious Activities, and in 1969, Derring Hall was dedicated in his honor.

By then, he and his wife had moved to Richmond, where he died in 1973. His funeral was held in Blacksburg, and he was buried in the town's Westview Cemetery.

More than two decades later, Alfred "Alf" Knobler '38 recalled discussions he had had with Derring about social causes and academics. "Good people never really die," Knobler said of Derring. "You remember them forever."

CLARA B. COX is director of University Publications.

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