Howard Bryan Bonham (Col. ’52; associate editor) recently published Wah-Hoo-Wah! under the pen name Colt Kincaid. The novel takes place on the Grounds of the University of Virginia in the 1950’s and imagines the commotion stirred up among students and faculty when founder Thomas Jefferson miraculously returns to take over as headmaster. The book is available at the UVA Bookstore and Amazon in paperback and for the Kindle. The College Topics Blog recently spoke with Bonham about his new book and his time at The Cavalier Daily. Bonham was an associate editor, writing mainly features and a sports column.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote the book because it was stirring within me and needed to get out. The 1950’s—my upper class years, at U.Va.—were a pivotal time for the University. In my book, the prologue addresses this benchmark decade. Boiled down, it says the G.I. Bill after World War Two prompted record numbers of students to attend colleges in America, many for the first time. At U.Va., the post-war doors opened to a flood of savvy veterans bumping into naïve first-years. The members of the “Greatest Generation” made the rest of us their little brothers, so to speak. Besides hurrying to graduate and resume their lives, they tried to shape us up. It would be difficult to decide which goal was more difficult for those intrepid warriors.
The University was special, even then, but differently so. We were “Virginia gentlemen,” attending the “Harvard of the South.” Fraternities in many ways resembled Princeton eating clubs, in that they provided brothers a place to party during the fabulous dance weekends. Those were legendary social carnivals, attended by students from colleges up and down the East Coast. As many as 100,000 visitors showed up at Easters three-day dance weekends.
U.Va. was a male university. The Honor Code was an Act of God. Mr. Jefferson was real. First-years spent part of their first semester of English studying the founder’s life. We were always on the lookout for him, as he poked around the Rotunda’s foundation for cracks or fossils; we knew if we ran into him, we would have to account for ourselves on the spot. We were taught by an outstanding faculty who often lectured us also on our deportment—or lack thereof.
Although the experience shaped many of us forever, unfortunately, too many fell by the wayside and did not graduate or maybe transferred to other more pragmatic colleges. The oxygen of bonhomie in the air, mixed with the prevailing attitude of laissez faire about the Grounds, was just the thing to instigate humorous escapades and pranks. It was great fun to be a Wahoo, and it was a hoot for me to write the story.
Now, the University has become one of the preeminent public universities in America. It was this progression—or more aptly, Scene I, Act I of it—that I felt compelled to explore in my novel. The 1950’s decade began its climb from the “country club of the south” to a model for public higher education in America. To become what it is today, the Jeffersonian beginnings somehow had to be right; so, I wanted to weave that into the story too.
Are some of the characters and other aspects of the book inspired by your time as a student at the University?
The answer is a wobbly yes and no. Let’s just apply the essence of the favorite movie hedge—“this story is based loosely on my time as a student there.” But my novel is a complete fiction. In looking back, I searched for how certain events at the University might have turned out differently if I had my characters behave in certain ways. Of course, the allegory created by Mr. Jefferson’s presence, as well as the satire, make fiction obvious. Making a good story was paramount.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
First, memories of a good read, a fun read. Then, I hope it sinks in that the University ascended to national prominence because quality persons with vision recognized that, prior to the 1950’s, the national treasure that the spirit of the Academical Village represented was squandered. Fortunately, they began to do something about it.
If Thomas Jefferson were to come back to the University today, do you think he’d like what he saw?
Yes, very definitely. In its genesis as the Academical Village, he wanted to found a learning institution of national prominence that educated and equipped its graduates to serve the nation. To that end, he recruited many of the faculty from European universities and raised money to pay them. He was so immersed in the welfare of his students that he dined with every member of the first class, presumably at Monticello. He also gave them their small pox vaccinations. Although there were many untutored country boys early on, he was undaunted and instigated remedial classes.
Today, when he took the long strides about the Grounds his six-foot three-inch frame would require, he would likely be overjoyed on viewing the many academic disciplines in practice and the student’s tilt toward public service underway during college years and post graduation. It is likely he would bemoan the loss of intimacy his Academical Village afforded; but, given his extraordinary intellectual reach, he would recognize that his school is in the forefront of academic progress, extolling meritocracy, and extend his blessings.
Why do you use the pen name “Colt Kincaid?”
This is a very timely question, and I am glad to address it. Colt Kincaid is a Gaelic derivation, honoring my Celtic ancestry. It was a complete stranger to me, until I decided to use a pen in publishing Wah-Hoo-Wah! I did so, because I have written over my career mainly business and financial pieces, using Howard Bryan Bonham. Three years ago, I decided to broaden my writing genre. As I readied Wah-Hoo-Wah! I became convinced the same name for multiple genres might be confusing to readers.
Wah-Hoo-Wah! was originally much longer, and entitled Mr. Jefferson’s Boys. My agent suggested I shorten the book. I did and also decided that the presence of combat vets in the storyline made the original title inappropriate.
Do you have any favorite memories from your Cavalier Daily days that you’d like to share?
Since I submitted my pre-written copy to an editor then, I did not spend much time in the Mad Hall office. However, a great many staffers were my close friends. Harry Taylor, Staige Blackford and Trip Reid were editors I enjoyed knowing. Hunter Pendleton and Hal Quayle were also good friends. I like to think we turned out a good newspaper. If so, I guess it was a miracle of sorts, considering the lack of journalism classes available at U.Va. then, if memory serves.
I suspect most of us had a modicum of training elsewhere. Harry Taylor’s father and mine were outstanding journalists. My dad was my first copy editor who taught me the five “W’s” early. I had journalism classes in middle school and high school and the University of Oklahoma. Harry Taylor, who went to Columbia University graduate school, went on to win a Pulitzer for the New York Times. Staige Blackford edited the Virginia Quarterly Review, after completing work as a Rhodes Scholar.