“Dandy Jim” Douglass
One of the most colorful members of Davidson College’s class of 1893 was James McDowell Douglass. “Dandy Jim,” as he was called, was born in Fairfield County, South Carolina in 1867. His parents were Reverend James Douglass and his wife Margaret, and several of his siblings went to Davidson. Among them were Davison McDowell Douglass, who graduated in 1894, and later served as president of Presbyterian College and the University of South Carolina. Another brother, John Leighton Douglas, also graduated from Davidson and served on the faculty.
“Dandy Jim” was quite a sportsman. Before Davidson played organized football, male students held hard-fought pick-up games. Injuries were common, and “Dandy Jim” managed to break his arm in one game. According to a 1910 profile in Quips and Cranks, after graduating from Davidson, he studied mathematics for a year, and then he spent three years as principal of the Davidson High School and superintendent of the Gastonia Institute. He entered Johns Hopkins University in 1897, and received his Ph.D. in 1901. According to the November 18, 1903 issue of the Lancaster Enterprise, he was an athlete at Johns Hopkins, and was “proud of his record for agility, prouder still of his boxing muscles which the athletic instructor at Johns Hopkins University used to make him exercise just as an object lesson to aspiring athletes.” He returned to Davidson as a professor of natural science in the fall of 1901.
In 1903, his boxing prowess led to an encounter at a Davidson football game with the University of South Carolina in Columbia. According to the Enterprise, Douglass, who taught “dignity and uprightness to the young” was “a scrapper at heart,” and got into an exchange of insults with William Christie Benet, a U.S.C. alumnus who was known to fight in “a neat, clever, wholesale sort of way that is joyous to see.” The men approached each other with “fight in their eyes, and “showed in their expressions much anger and the genuine article of grit.” They would have engaged in fisticuffs if “peacemakers had not appeared in swarms and spoiled the pretty bout. Such a sweet fight it should [have] been…the parting of these two worthy belligerents is considered unforgivable for the fisticuffs between ‘Dandy Jim’ and Christie Benet would have been more edifying than many football games.”
Douglass apparently earned his nickname in part because of his looks. In 1907, 85 percent of Davidson students rated him their most handsome professor; 43 percent expressed this opinion in 1909. He was apparently also a popular professor, and the yearbook often featured amusing anecdotes about him. The 1908 edition of Quips and Cranks included the following humorous account of a fictional auction centered around his use of the English language:
“This strong-looking box contains the unmatchable, uncounterfitable. un-under- standable English of Dandy Jim. I can’t recommend it for use, but as a curiosity it is unequalled. There are more twists and kinks in it than in a lamp-black blonde’s hair. The time is short and you must bid lively. Lively, men’ Lively! Aren’t you interested in bargains? Just pass it round the crowd, and if anyone can find a correct sentence in it, I’ll give them the box. Now bid up this rare curiosity. Do I hear a bid? This is a shame, gentlemen, a burning shame. Ladies bid and show these lumbering hulks of masculinity your sense of business. A bid! A bid! Who’ll bid off this strong box? You will never find another like it. I am still waiting—I can not wait longer, but must give it back to Dandy as unsalable.”
According to a tribute in the October 1919 issue of The Davidsonian, Douglass was later appointed chair of the Astronomy and Geology department. He chaired the athletic committee for many years, and “Much credit is due him for the reputation which we have acquired in all branches of athletics.” He also served as chair of the student publications committee and was an elder in the Davidson College Presbyterian Church, where he was considered “one of the foremost Christian workers in the community.” In conclusion the article noted that “Too much cannot be said in praise of his work for the college, for he has helped to make it the institution that it is.” Professor Douglass retired from teaching in 1944, and died in Davidson in 1951. He is buried in the Davidson College Cemetery along with his wife Anniebelle Munroe Douglass and two children who died at the ages of five and two.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.