Celebrating Virgil Starks III ′85
By Tracy Vezina Patterson ’84 P’17
“In Memory of Virgil Starks III ’85.” These words are engraved on the brass plaque attached to the gavel used to open Alumni Convocation at Homecoming and to call to order every meeting of the Alumni Association Executive Board. When not in use, the gavel sits on my desk and is a daily reminder of my dear friend and one of the most courageous men I’ve ever known.
For those of us who knew him, Virgil will always be indelibly linked to our Rhodes experience. Bill Hulsey’s description of Brian Sudderth (page 22) echoes the thoughts of many alumni who have contributed in some way to scholarships memorializing their beloved friends, classmates, or professors. These are the people who made us want to be the best we could be, served as our mentors and role models, and helped define our Rhodes experience. Virgil Starks was one of these people and approximately 30 friends, classmates, teammates, and fraternity brothers have already supported the new Virgil Starks III ’85 Memorial Scholarship.
But Virgil’s road to Rhodes was not an easy one.
As a boy, Virgil’s family was transferred from Ohio to Hartselle, AL. As the only African American family in their neighborhood, the Starks were not warmly received by their neighbors; quite the opposite. However, new families moving into the neighborhood were always greeted by Virgil’s mom with a Jell-O mold or other homemade treat. At age 13, Virgil’s father was killed in an automobile crash and Virgil became the “man of the house” for his mother and two sisters.
In high school, Virgil was elected to the student council, was president of the Key Club, and was the first black player selected as captain of the football team. Virgil’s high school success came despite his mother’s frequent hospitalization for grand mal seizures she suffered due to epilepsy.
Virgil received a scholarship to attend Rhodes, and his impact on campus was immediate. He became the first black member of Sigma Nu fraternity. He played nose guard on the football team and was a member of the ’85 defensive squad, ranked 10th in the nation. According to his coach, Mike Clary ’77, “Virgil was the soul of the team.” When not on the field, he was rooting for his friends in Mallory Gymnasium as a member of the basketball cheerleading squad.
As the first person in his family to finish college, Virgil’s graduation was a big deal. His mother drove through the night from Alabama with his two sisters and an uncle to get to Memphis for the commencement ceremony. At the graduation rehearsal, Virgil was pulled aside by Dean of Students Bo Scarborough ’67, who had to deliver tragic news—Virgil’s mother had fallen asleep at the wheel, the car ran off the road, and slammed into a tree. She was killed on impact. His two sisters and uncle were in the hospital in serious condition. Members of the class of ’85 were stunned as they watched Virgil fall to his knees and cry out in agony. But the following morning, Virgil lined up with his classmates to walk from Palmer Hall to Fisher Garden. He received his diploma before a tearful, standing ovation.
On Nov. 8, 2008, Virgil died of a massive heart attack while driving home from an Auburn University football game. At Virgil’s visitation, people filled the funeral home, and the line to get in wrapped around the building . . . TWICE. As the senior associate athletic director at Auburn, Virgil was charged with guiding the school’s student-athletes to graduation. He served as their role model, mentor, and father figure, and they showed up in force to pay their respects. The Auburn players were joined by countless members of the Rhodes community who had also been touched by Virgil.
Virgil Starks had a smile that lit up the room, was fiercely loyal, and handled challenging situations with courage and grace. He truly valued everyone he met, with no regard to their status or material success. He loved Rhodes College and treasured his education. He is sorely missed by all who knew him.
I look forward to meeting the inaugural recipients of the scholarship created in Virgil’s honor and letting them know what a privilege it is to be named a Virgil Starks Scholar.