1957-1964: The Little Red Schoolhouse

John Norville Gibson Finley


Early in 1949 John Norville Gibson (J.N.G.) Finley met with University of Virginia President Colgate W. Darden, Jr. to discuss a project that the president had for him. “I want you to go up [to] northern Virginia and establish that community college,” Darden told him. [1] A twenty-year veteran in the field of education and faculty member of the University’s Extension Division, the fifty year-old Finley accepted the assignment and began work in Arlington that fall.  Indeed, Darden wanted him to start a community college branch of the University in the area, but it would prove to be no easy task for Finley. It took eight long years for the school, which would later be named George Mason College, to come into being. Finley labored tirelessly as the University’s point-man in Arlington until that day came.

Working directly under Dr. George B. Zehmer, the Director of the University of Virginia Extension Division, Finley first established the Northern Virginia University Center (NVUC) on the campus of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington on September 1, 1949. Finley had previously been up to Arlington and other locations in the Northern Virginia area on several occasions to discuss the University’s initiatives in the area with local citizens. Now it was time to set the process in motion. Initially, the NVUC provided primarily adult education. Its offerings were tailored to working people who needed specialized coursework related to their professions or for re-certifications. Later on, it offered formal college courses, though at the basic level. A resident of Charlottesville, Finley, who was Director of the NVUC, commuted up to Northern Virginia several times a week until he and his wife Cecile, also a faculty member at the University, rented an apartment at the Park Fairfax complex in Alexandria.

As director of the NVUC, Finley, along with prominent members of the community, conducted a public relations campaign to promote the work of the University in Northern Virginia. He participated in many newspaper, magazine, and radio interviews, to talk up the NVUC. He made presentations to clubs and civic organizations. As a result, the NVUC was astoundingly successful. Enrollment increased each year under his management. Most importantly, awareness regarding the need for, and the positive effect of, higher education in Northern Virginia steadily increased among its citizens. 

Finley continued to work toward his aim to establish a college in Northern Virginia while directing the NVUC. He worked very closely with the Advisory Council to the Northern Virginia University Center, most times serving as its secretary and taking minutes at meetings. These meetings were always held after regular work hours and sometimes went very late into the night. It was no secret to Finley or anyone else at the University of Virginia that the Advisory Council spent more time discussing how to establish a new college than offering input on the operations of the NVUC. Finley strongly supported the Council’s actions, and he shared their desire to see a branch college created in the area.  

After the General Assembly passed legislation in February of 1956 enabling the University to create a Northern Virginia branch, Professor Finley was asked to serve as its director. Finley gladly took on a second job at head of the new branch college, running both institutions from the same office in Arlington. During the summer of 1957, he set up operations of the new branch college in the former Bailey’s Crossroads Elementary School. He brought in faculty from the NVUC to help staff the new college, and opened the University College of the University of Virginia in September 1957, with an enrollment of seventeen freshmen. He would continue to serve as director to both until 1960, when he became full time head at the branch college, which, by this time, was called George Mason College.

Finley continued to serve as director of George Mason College until his retirement on December 30, 1963. Having helped establish and operate both the Northern Virginia University Center and George Mason College, John Norville Gibson Finley achieved the goal that President Darden had set long ago to provide a place of higher learning for Northern Virginians. Professor Finley passed away on November 28, 1971 at his home in Charlottesville. It is fitting that the first building constructed at Fairfax, the former North Building, was renamed for him in 1972.

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