The Roller School – A Loving History of Augusta Military Academy
Compiled by Bob Bradford, ’50
Thomas Jacob Roller (Colonel Tom) was described by one of his faculty members as “a very great teacher.” Major Herbert Jacob wrote that Tom Roller “inherited the love of languages from his father… He was a careful and painstaking instructor… exacting in every detail… All Colonel asked for was results. If (his teachers) produced, you heard nothing from him, but if you failed, you were called in for a session. He never held himself up for emulation, but he always gave you the experiences he had gained from his father (who) was a great teacher.”
Colonel Tom met Virginia Greider at Mary Baldwin, fell in love with her, and married her. Virginia was a Roanoke native whose father had been transferred to New York City. Wanting his daughter to have a Virginia education, he had sent her to Mary Baldwin, where she met Tom Roller. Colonel Tom and Virginia had two children: Virginia Hilton Roller, who married Louis Somerville, `34, and after his death, Thomas Grasty (Hilton Roller Grasty lives in Charlottesville today(1997)); and Thomas J. Roller, Jr., who attended AMA, and briefly taught and coached swimming there during the 1947-49 school years before moving West. Colonel Tom and his family lived at Beaumont, the beautiful white house built in 1912 next to the campus just south of the Clay Bowl.
In 1909, the academic building was constructed, and what later became the Big Room was a gymnasium for nearly 20 years.
Charles courted Janet Campbell Stephenson, who lived in Monterey. He often rode a buckboard to see her, and returned the same day, a long ride over the mountain roads of the early 1900’s. He married Janet – “The Boss” – in 1909, and in 1914 moved into newly constructed White Hall, familiar to every AMA cadet. Another project was begun about the same time. Big Barracks accepted its first cadets in 1915, having been built for $50,000.
Charles (The Big Boy) and Janet had two children – Lewis Stephenson Roller, who died at birth, and Charles (Charley) S. Roller, III. Charley graduated from AMA, attended VMI, and taught and coached at Augusta until his death. Charley married Linda Todd and they had two children; Charles IV died in 1935 when only four weeks old, and Linda Moorman Roller who later married Malcolm Harris Livick.
During the years that Thomas J. and Charles S. Roller, Jr. ran Augusta, Tom was referred to simply as “Colonel” and Charles was called “Major”, or “Brass.” Hilton Roller Grasty remembers that her father, Colonel Tom, and Major Charles Roller “had such different interests that they got along famously while running the school together. Dad was interested in academics and the business end of things; he served two terms as President of the Military Schools and Colleges of the United States, showing the great respect AMA had. He was an eloquent speaker, often giving the commencement address at Augusta, as well as handing out the diplomas. Major had more interest in the military, athletics, and student activities. He always gave out the athletic awards and Ad Astra memberships at Finals. Each man seemed content to let the other do what he knew best.”
Colonel Tom’s office was inside the door to the right, as you faced Big Barracks. Major Charles was the Commandant of Cadets and had his office just off the front arch. “Major probably knew every single cadet by name,” says Hilton. “He was very close to the boys. Colonel Tom was more reserved, not shy, but retiring with the Corps. At home, he was warm and a fun-loving jokester, but when he stepped out of Beaumont in his uniform, he was Colonel Roller!” The Colonel was an avid outdoorsman – a hunter and a fisherman who often went to Canada in pursuit of game. Major Roller was a military disciplinarian and an avid horseman who reviewed the Corps of Cadets from horseback for many years.
America went to World War I in 1917, and The History of Augusta County tells the story that on a spring day in 1918, Major Charles Roller “parked his big car at Hogshead’s Drugstore (the main intersection in Staunton) and fired several shots in the air. A crowd gathered and he introduced… Judge Henry Holt,” and together they exhorted the assembled citizenry to buy Liberty Bonds and otherwise support the war effort. Many single AMA faculty members resigned to volunteer for service, and the senior class took over some of the teaching duties in the 1917-18 school year. More than 500 AMA alumni are believed to have served in World War I, and nine Augusta boys made the supreme sacrifice.
The Roller brothers decided that one should go into the service while the other stayed behind to run AMA. “I always heard that Major and my Dad drew straws to see who would go off to the war,” Hilton recalls. It was Charles who went, serving as a captain in the American Red Cross Ambulance Corps, attached to the 89th Division. He soon was sent to France, where, at the war’s end on 11 November 1918, he was on the Meuse River. Years later when an AMA boy visited White Hall, Major/Colonel/ General Roller would shake a canteen so that the duly impressed cadet could hear the water from the Meuse River, collected on the day World War I ended, slosh around inside the sealed container. On his way home on a troop ship, Charles S. Roller, Jr. first formed in his mind the idea of the Ad Astra per Aspera Society which came into being in 1926.
Colonel Tom ran the school while Charles was away, and Colonel Jacob was acting commandant. The 1917 yearbook was a much reduced publication just 5″ by 8″ in size with the notation, “There’s a war on!” When the war ended, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was begun at AMA and the school’s reputation continued to grow as a country bastion where learning was the first item of business. In 1919, the cadet waiter system was inaugurated and countless boys were able to attend Augusta as “CW’s” over the next 64 years.
The Rollers were moving forces in boosting Augusta County from the mid-twenties until Charles Roller’s death in 1963. Tom was vice president of the Staunton National Bank, a director of the Augusta-Rockingham Bank, and served as Chairman of the Augusta County School Board. It was through his efforts that many of the one and two-room country schools in the county were replaced by larger schools offering more academic opportunities. In the twenties, Charles supported road construction and better rail service to Augusta County through an organization called Shenandoah Valley Incorporated.
Then, in October of 1929, the stock market crashed, and thus began what would later be called “The Great Depression.” Bank loans were called; in some places, there were no jobs to be had; Wall Street bankers were reduced to selling apples on street corners. “These were poor, lean times for AMA,” Hilton remembers. The Rollers tried to keep the Augusta faculty and staff fully employed, though they were forced to let some go while others took cuts in pay. The Rollers allowed some boys who could not pay tuition to attend classes in return for work performed. They began to raise more of their own food, starting a chicken farm by the river near Verona, and Colonel Tom and Major Charles both went on the road to recruit students. “I was attending school in Washington,” Hilton recalls, “and Dad would call and say, `Well, we got two boys to sign up this week’… The times were very difficult.” In 1930, Colonel Tom was singularly honored when Hampden-Sydney bestowed upon him membership in the national honorary fraternity Omicron Delta Kappa in recognition of his outstanding contributions to education.
Young Charles (Charley) Roller embodied all of The Big Boy’s hopes that he would, in his Dad’s words, “follow his father as co-principal one day.” He taught at Augusta, and was AMA’s basketball coach, but those dreams ended on 21 February 1938 when Charley died in an automobile accident near Verona. “His father never went to a basketball game in the gym after Charley died,” Mal Livick recalls. Major Roller wrote on Charley’s page in the Ad Astra book: “My boy, with the sweet smile on his face, will never, never come back. `Charley Boy,’ happy landing, and may we meet again.”
When Charley died, Major Roller assumed his paternal duties, and Linda Moorman and her mother lived for a while at White Hall. Major sent young Linda Moorman to college in South Carolina, and oversaw her rearing; she always called him “Daddy.” In 1943, Linda Moorman’s mother married Sam Wales, `38, and young Linda and her mother moved to Pennygreen, the farm behind the Old Stone Church. Sam had many positions at Augusta during his career, including being Commandant of Cadets for a number of years. Linda Roller Wales died in 1966, and Colonel Wales died in 1991.
The Depression slowly receded as America once more geared for war. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Augusta boys again went off to battle. Hilton remembers that there were “very sad days around the campus when we would hear that one of our AMA boys was not going to be coming home.” In fact, 52 AMA cadets were killed in action in World War II, an astounding number considering the size of the school.
In the first year of World War II, Colonel Tom lost his beloved Virginia to cancer. “He was never the same after that,” says Hilton. “His heart was broken, I think. He was not ever well after Mother died. He cut back on both his classroom and administrative duties”, and in March of 1946, he went to his son Tom’s home in Coral Gables to rest and recuperate. While there, he fell desperately ill and had to be hospitalized. Major and Hilton Roller drove to Washington, DC to take a plane to Florida, only to learn at the airport that Colonel Tom had passed away earlier in the day. Hilton returned to Fort Defiance to make funeral arrangements for her father while Major made the first plane flight of his life to bring his brother home. Colonel Thomas J. Roller was 68 years old, the same age at which his father had died.
Colonel Jacob wrote that Colonel Tom “was a scholar, benefactor and gentleman… Ask the orphans in Lynchburg for whom he annually sponsored a dinner. Ask the members of the Old Stone Church who will always remember that he added to the beauty of the church and the cemetery, the latter being considered a memorial to him… Ask his students who went on to excel in the world…” (See Colonel Tom’s obituary)
Hilton had married Louie Somerville, `34 (at some point in time, Charles Summerville Roller, Jr. – the Big Boy – began to sign his name Charles Somerville Roller, Jr.. The changed spelling of his middle name has led to much confusion with the Somerville family who had three boys attend Augusta – Louie, ’34, who was married to Colonel Tom’s daughter Hilton, Winston, ’36, and Fenton, ’37.), and he was overseas serving in the armed forces. She had moved back to Fort Defiance to be with her father after her mother had died, and her brother Tom returned to Fort Defiance after Colonel Tom passed away. Tom taught for most of two years at AMA and he, his family, and Hilton all lived at Beaumont, “but Tom was not interested in teaching,” says Hilton. “He wanted to sell the house, and move on. And we did. Tom moved to Colorado and eventually on to California, and I moved to Charlottesville with my husband.” In 1948, the Big Boy bought Colonel Tom’s share of Augusta from his heirs.
The late `40’s and early `50’s saw remarkable stability in enrollment and Charles Roller, now a colonel, continued to build his reputation as a man who never knew a bad boy. In 1946, a new science building was completed. In the immediate post-war years, attendance at Augusta was augmented by veterans coming back to complete their disrupted education. “These boys who had been in the service brought a maturity to the Corps,” says Hilton. “Some of them had seen things that changed them from boys to men in a single day.” AMA also became a sort of post graduate school for high school athletes, not quite ready for college academics, but big and strong enough to win the national military prep school football championships for AMA in the 1947 and 1948 Orchid Bowls.
Linda says that, “After church on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I showed up for inspection. I did not do this often; I really went to inspect Mal!” Mal and Linda began to date, but when the subject of marriage was broached, the Colonel put his foot down. At the end of the 1955-56 school year, Mal resigned from the faculty, and, much against Colonel Roller’s wishes, he and Linda eloped that summer. This past July, they celebrated their 40th anniversary.
Mal took a position in the school system at Virginia Beach in the fall of 1956, and things remained tense between the Big Boy and the Livicks. But, as his health began to fail in 1958, Colonel Roller wrote to Mal and asked him to come back to AMA, just as Professor Roller had summoned Charles Jr. a half century earlier. Colonel Roller promised that he would never again speak about their misunderstanding. “And he never did,” said Mal. In the fall of 1958, Mal and Linda came back to Fort Defiance, with Mal serving as assistant principal. About this time, Roller was promoted to brigadier general in the Virginia State Guard.
Those who remember Charles Roller, Jr. recall his boundless energy. Not only did he run the school and teach chemistry and college algebra, he ran the farms that supported the school. His personal touch was everywhere. Bouncing along in his 1936 Dodge, “The Grey Ghost”, horn beeping impatiently, he would leave written instructions for his farm manager, and notes for faculty members and staff. If a boy broke a window, he had to write a note to Colonel Roller to have the window repaired. And the colonel, and later the general, would answer these notes on his midnight visits to barracks. Then, he would bounce into his fourth period class in the Big Room with a booming, “Good morning, boys!”, having, on his way from Big Barracks, picked up tiny specks of paper that would have eluded eyes less well trained. Occasionally, he would find a discarded cigarette, declaring, “I would rather find a rattlesnake than a cigarette butt,” which put him slightly ahead of his time on the subject of tobacco.
“I tried to take over some of these duties from the General, but he would have none of it,” said Mal. “But as time went on, he would let me do some of these things, once in a while at first, then, more often…” In 1961, General Roller fell ill. Perhaps, it was a small stroke; Will Parkins remembered that the General had phlebitis. But after great concern for his life, he rallied and resumed many of his duties. In 1962, Mrs. Roller had a major stroke and was hospitalized for some time. She came home to re-cover, and continued to show improvement. On 14 March 1963, General Roller led the Corps in fifteen cheers for the national champion AMA rifle team and for the undefeated fencing team. That day, he also authorized construction of a new language laboratory On 15 March, Linda visited her grandparents and found Mrs. Roller resting comfortably and General Roller in good spirits.
By 1980, AMA had only some 150 cadets, and in 1982-83, barely 110. The 1983 session opened with just 90 boys on campus. During the Christmas break at the end of 1983, the power company turned off the electricity because the bills had not been paid. One hundred and four years after Professor Roller started a school at Fort Defiance, AMA was gone forever.
“Until we lost our son, Taylor, this was the blackest day in my life,” said Linda. “I came back for the auction,” Hilton recalls. “It just broke my heart to see all those precious things being sold. I loved that school so much, and I just wish that I could have done something to save it.”
Mal went to work at the Blue Ridge Community College, and Linda took a position at Stuart Hall. She retired in June of 1996, and Mal is now Coordinator of Off-Campus Facilities and Instruction at Blue Ridge, with responsibility for both the Waynesboro and the new Harrisonburg centers.
“After the school had closed, I had to go into the gymnasium for some reason one evening,” Mal recalls. “As I stood there in the failing light, I swear that I could hear the band playing and the corps cheering as the Blue and White won another basketball game.”
Linda and Mal had five children. Mal, Jr. and his family live in Grottoes, and attend the Old Stone Church where Mal, Jr. (as well as his mother, dad and sister, Lee) is an elder. Charlie Roller Livick and his family live in Pennsylvania. Linda Lee Hahn lives in Fort Defiance with her three sons. Todd is a captain in the U.S. Army, and he is at Fort Bragg with his family. Taylor was living in Salem, VA at the time of his death in 1994, at age 27, during a softball game.
Mal, Jr., Charlie, and Todd all graduated from AMA; Taylor attended grades 5-8. Lee attended one summer session (the only female ever enrolled in classes at AMA) and she acted in AMA drama productions. All the boys were in the Junior Roller Rifles (named for their Grandfather Charles S. Roller, III), and Mal, Charlie, and Todd were senior members of the Roller Rifles. Todd was battalion commander his senior year, Charlie was adjutant, and both were number one choices for Ad Astra.
Today, Fishburne is still operating, supported by a strong alumni association. Fork Union is church-owned and supported. Massanutten, Randolph-Macon, and Hargrave are all co-ed.
As Ed Click calculates, “There had been a Roller’s School for 119 years, and an Augusta Military Academy for 94 of them.”