A Profile in Courage
July 08, 2014
By Nancy T. Sorrells '81
America will never forget the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, especially in the South where the death throes of segregation sometimes played out in tragic violence. But a decade earlier, on the campus of Bridgewater College, a quiet, principled coach used the vehicle of athletics and the underpinnings of the Church of the Brethren to achieve equality without fanfare or violence.
Educators Daniel and Elizabeth Geiser arrived in Bridgewater in 1946 – he as a physical education instructor and coach and she as an English and drama professor. They hailed from Waynesboro, Pa., and the recent war that had temporarily delayed their career plans was over. During the war, Lt. Geiser piloted a biplane, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Some men might have been overwhelmed by the lengthy “to do” list handed him by the college: teach physical education and kinesiology, develop the discipline as a major (on a $500 budget), reinstitute and coach the football team, coach basktball and baseball, and serve as athletic director. There was one other item, not on the list, but perhaps the most important of all: oversee the integration of the school.
Bridgewater could not have chosen a more perfect candidate. On the playing field, “Pee Wee” Geiser had few equals. He lettered in every sport possible in high school and at Juniata College. While at Bridgewater he played in the Rockingham Baseball League. The quiet coach with the twinkling eyes came to Bridgewater with a master’s degree from Ohio State and, while at Bridgewater, earned his doctorate from Columbia.
When Geiser left Bridgewater two decades later to head the physical education department at American University, the loss for Bridgewater was palpable. And the grief over his departure had little to do with the win-loss columns of the teams that he coached, although those numbers were impressive. Rather, it was what he had instilled in his students and athletes. He taught them how to play the game of life.
“I never heard him raise his voice,” said his daughter, Jean Geiser.
Carlyle Whitelow remembers his former teacher and coach with a swell of emotion. “He was a prince of a guy. He was not a yelling coach. We never saw him angry or getting in your face and he never humiliated his players. There was never a harsh word. He would just say, ‘We may want to do it this way,’ and he got his point across.”
Whitelow, an African-American, knows more than most what Geiser meant to the Bridgewater community. Whitelow grew up in Bridgewater, walking past a well-appointed white school to a smaller black school. When he went to Harrisonburg he had to ride in the back of the bus and sit in the gallery at the movies. But Bridgewater College was deeply embedded in his life. His father was head chef and his mother helped bake in the kitchen. When he and his younger brother, Alfred, came home from the Catholic military school in Richmond where his parents sent them for a better education, they would help out on campus.
It was only natural that Whitelow wanted to attend Bridgewater after serving two years in the army. The only problem was that it wasn't common in the Jim Crow South. At Bridgewater, two black students, one man and one woman, had already quietly transferred into the school. But in 1955 when Whitelow arrived, he became the first black freshman, and when he stepped on the football field, the basketball court, and the track he became the first black athlete at a white school in Virginia and almost certainly in the South.
The move did not go unnoticed among other schools and in the community, but it was handled by Geiser and the school administration in such a way that it was never disruptive and hardly newsworthy. This was uncharted territory for all – the Bridgewater coaches had never coached an African-American, most of the students had never sat in a classroom with black students, and Whitelow and his brother, who came to Bridgewater a year later, had never competed with white athletes.
“I didn’t really see much discrimination," said Whitelow. "All were great, great coaches and the players treated me like there was no difference. At Bridgewater the teachers, administrators, and students accepted me and never said anything. Never did I ever hear anything derogatory, racial, or anything."
He would go on to teach and be an administrator in the Staunton, Va., public schools before getting his master’s degree and returning to Bridgewater College to teach and coach.
Things were harder on Geiser and his athletic department. His daughter remembers that first year as being very tough.
“Dad drove the bus and faced so much animosity from opposing coaches and teams,” she said. But she remembers his calm, non-judgmental attitude through the entire period. “He would sit there and hold the phone out and let them rant and rave. If one place wouldn’t let Carlyle in the front door then they all went in the back door. If they couldn’t stay together at a hotel, then they would drive all night to get home. Dad didn’t think one color was different from another.”
Another local Rockingham boy, Sam Ritchie, entered Bridgewater as a freshman that same year. Although he had attended all-white schools in Rockingham, his three years in the service had given him some interaction with African-Americans and he thought little of having a black teammate until the football team traveled to play Newport News Apprentice School.
“That was the worst,” remembered Ritchie. “They made a big issue out of us having a black player and they tried to hurt him. They said some bad things and they tried to take him out of the game,” he said of that contest.
Whitelow, too, remembers.
“On the way to the game, the coaches wanted to stop at the Howard Johnson. They called ahead and were told they wouldn’t serve us, so the coaches said we would go somewhere else.”
Once on the field as a running back, he said, “All eyes were on me, but the guys on the team protected me and blocked for me.”
Ritchie went on to be a beloved coach, athletic director, and principal at nearby Turner Ashby High School and the two stayed in close contact with each other. They both remember another incident when their basketball team was spending the night in Baltimore and four teammates went out to grab a bite to eat.
“The man at the restaurant said that he couldn’t serve us," said Whitelow. "I told the other three to go on in and I would go somewhere else. But the rest of them walked out and said, ‘you are one of us.'"
There was also a track incident in which another team refused to compete if the Whitelow brothers ran.
“'Doc' Jopson said that if my brother and I didn’t run, then Bridgewater didn’t run. So the other team accepted us.”
Bridgewater’s quiet integration did not go unnoticed in the larger collegiate world. The Virginia Independent College Association told the school that by allowing the Whitelows to participate in collegiate athletics they were endangering their membership. The administration answered that it had accepted black students and so they would have to do what they wanted with the school’s membership. The issue faded away.
Jean Geiser remembers 1955 as a trying year for the entire family. “Dad was very patient about it and my parents told me not to be judgmental of other people.”
Almost certainly Coach Geiser didn't set out to be a leader in the Civil Rights movement, but he didn't back away from doing the right thing when he found himself in the middle of it.
“He didn’t like violence of any type," said his daughter. "He wouldn’t box because he didn’t want to punch people. He said, ‘If you want to build muscles, go out and dig a ditch!’"
In the end, Geiser’s gentle demeanor and quiet moral compass won the day, but Jean Geiser remembers one scary incident unrelated to the college, but more to the general fear of societal change and unrest. In the town of Bridgewater, an angry mob had gathered to burn a cross.
“I was probably a sophomore in high school," she said. "I was in the car with my father. We drove to the scene and my father got out of the car with a flashlight, locking me in. Then he went up to each one and shone the flashlight in their faces, saying ‘I know you, go home. I know you, go home.’ I remember crying I was so scared.”
In the end, it took a team leader and a team effort to bring change to the college and the community during a bewildering time. In the sports arena and in the game of life, Coach Daniel Geiser and his team changed the rules. Quietly. Simply. Together.
(Editor's note: Daniel Singer Geiser Jr. died Nov. 8, 2009, in Bridgewater. He was 92 years old.)