Community outpouring spurs creation of Walter S. Griggs, Jr. Teaching Award

Oct. 7, 2019 - Wendy Martin

It was abundantly clear, throughout his 45 years at the VCU School of Business, that Walter S. Griggs, Jr. was an exceptional teacher. But the respect, gratitude and love that the VCU community had for Dr. Griggs was never more apparent than upon news of his death this summer.

The unprecedented response to Griggs’ passing and an outpouring of donations in his name inspired the Griggs family to create an annual endowed $1,000 teaching award in his name. The thoughtfully crafted award is intended to celebrate and reward the type of teaching Griggs personified.

“He would have been stunned.”

Hundreds of people, including scores of alumni and faculty, responded to Griggs’ death the very way Griggs had responded to them in life – by showing up with kindness. They showed up in the chapel for his memorial service. They showed up with loving words and remembrances in condolence cards and in online obituary guestbooks. Even the Richmond Times-Dispatch honored him with a feature story and special recognition on the editorial page.

When the VCU School of Business announced the sad news on its Facebook page, the post garnered more reactions and comments than any other shared in 2019. Hundreds remembered Dr. Griggs as “remarkable,” “the best,” “memorable,” “lovely,” “genuine,” “my favorite,” “incredible” and “fun.”

“He was such an amazing professor and the best I had during my years at VCU,” wrote Michaela Clayton McCain.

“A great professor and an even better human being,” said Salman Ali.

“Integrity, intelligence, kindness and a great sense of humor to get through it all,” recalled Joann Robinson.

Seventy-five people were compelled to share VCU’s post on their own Facebook walls. “This man was the best teacher you could EVER hope for! He was the most engaging person I’ve ever known. Period,” declared Austyn von Otterhaussen.

The astonishing response was deeply moving to Griggs’ family members. “I really think he had no clue as to the impact he had on people,” said daughter Cara Griggs.

“He would have been stunned,” said Frances Griggs, his wife of 54 years. “Walter was extremely modest. He hated arrogance with a passion. But he would have been extraordinarily thankful that so many people thought of him and acted upon it.”

An award-winning teacher

Certainly, Griggs had strong indications during his lifetime that he was a gifted teacher. He was the longest-serving faculty member at the VCU School of Business where he taught law, history and religion courses and served as department chairman and as the associate dean for Undergraduate Studies. Upon his retirement in 2016, he was awarded the title of professor emeritus.

Though associate deans are not required to teach classes, Griggs remained a fixture in the classroom. In 45 years of service, he missed only three semesters, two for medical leave just before his retirement. “Administrators can get out of teaching,” said Frances. “Walter didn’t want to. That’s what he loved.”

Griggs authored a biography of Brigadier General John Pegram, seven books on Richmond history, and three books about moose. At the end of each semester, Griggs’ mailbox always had at least one moose-themed gift – plush toys, ornaments, t-shirts – from grateful students who were enchanted by his professed passion for North America’s tallest mammal.

Twice the faculty of the VCU School of Business selected him to receive their annual award for teaching excellence. But Griggs was arguably most honored when the VCU School of Business alumni overwhelmingly selected him as the recipient for their inaugural “Best Undergraduate Professor” award.

Griggs’ daughter Cara still remembers her dad sharing news of that award at the dinner table. “Votes came from former students all over the country,” she remembered.

“He was so quiet about it,” Frances recalled. “But it meant so much to him. He had a secret little smile. I knew he felt good about it.”

While eulogizing his longtime colleague, Elliott “Chip” Minor, III, professor emeritus at the VCU School of Business, also recalled Griggs’ joy at receiving the alumni award. “You have to ask, how did a man who was generations older than the students he taught manage to earn the amazing admiration they had for him?” he asked. “The answer is simple: He respected them, he accepted them, and he knew how to relate to them. To get a point across, he would come up with the most outlandish examples of law gone haywire … and his students just loved it.”

The night before exams, Griggs would stay up late to assist students who might require last-minute clarifications or assistance.

“He always found ways to make things interesting,” Cara recalled. “I remember once he had a toy rat in a trap on our coffee table, and he said, ‘That’s for class.’”

To illustrate to students how eyewitness account can vary widely, he once enlisted a volunteer to burst into his classroom and behave outrageously. Another time, to demonstrate the importance of “knowing your source,” he authoritatively quoted the National Enquirer until a student was emboldened to demand where he had found such outlandish information.

A unique award in memory of a unique professor

 

According to Griggs’ family, a teaching award seemed the obvious way to preserve his legacy. “Dad put everything he had into teaching,” said Cara. “VCU is known for research, but Dad knew you also needed to respect teaching. That’s what we want to do with this endowment.”

Inspired by the volume of donations made to the VCU School of Business in Griggs’ memory, Walter’s wife Frances, daughter Cara and brother Bob Griggs each stepped up to pledge equal amounts over a five-year period to provide a leadership gift toward the creation of an endowed annual award. (A minimum of $25,000 is required to create such an award.)

The Walter S. Griggs, Jr. Teaching Award will bear many hallmarks of the man it honors. Students were always Griggs’ priority, so the recipient of this teaching award will be designated by students and faculty.

Humble and focused entirely on results, it can be awarded to any professor – from the newest adjunct to the most tenured faculty member.

Creative, generous and kind, the $1,000 annual award is unrestricted and can be used in any way its recipients see fit.

As a nod to Griggs’ high standards and integrity, the award can be given annually but will only be awarded in years when students and faculty identify a professor whose performance is truly exceptional.

Finally, the award will be even longer lasting than Griggs’ own legendary 45-year career. Endowed awards create a permanent fund and all funds will be invested to ensure the award retains its value in perpetuity.

Donations to the Walter S. Griggs, Jr. Endowed Teaching Award are now being accepted (search “Griggs” at this link) and will be used to complete funding of the endowment. The Griggs family and everyone at the VCU School of Business wish to thank each and every person and alumni member who chooses to remember Dr. Griggs in word or deed.